We’re continuing our 213Hoops Exit Interview series, where we go player-by-player through the Clippers’ roster and break down how each player on the team performed relative to their pre-season expectations, and ponder their future with the team. Today, we’re taking a look at young big man Ivica Zubac
Weight: 240 lbs.
Years in NBA: 5
Key Stats: The only Clipper to appear in all 72 games (for the 2nd year in a row), Zubac played 22.3 minutes per game and averaged 9.0 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 65.2% from the field and 78.9% from the free throw line.
Contract Status: Zubac just completed the second year of an extremely team-friendly 4-year contract signed in 2019. He made $7,000,000 last season and will make $7,518,518 next year before having a team option for the same amount in 2022-23.
After a really strong 2019-20 campaign that was somewhat overshadowed by the Clippers’ lack of other viable options at the center position in the playoffs, the expectation was that Ivica Zubac’s role would expand despite the addition of Serge Ibaka to the team. As above-average defensive big man whose main weakness is his footspeed defending quicker perimeter players on switches, Zu is effective at stifling drives and post scorers around the rim. Offensively, Zubac’s limited skillset leaves him mostly searching for dirty work points around the basket on dump-offs, roles to the basket, and offensive rebounds–which is perhaps his most elite skill. Zu grabbed a league-best 15.9% of available offensive boards in 2020 and led the team again at 13.6% (Serge Ibaka, for reference, only pulled down 8.9% of available offensive boards this season) this year, finishing 5th league-wide.
Zu really struggled to start the year, as his energy levels didn’t adapt well to shifting to a second unit role behind Ibaka despite his overall minute load slightly increasing early in the season. While he did right the ship as a reserve after a rocky start, moving back into the starting lineup mid-season is what really unlocked Zubac’s most effective stretch of play. With his minutes boosted above 27 per game during a 30-game stretch from when Ibaka went down with injury until the Clippers chose to throw their final two games of the season, Zu stepped nicely into his bigger role. He’s never going to be an All-Star who regularly pours in 20-point games, but his positioning is good on both ends of the floor and he makes the right play most of the time. Especially with the Clippers struggling in transition defense for much of the year, Zu’s presence on the offensive glass was a godsend–even when he didn’t create an extra possession, his presence forced multiple opponents to hang back on the defensive glass and he had a knack for getting a touch on the ball, at the very least buying time for the other four Clippers to get back on transition defense.
In the playoffs, like many of the Clippers role players, Zu had his up and downs in terms of play. Against the Dallas Mavericks, he was torched by Luka Doncic on switches, forcing Ty Lue to adjust to playing a smaller lineup with Nic Batum at center that could better disrupt Dallas’ attack. There’s no way around it: the numbers with Zu on the floor against Dallas were Trez-against-Denver levels of bad. But I have to admit, it didn’t feel like Zu was playing terribly–for the most part, he was well-positioned and the Clippers were forcing Doncic into off-the-dribble threes and high-difficulty contested pull-up jumpers, which are exactly the shots you want to concede. But Luka clearly was determined to attack Zubac and the combination of determination and confidence resulted in a red-hot shooting stretch. It wasn’t just vs Zu: Luka made incredibly high-difficulty contested shots against all of the Clippers’ defenders. It’s just that Zu’s lack of footspeed meant he was unable to play as aggressively to take those shots away when it was clear that Luka wasn’t going to stop making them.
Against the Jazz, Zu performed better but again had a limited role as the team looked to stay small and force Rudy Gobert to defend out on the perimeter. I predicted before the series that Zu would have the thankless job of coming in and bringing some physicality against Gobert to mix things up, but ultimately the goal would be to play his minutes even and go on runs with the smaller lineup. That came true as the numbers weren’t particularly impressive, but his ability to draw fouls against Rudy was a significant factor at times. But against the Suns, with the Clippers tasked with a trickier center assignment in DeAndre Ayton, Zu was phenomenal. Of every Clipper, the team had its highest net rating with Zu on the floor in the WCF, and he was arguably the player of the game in the team’s game 3 win–the first Western Conference Finals win in franchise history. After playing a reserve role in game 1, he started, played over 30 minutes, and recorded a double-double in each of the next 3 games of the series before a sprained MCL forced him out of the lineup for games 5 and 6.
Future with Clippers
At 24 years old, and with 2 relatively cheap years left on his contract, there’s no reason to expect that Zubac is going anywhere. He’s right in the sweet spot of being just valuable enough to the team that they’d certainly resist including him in small trades, and not being valuable enough to other teams that they’d view him as a sufficient key piece of a deal for a bigger talent upgrade. As I said, he’s not a star, and there isn’t a ton of upside for him to become one. But he’s really effective in a limited role, and cheap enough that it’s reasonable to expect that the team can build a roster around him that gives Ty Lue other options (like Serge Ibaka and small ball with Nic Batum) so that the team doesn’t need to rely on Zu when his weaknesses are being targeted or the matchup doesn’t suit him. One thing’s for sure: if the Clippers wind up in a series against Nikola Jokic again, we’ll be glad Zu is on our side.
There’s always the chance that Zubac is included in a trade this summer, as the Clippers will of course work to upgrade their supporting cast and he’s one of the few members of the team with firmly positive trade value due to his production, contract, and age (though as I noted, I don’t think he’s a key part of a package netting you an All-Star). But it’s more likely that he’s on the team going forward, sharing minutes with Ibaka (who seems likely to opt in to his player option following back surgery) at the center position. While neither guy is going to carry you in many games, hopefully a year of health from both can help the Clippers get 48 minutes of reliable center production in 2021-22 without the position being inconsistent or a weakness.
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