Ivica Zubac says ‘negative talk’ can motivate Clippers, who sign Nicolas Batum
By the time Zubac arrived for his workout Tuesday, only a few other teammates were allowed in the practice facility at the same time because of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. Not to mention the roster was still hours from being finalized. In a flurry of moves late Tuesday, the Clippers waived backup center Joakim Noah, whose $2.7-million salary would have been guaranteed in three weeks, to make room for the additions of backup point guard Reggie Jackson and veteran wing Nicolas Batum.
Batum’s signing became official hours after he cleared waivers. The team also signed wing Rayjon Tucker to a training camp contract. The first group practice isn’t expected until Sunday, once several days of individual workouts required by the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols finish, and even that timeline assumes all coronavirus results return negative.
But Zubac isn’t totally disconnected from his teammates, of course. He remains a member of the players-only group chat. And he, like most of the roster, remembers the one-two punch felt this fall when the Clippers’ second-round collapse was followed by watching his former team, the Lakers, claim the NBA championship.
If he cannot yet know how the Clippers will collectively play, he spoke with a clear understanding of how they feel.
“Some people don’t even put us in the conversation about contending for a championship and we like that,” Zubac said. “We like all that negative talk and everything that’s around us. We like that challenge. We want to prove that we’re that team, that we can do it. I think that’s going to be the mood all season. Guys are ready, guys been working out since we were out of the bubble and guys are as motivated as ever.”
The Clippers announced the release of new City Edition uniforms by artist Mister Cartoon, who will also provide instruction through “Make Your Mark” Zoom classes.
The Clippers have not, in fact, been demoted from contender to also-ran. Oddsmakers consistently place them among the top-five betting favorites to win the 2021 championship. Though rival executives predict a brutal Western Conference playoff fight, they also expect the Clippers to challenge for the team’s first appearance in the conference finals and possibly NBA Finals. A majority of the roster that produced the regular-season’s second-best offensive rating and fifth-best defensive rating — statistics that measure points scored and allowed per 100 possessions — is returning.
Yet one of the most stunning lessons learned during the league’s restart near Orlando, Fla., was that for all of the Clippers’ vaunted depth, it did little for them in the postseason, when only a handful of players were reliably productive. By dismissing coach Doc Rivers and hiring Tyronn Lue, the Clippers believed some of their shortcomings were attributable to coaching.
“I think he’s going to use the strengths from each guy much more,” Zubac said of Lue, a Clippers assistant last season. “I think it’s a perfect fit for us. A guy who knows us, a guy who works as hard as we do.”
The Clippers have spent the last two weeks also attempting to address roster flaws too. They signed forward Serge Ibaka — a playoff-tested teammate of Kawhi Leonard’s on the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors — in free agency and, on draft night, traded Landry Shamet to Brooklyn and Rodney McGruder to Detroit in exchange for 24-year-old guard Luke Kennard. Jackson, 30, will reprise the backup guard role he started last season when he joined the team at midseason. The team desperately needed depth at wing and took a chance on the 6-foot-9 Batum, who was waived by Charlotte on Sunday coming off a career-worst shooting season, to bolster the second unit’s defense and passing.
Soon after being traded, Kennard, 24, was receiving texts from new teammate Paul George. The new coaching staff was next to welcome the left-hander who is a career 40% three-point shooter.
“They want me to shoot the ball when I’m open, make plays, and … space the floor and allow guys to do their thing,” Kennard said.
The Clippers made the trade feeling confident that the bilateral knee tendinitis that shut down Kennard’s last season in December is behind him. The team needs Kennard, who averaged 15.8 points and 4.1 assists in nearly 33 minutes per game last season, not only to remain a floor-spacing shooter but also to make plays with the ball in his hands.
After being shut down by the Pistons, Kennard spent the winter and early spring taking part in a workout regimen aimed at strengthening his legs. When the Pistons weren’t one of the 22 teams invited to the league’s Orlando “bubble,” his recovery was given an even longer runway.
Five questions the Clippers face entering training camp include the team’s health, ability to form cohesive rotations and new coach Tyronn Lue.
“Having this time to really work on my game is something that has allowed me to take my game to the next level,” he said. “I’m the strongest I’ve ever been physically. I can confidently say that, and I think with that, I’m able to get back to where I was, if not even better.”
Kennard said he spent his first day of camp as a Clipper working on running off screens and his footwork. Known as a three-point specialist, he called taking and making tough shots at the rim as one area where he expects improvement.
The 11 months of recovery and training has given Kennard a more granular understanding of his game than ever. He’s still waiting to understand how it will blend alongside his new teammates. What is clear, he said, is how good it feels to know that he will find out soon.
“I’m ready to play, I can tell you that,” Kennard said. “It’s been awhile.”
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