Vulnerable & Undervalued: Non-Guaranteed Big Quickly Cementing Role w/Clippers

Isaiah Hartenstein

Getty Isaiah Hartenstein

A few weeks back, at the start of the NBA regular season, no player’s long-term status with the Clippers was more precarious than that of Isaiah Hartenstein.

The 7-footer had just edged out Harry Giles for the final roster spot (a decision head coach Ty Lue called “tough”) earning Hartenstein the unspectacular honor of third fiddle on L.A’s center depth chart, behind starter Ivica Zubac and 12-year veteran Serge Ibaka.

Ibaka had exercised his $9.7 million player option following an injury-riddled 2020-21, and though still in the final stages of rehab from June back surgery and not ready to start the season on time, it was believed that Ibaka would eventually, if not quickly, regain his place in the pecking order and jeopardize whatever minutes Hartenstein was getting.

What’s more, Hartenstein, who was originally signed by the Clippers to an Exhibit-9 training camp deal in September, had (and still has) the only non-guaranteed contract on the roster, making him a logical cut option if the team wanted to create space for someone else. After all, we’re talking about a group that buttered its bread last season with 3-point excellence and playing small, neither of which apply to the somewhat lumbering Hartenstein, who attempted just 17 threes in his first three campaigns. (He made four.)

If the floor-spacing Ibaka returned and played well, and Hartenstein didn’t turn heads, the Clippers might not have much use for the fourth-year center, so the thinking went.

But now, in the second month of the new season, what was once a shaky ground for Hartenstein is getting firmer by the day.

Making It Easier to Forget Ibaka

After sitting out the season opener, Hartenstein has shined ever since, bringing intensity, smart passing and an interior presence to a second unit that has crystallized around a core of Terance Mann, Luke Kennard and Hartenstein. According to Basketball-Reference, in the roughly 114 minutes the trio has shared on the court this season, the team is +24 per 100 possessions. Overall, Hartenstein is averaging 7.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 15.6 minutes while shooting 65.9% from the field.

Hartenstein’s play has been particularly solid during L.A.’s current winning streak, which was extended to five games with a 117-109 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. In that one, Hartenstein scored 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting with two rebounds and three assists — all in a little more than 17 minutes. Excellent at keeping his feet moving, Hartenstein was the recipient of two Eric Bledsoe drives in the second half, both resulting in wide-open dunks.

“He knows how to play off guys, and guys know how to play off him,” said Lue after the game. As The Athletic’s Law Murray pointed out, the 23-year-old’s +1 against Portland makes him the only Clipper to register a positive plus-minus in each game he’s played, 9-for-9.

Even with Zubac playing well and Ibaka back in the lineup (but still extremely rusty: he has yet to register a point in two games), Hartenstein’s effectiveness and chemistry within the second unit is likely foretelling a permanent place with the Clippers. At the very least, it’s not hard to imagine Hartenstein playing a significant role in helping load-manage Ibaka, who missed more than half of last season with injuries. And even when Ibaka is back to full strength, Lue may opt to go with a hot-hand approach between the two big men.

Asked on Monday by Andrew Greif of the LA Times about possibly playing Hartenstein and Ibaka together, Lue found the notion amusing. “I don’t know. I don’t know. But I hope not,” Lue joked.

Hartenstein Is Undervalued to the Tune of $3 Million

The Clippers have until January 10, 2022, to make a decision on Hartenstein. That’s the day his $1.67 million contract becomes fully guaranteed, according to Spotrac, and it seems ludicrous to imagine L.A. opting not to keep the big man on. For one, at 32-years-old, Ibaka is no sure bet to stay healthy, and there’s no telling if he will eventually return to his pre-injury level after being sidelined essentially since last March.

More important perhaps, Hartenstein is quite a bargain at the moment. On Wednesday, ESPN’s Bobby Marks tweeted that, according to ProfitX, a subscriber-only website that tracks players’ real-time value, Hartenstein has a current contract valuation of $4.8 million, or more than $3 million over what the Clippers are on paying him.

Marks also noted that last year with Cleveland, following a midseason trade from Denver, Hartenstein played at a $4.6 million valuation against a $1.6 million salary. The Cavs, however, did not have a need for another center as they already had veterans Jarrett Allen and Kevin Love, and had drafted USC phenom Evan Mobley with the third pick in the 2021 draft.

Hartenstein therefore, who was a second-round pick for the Rockets in 2017, was the odd-big-man-out for the Cavs, and this summer he declined his $1.7 million player option in search of a bigger role with another team.

It was a gamble for Hartenstein to leave guaranteed money on the table for the chance at more minutes, but through the early part of this season, it appears to be one that is paying off.

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