Prior to the LA Clippers’ matchup with the Houston Rockets on Friday, Head Coach Tyronn Lue gave an update on Serge Ibaka, who has been sidelined for the last 22 games of the regular season due to what the organization has deemed as “lower back tightness.”
With just ten games remaining in the regular season, it’s worth considering how difficult it will be to reintegrate Ibaka back into the lineup after such an extended absence. Inserting a different center into the starting five will no-doubt be an adjustment, and with the postseason just weeks away, the Clippers might just want to not fix what hasn’t been broken—LA has gone an astounding 18-4 in the 22 games that Ibaka has been out, with Ivica Zubac in the starting role.
When asked by SBNation’s Sabreena Merchant if there was any thought that Zubac could remain the starting center, Lue was a bit cryptic.
Lue has absolutely no obligation to reveal his lineup strategies, particularly when his potential playoff opponents could be listening. Still, it’s a crucial question, as many of these playoff opponents have superstar big men that Zubac and Ibaka will both have to deal with.
While Zubac has been more than solid defensively this season, there are still areas where he is lacking. While his foul rate has gone down every year he’s been with the Clippers, he still commits 4.2 personal fouls per 36 minutes. For comparison, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic (two MVP candidates and each very different defenders) each average 2.7 fouls per 36 minutes. Ibaka averages 2.9 per 36.
Foul rate is by no means the only indication of a player’s defensive capabilities, but it does determine whether the player can stay on the floor. Zubac will be needed to guard the Jokics, Embiids and Anthony Davises of the league, and he cannot do that if he’s in foul trouble.
Friday night’s game was a perfect example of this conundrum. Zubac gave up two fouls early on in the first quarter, and was quickly subbed out. This meant that the smaller Patrick Patterson and/or the less mobile DeMarcus Cousins were left to guard Christian Wood, who would end the game with a monster stat line of 24 points and 19 rebounds. Zubac finished the game with five personal fouls and only 24 minutes of action.
Ibaka would no-doubt remedy this issue to some degree, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. Having both players means Lue can be confident going into any matchup that he’ll have 48 solid minutes at center on both ends of the floor.
Regardless of who starts, LA will need both centers healthy heading into the postseason. Here’s hoping Ibaka continues to progress towards a return.