HAHAHAHAHA. Ok, sorry, I’m done now. After being eliminated from playoff contention against the Brooklyn Nets this past Saturday night, the Lakers have now missed the playoffs in six straight seasons. Even adding the best player in the league in LeBron James couldn’t get them to the postseason. The funny thing is…their desperate attempts at righting their own ship are the reason why this season went to hell. It started in the 2017 offseason with the D’Angelo Russell trade, continued this offseason when they let Julius Randle and Brook Lopez walk, and then came to a head when they reportedly offered every single solid young piece they had to get a generational talent in Anthony Davis. One name that was reportedly involved in the trade was third-year, 22-year-old center Ivica Zubac.
Zubac was a project from the start, and played sparingly in his first two seasons. The beginning of this season was no different, as offseason acquisition Javale McGee got most of the burn at center and Zu only played nine out of a possible 29 games by December 15. After McGee went down for 15 days with an injury in December, Zu finally got a chance to showcase what he could do. Expectations were low, but big-Z was surprisingly efficient at the five-spot and showed his ability to finish with contact, catch and roll, score in the post, and hit his free throws. Head coach Luke Walton sung praises for the young big man during a tumultuous January month for the squad, saying (Via Silver Screen and Roll):
“He’s earned a bigger role, bigger minutes. For a team that struggles to knock down free throws, most nights he’s earned the right to be in the game just by the way that he shoots free throws. “He’s setting screens more consistently, he’s talking (defensive) coverages out,” Walton continued. “He’s doing all of those little things better. He’s earned more minutes and we’ll continue to play him in a bigger role.”
From Dec. 15 (when McGee’s injury occurred) to Jan. 31, Zubac averaged 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in only 18.1 minutes, on .605/.877 shooting splits. Even the advanced analytics pointed to big-Z being an impact player for the sputtering Lakers, as Bryan Kalbrosky of Hoops Hype mentioned in a post-deadline write up:
“Los Angeles outscored opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions when Zubac was on the court with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma this season. The defensive rating (86.0) of that group was astonishingly better than any of the four-man lineups that the Lakers have used for more than 70 minutes thus far.
Zubac, meanwhile, has averaged 1.09 points per possession for Los Angeles. That ranks in the 88th percentile among all players and according to Cleaning the Glass, he had an offensive rebounding rate that ranked in the 84th percentile among all players at his position.”
All signs were pointing to Zubac being a part of the Lakers future (even singer Halsey tweeted at big-Z) given his youth, his potential and his willingness to keep getting better and learning. Then, panic set in.
After the Pelicans laughed away every trade offer the Lakers put out there to get AD, the Lakers front office felt they needed the customary LeBron package to help get this team to the playoffs (you know, shooters and more shooters). The Clippers acquired Mike Muscala from the Philadelphia 76ers in the Tobias Harris trade, and I guess the Lakers felt that adding the injury-prone, inconsistent Muscala fit their immediate needs. And….voila. Jerry West and company worked their magic and the Clippers got a young, starting center in Zubac who was a huge upgrade from the aging Marcin Gortat. Since Zu has been inserted into the lineup, the Clippers are 14-4 and racing towards the playoffs, just 1.5 games back of the fourth seed. After a trade deadline that many in NBA media circles thought would lead to the Clippers waving the white flag and keeping their 2019 first-round pick, Zubac and the new additions have exceeded expectations and have the Clips in position to shock the NBA.
The Clippers season, pre-Zubac, was a mixed bag. At one point, they were in first-place in the competitive Western Conference with a 16-7 record. However, after the Clippers proved that they potentially belonged in the playoff conversation, their hold in the top eight was threatened and they briefly dropped as low as the 10th seed. Where before, Clippers fans were happy with the overachieving, scrappy team, they soon turned frustrated as an anemic starting lineup did their best to throw away games, while the highest scoring bench in the league, led by Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, saved their butts.
Standing at 28-24 after two frustrating losses to the Atlanta Hawks and Lakers to end January, the Clips starting five of SGA-Avery Bradley-Tobias Harris-Danilo Gallinari and Gortat was fully busted. In 349 minutes together, they held a paltry -8.0 net rating. They were awful defensively with a DRTG of 114.5, and sluggish offensively with a 106.5 mark. In other words, something had to be done quickly if the Clips wanted to hold off the Sacramento Kings for the eight spot. This is again where the magic of the Clippers smart front office took the reins, and brought on young guys with oodles of potential, and vets who play the way the Clips do: tough, aggressive and with chips on their shoulders. Zubac fit the former and so far, has done wonders for the Clippers defensively — and has shown promise offensively as well.
A lot of the advanced stats back up Zubac helping this team out in a multitude of ways. With Zubac on the floor, the Clippers have a defensive rating of 104.5 compared to 109 when off. Their net rating is .3 higher (3.7 to 3.4), assist percentage is nearly 10 points higher (66.4 to 56.6), assist to turnover ratio leaps, and defensive rebound percentage is 78.2 compared to 70.5 when off. Opponents are also grabbing offensive rebounds at a lower rate (a HUGE issue when Gortat was in the lineup) at 21.8% vs. 29.5%. This impact is felt to start games, as the additions of Zubac and Shamet in the starting lineup have the initial five at a net rating of 9.4 with a 103.7 defensive rating and 113.1 offensive rating. Zu is doing a good job of contesting opponent’s shots, as players are shooting less than 60% on shots within five feet when Zubac is there (58.3%) and a paltry 40% on shots between 5-9 feet. The same goes for shots at 10-14 feet (40.7%) and 15-19 feet (33.6%).
To make the complicated simple, the addition of Zubac has made this team better defensively at the rim, strengthening a glaring weakness for no loss with the trading of Muscala, a player who never put on a Clips jersey. Beautiful work done by the front office.
Of course, being a young, inexperienced center in the league, Zubac has his faults. He has games where he seems to struggle to finish against guys who are around his height or bigger (4-15 against Nurkic and the Trailblazers, 1-9 against Allen and the Nets). He gets pushed around in the paint by stronger centers, as his base isn’t quite there yet and could benefit from around 10-15 pounds of added muscle. He sometimes struggles with spacial awareness when rolling to the basket and fumbles passes. He also lacks a multitude of go-to post moves, as most of his points come off passes from guards or put-backs.
At the end of the day, however, the numbers and the records show that Ivica Zubac has had a substantial impact on the Clippers, and is a significant upgrade over what they had before the deadline. Not only have the Clippers potentially found a diamond in the rough for their future (of course pending not only Zu’s restricted free-agency, but the Clips moves as well), but they have patched up a huge hole for the rest of this season. If Zu can continue putting up the 9 points and 8 rebounds he’s averaging in a Clippers uniform (in only 19.8 minutes a game!), he makes this Clippers team much more dangerous in the playoffs, as they creep up the standings with eight games remaining. What a trade by the Clippers’ FO.
Author Note: All stats compiled from stats.nba.com, and are before the Wolves’ game on Tuesday night.