Although he’s only playing in his third NBA season, Lakers center Ivica Zubac has recently been the latest example of how life can drastically change for a professional athlete in only a matter of months.
Fresh off a disappointing sophomore season and a nearly invisible start to his third, in which the 7’1” big from Croatia struggled mightily in both staying and getting on the floor, a December illness to Lakers starting center, JaVale McGee, presented a potentially career altering opportunity for the 21-year-old.
Inserted into the starting lineup and immediately tasked in matching up with Anthony Davis, the sparingly used center responded with 16 points on 8-10 shooting, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a resounding Lakers’ win.
He didn’t stop there, and Zubac’s impressive play not only provided a spark for the team (he would also be a big contributor in the team’s Christmas Day victory over the Warriors) but seemingly helped reestablish his place in the NBA. Which was quite a turnaround for a player many in the fanbase had been eager to give up on.
In so many words, Zubac grasped basketball’s version of the “brass ring,” and because of it was promptly shipped to the Clippers in what reportedly was an attempt to recoup value for a player the Lakers would be unable to “afford” during their never-ending quest for stars.
Now a member of the other L.A. team who plays down the hall and playing for a Staples Center tenant in possession of a playoff spot, Zubac recently shared some words about his former club ahead of his first game against the Lakers since being traded. Monday night could potentially be a game with huge postseason implications for both the Lakers and Clippers, and Zubac is excited about the chance to take on his former team (via Mirjam Swanson of the O.C. Register):
“I can’t wait, I’m motivated. “They’re a dangerous team, they’re fighting for playoffs and this is a big game, one of the biggest games of the season for them, so we gotta come out ready, focused. We gotta play smart, we gotta know what we want to do, take away their things and we’ll be good.”
Following their deflating loss to the lowly Suns on Saturday, the Lakers will enter their contest against the Clippers 4.5 games back from the final playoff spot. And with only 19 games left on the docket, the term “must-win” is more than applicable here on out.
If the Lakers do end up missing out on the playoffs, which according to the projections seems likely, losses like they had on Saturday will likely be an enormous reason.
In their last seven games against teams with records below .500, the Lakers are 2-5. Eventually, preparation and simple determination comes into play. Which was something Zubac specifically pinpointed after the Clippers’ recent blow-out victory over the Knicks on Sunday:
“When I was with the Lakers, we didn’t have nights like this. Every game was a close game for us, but now with the Clippers, this team is really locked in, every possession against every team, you know, the guys are all looking to take care of business and we’re ready for the next game.”
After this most recent stretch, it is really hard to disagree with the former Lakers’ assessment. On the season, the Lakers are 16-14 against opponents with sub .500 records. Among Western Conference teams, only Phoenix (last in the standings) has more losses (20) to such opponents.
And despite no longer being a part of the team, Zubac seems to be well aware of how they have performed without him. There’s a reason for that:
“I have been watching them almost every game. Every time I'm watching [the Lakers], I feel like if I was still there I would help them. I would definitely make a difference on the floor. But, they are not my team anymore.”
Whether he could have been the “difference” on the floor the team has needed is open to debate, but there is little question that the Lakers have indeed missed Zubac.
The team’s front court options of late have brought little to the equation as McGee’s play has waxed and waned, Tyson Chandler has noticeable physical limitations and Mike Muscala (the player the Lakers received in exchange for Zubac) has been unable to sniff the floor much, or make an impact while he’s out there.
The Lakers have not only hit rock bottom, they have seemingly dug a hole directly underneath it. There are contextual factors that have played a role — most notably injuries — but ultimately there seems to be a bigger fundamental problem at play this season.
Zubac very likely will not be the reason the Lakers miss out on the playoffs, but in trading away one of the better stories, and contributors, the team had this season speaks volumes of the emotional makeup this team currently possesses.
Winning out and making the playoffs will indeed help save face, but there have been undeniable fractures that have taken place along the way, and it sounds like Zubac isn’t planning to let them forget at least one such misstep.