The good vibes came to a careening halt early this evening with the news that the Clippers’ starting center and defensive anchor Ivica Zubac will miss at least four weeks of play with a right calf strain. To be more specific, he will be re-evaluated in four weeks, which means his absence will probably be a fair bit longer than that.
This is devastating news for the Clippers, as one could make the argument that Ivica Zubac’s skillset is the single most irreplaceable on the team. The Croatian big man was having a career year, averaging per-game highs in points and blocks with second-best marks in minutes, rebounds, and efficiency numbers. The rebounding and rim protection are items that the rest of the Clippers just can’t replicate.
The Clippers started Daniel Theis in Zu’s place against the Wolves on Sunday, but I’d expect that Mason Plumlee will be Zu’s replacement in the starting lineup (he will be tonight against the Thunder), as he brings a better facsimile of Zu’s size and rebounding than Theis. Plumlee and Theis are both solid rotation-level players, but neither is a starting-caliber player, and that hurts.
Another thing we will probably see more of is the Clippers going small, with Kawhi, Paul George, and James Harden joined by two of the Norm Powell, Russell Westbrook, Amir Coffey, and Terance Mann grouping. Those lineups can work, but I’m wary of them over a longer sample size.
This does also open the door for a trade for a better stopgap at starting center to keep the Clippers afloat in the interim. Clint Capela’s name has been present in trade talks, and while he’s nowhere near what he used to be, he’s still a big upgrade on Theis and Plumlee. He does have a $22M contract for next season, however, and that’s probably unpalatable for the Clippers as a backup. Another name is Kelly Olynyk on the Jazz, who would be a nice fit as a Zu replacement and complement, but who might cost too much for the asset-deprived Clippers to obtain.
For now, I’d expect the Clippers to stick with what they have, and then re-assess in a week or two depending on Zu’s progress and their play in the meanwhile. Hopefully Theis, Plumlee, and the rest of the Clippers are up to the challenge and Ivica Zubac is able to get long term health in that calf.