Clippers Big Man ‘Progressing’ Toward Return

Serge Ibaka

Getty Serge Ibaka

Let’s face it: with less than a month remaining before the start of the NBA Playoffs, there aren’t a ton of questions facing the Los Angeles Clippers. The health of superstar Kawhi Leonard is one of them, but there’s perhaps only one more major concern facing the team’s push for the Larry O’Brien Trophy: center depth.

Serge Ibaka will miss his 23rd consecutive game due to back soreness Monday night when his Clippers face the New Orleans Pelicans. He’ll also miss Wednesday night’s game in Phoenix against the Suns after previously starting all 39 games he’s appeared in this season. In those games, he averaged 10.9 points per game alongside 6.7 rebounds while adding an intimidating defensive presence in the paint, which L.A. has sorely missed.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom in Clippers-land. According to head coach Tyronn Lue, the 14-year NBA veteran is “progressing.” He recently participated in four-on-four action in practice for the first time since his March 14 injury.

“We’re not sure the timetable when he’ll be back,” Lue told reporters Friday. “But that was his first time getting on the floor and actually doing some playing [since the injury] so that’s a good start.”

Back When it Matters Most

Lue’s comments aren’t exactly committal on when — and if — Ibaka’s availability will open up, but there are encouraging signs that the 6-foot-10 center could be back for meaningful action around playoff time.

On Saturday, Ibaka posted this clip on Twitter, where he performed weighted exercises in a pool. Surely, it’s an encouraging sign to see him jumping with water resistance while dealing with back pain, especially at his height and stature.

His return to basketball-related activities on the practice court suggests that his return could be somewhat imminent. The Clippers and Lue have been adamant about using “caution” with Kawhi Leonard’s mysterious foot injury, so perhaps they could be proceeding carefully with Ibaka as well by holding him out until the playoffs.

In the Meantime…

With Ibaka missing all of this time, Ivica Zubac has filled in without missing much of a beat offensively. Since taking over as the full-time starter, he’s actually added more statistically. He’s averaging an efficient 11.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. What Zubac has lacked compared to Ibaka is floor-spacing and paint presence on the defensive side of the ball.

That’s where “Boogie” comes in.

The Clippers officially signed Demarcus Cousins for the rest of the season Monday, following the end of his second 10-day contract with the team.

Now let’s state the obvious, Cousins is far from the player he used to be. He’s been used sparingly in L.A., with just 11 minutes played in eight games on average. However, he’s added a physical defensive presence that Zubac has lacked in his duties as a starter. Cousins has seemed to embrace his role.

When and if Ibaka returns in-time for the Clippers’ first-round playoff matchup, which would be against the Dallas Mavericks if the season ended today, Cousins playtime would likely be relegated to garbage time. But having an experienced veteran who is capable of providing physical defense and taking key charges is invaluable to any playoff run.

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