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2020-21 Clippers season in review: Ivica Zubac

The Clippers iron man continued to improve in his third season with the team.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our annual Clippers season in review series. Every day until the end of July, we’ll be taking a look back at the players who ended the season with the Clippers (apologies to Malik Fitts and Mfiondu Kabengele). Today, we continue with Ivica Zubac.

Key information:

Name: Ivica Zubac

Age: 24

Years in the NBA: 5

Key stats: Zubac played in every regular-season game, even if that required some chicanery. He averaged 9.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per contest and made 65.6 percent of his 2-pointers.

Future contract status: Zubac is entering year 3 of a four-year, $28 million contract. The Clippers have a team option on the final year which they are certain to pick up.

Summary:

Most Clippers fans spent the entire offseason clamoring for more Ivica Zubac after Montrezl Harrell was wrecked defensively in the 2020 playoffs. Ty Lue then dropped a bombshell in the preseason with the news that Serge Ibaka would be the starting center over Zubac. Fortunately, Zubac coming off the bench didn’t mean that his role would be marginalized; it just meant the Clippers wanted him as the defensive anchor as the second unit.

To wit, during the entire 2019-20 regular season, Zubac played 34 fourth-quarter minutes. He tripled that total before Ibaka got hurt in the 2020-21 season, as Lue relied on Zubac as a closer far more than his predecessor ever did.

Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets
The Clippers rewarded Zubac for his perfect attendance with a designed play for a three in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
Photo by Troy Fields/NBAE via Getty Images

Zubac was once again an iron man for the Clippers, appearing in all 72 regular-season games (he’s yet to miss one since being traded to the team). He made some marginal improvements from his previous season, posting a career-high in effective field-goal percentage while also knocking down the first 3-pointer of his NBA career. Despite spending less time with the defensive-minded starters, Zubac was still a positive force for the team’s defense.

During the playoffs, Zubac’s limitations popped up as the Clippers were far superior with their small lineups. His knee injury that knocked him out of the final two games against Phoenix was mostly a blow not because the Clippers needed another big, but simply because they needed another healthy body after already losing Ibaka and Kawhi Leonard for the postseason.

Strengths:

Zubac does big man things well. He deters opponents from taking shots at the rim, but when he’s challenged, he’s an effective shot blocker and stays vertical. During the regular season, only two centers had a larger difference between expected field-goal percentage and defended field-goal percentage, which is a good proxy for the impact on a defender on any given shot attempt. Zubac holds up well against other big men, as he did against Deandre Ayton during the playoffs.

Zubac had another strong offensive rebounding season, cleaning up 12.6 percent of the team’s misses. He draws fouls at a really high rate, often on putbacks, and makes those count as a 79 percent free-throw shooter.

The Clippers utilized Zubac’s playmaking to a greater effect, relying on him to make passes out of the short roll or spring teammates open on dribble handoffs. Those number weren’t always reflected in his assist totals, as Zubac often initiated the swing-swing around the perimeter, but he did have the highest offensive rating of his career (116.7 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass).

During the regular season, Zubac was one of the lone players who put pressure on the rim in the half court offense. The Clippers didn’t have the healthiest shot diet, taking a lot of jumpers at the expense of shots in the paint, and Ibaka didn’t exactly help that as a stretch big. But Zubac helped balance out the distribution by setting up shop in the paint. He doesn’t ever demand the ball on post-ups, but his gravity as a roll man creates looks at the basket and sucks in defenses to open up space for shooters. The Clippers shot 2.9 percent better on 3-pointers with Zubac in the game.

Finally, Zubac’s durability cannot be overstated. The team was constantly shuffling its lineup both during the regular season and the playoffs but — until the final days of the postseason — never had to worry about Zubac, even as Lue tried to convince him to take rest days. That reliability helped keep the Clippers afloat during the dog days.

Weaknesses:

He’s gotten better at it, but the Clippers still would like to see Zubac go up stronger at the basket. This was the first season he was an above-average finisher at the rim for a big, so more improvement in that area would help his overall offense.

Zubac’s major weakness is that he is a conventional big man in a league that is trending away from them. That isn’t a problem during the regular season, when most teams aren’t specifically scheming for a certain matchup. But in the playoffs, when scouting reports key in on the minutiae of every player, Zubac doesn’t hold up as well to that level of scrutiny. In Draymond Green’s parlance, Zubac is an 82-game player, not a 16-game player.

That means Zubac can struggle against high-level perimeter creators. Luka Dončić tortured Zubac on switches, using his footwork to create space against the Clippers center. Donovan Mitchell toasted Zubac in the opposite coverage, stepping into open jumpers as Zubac stayed back in the drop.

The Clippers were consistently better with Zubac off the floor than one during the postseason, which was true of all their big men. There’s a certain ceiling on what Zubac can be so long as the Clippers play this style.

Future with the Clippers:

The Clippers absolutely love Zubac. Lue has called him one of his favorite players that he’s ever coached, and the young center has consistently gotten better in his time with the team. Whenever there are trade rumors regarding the Clippers, Zubac’s name is never in them. He may not have the highest upside of any Clipper, but he is an invaluable part of what the Clippers do on a day-to-day basis. He isn’t going anywhere.