If Ivica Zubac was living in a sports movie, midway through last season would have been the climax. Following his storybook journey of rooting for the Los Angeles Lakers as a kid, getting drafted by the team, and then posting a promising rookie campaign before a sophomore slump, the way he overcame an early season illness that knocked him out of the rotation to reclaim a spot with a breakout stretch of play is the stuff athlete biopics are made of.
We all know what happened next. Zubac didn’t help the team team secure a playoff spot, or go on to anchor the pivot for the next decade, or whatever that movie script would have outlined for his future. Instead, he was traded across the halls of Staples Center to join the LA Clippers, where he had an underwhelming playoff run but still offered far more value than the Lakers got out of Mike Muscala, the player they received for Zubac in said trade.
And as much as Lakers fans missed Zubac’s presence down the stretch run, Zubac told Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated that despite eventually getting his first taste of the postseason with the Clippers, the trade wasn’t an easy thing to stomach for him initially, either:
MS: You were a Lakers fan growing up and played for your favorite team. Was it a difficult adjustment when you got traded to the Clippers?
IZ: It was hard at first. I was a bit sad leaving the team that drafted me, that I liked. But the people with the Clippers and coach [Doc] Rivers made things easy for me and I could fit in well pretty quickly.
That makes sense. As Lakers veteran Rajon Rondo pointed out recently, getting traded is hard, and players worry about it. It has to be doubly difficult when it’s the only NBA team you have ever known, and one you grew up cheering for.
Despite all that, Zubac doesn’t seem to have any ill will about how things went down with the Lakers, and is actually optimistic about the organization’s future:
MS: Do you think your former team the Lakers will rebound next season?
IZ: I would think so. With one of the best players like LeBron you always think you will be good. They can get free agents too, and will get healthier. So we will see, but with LeBron that is a good start.
This kid has a promising future as an NBA analyst, because he’s not wrong (at least not in a vacuum). The Lakers do have some promising building blocks to start their annual rebuild, it will just remain to be seen if the noise surrounding the team will affect their ability to lure free agents.
It very well might not make a difference, but even if the Lakers don’t land a star, LeBron James is a promising starting point, and Zubac is correct to point out that had the Lakers been healthy they would have had a better shot at the postseason.
The Lakers will have to start that chase all over again this year, with a partially overhauled training staff that will attempt to keep the team healthier this time, possibly some free agency or trade reinforcements, and without Zubac. Whether that last part matters or not will come down to whether they can find more effective options to replace him this time.