Clippers Big Man Says He’s Overlooked as a Defender, But Is He?

Iviva Zubac Clippers Hornets

Getty LA Clippers big man Ivica Zubac battles for a rebound during a game against the Charlotte Hornets.

The LA Clippers have struggled mightily on the offensive end this season as Paul George has largely been left to carry the load solo. However, the team has been noticeably better on the defensive end despite the fact that Kawhi Leonard hasn’t played a game.

As of this writing, the team ranks fourth league-wide with a defensive rating of 105.3.

Some would say that starting center Ivica Zubac deserves some of the credit for the uptick. And, for his part, the sixth-year big man believes that his contributions in the pivot are being overlooked by hoops pundits.

“Yeah,” he said when asked if he felt slighted by not being namechecked as a top defender. “I feel like I don’t get as many blocks as [Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner] but I feel like I change a lot of shots at the rim.

“If people don’t recognize it, it doesn’t matter. I still got to do my job every night and it’s whatever it takes. I’m going to keep doing it and if people see it, great. If they don’t, whatever.”

That’s a great sound bite and Zubac definitely does some good things defensively. However, the notion that he’s some kind of defensive anchor may be a bit misguided. There’s a real chance that he’s not even the best defensive big on the team.

What the Numbers Say

There’s no debating the fact that Clippers have been much-improved defensively. And some of Zubac’s numbers lend credence to the notion that his emergence is part of the reason why.

For example, when Zubac is the closest defender, opposing players have connected on shots within six feet of the hoop at a rate 5.9% lower than their norms. If you extend that range to 10 feet from the hoop, it’s still a 4% difference in the Clippers’ favor.

He also leads the team in defensive rebounding percentage at 20.8. Obviously, preventing an opponent from gaining additional possessions by keeping them off of the offensive glass plays a big role in limiting the number of points they score on you.

That said, some other numbers paint a less rosy picture of Zubac’s defensive efforts. First and foremost, his D-rating of 108.9 is the second-worst mark on the team (only Marcus Morris’ number is worse). When Zubac hits the bench, the Clippers D’ concedes a massive 9.1 points per 100 possessions less than when he’s in the game.

In other words, the Clippers have been a below-average team in terms of scoring defense when Zubach as played. When he has sat, they’ve played like the best defensive team in the Association.

And about that team-leading defensive rate — it ranks as just the 56th-best mark league-wide among players appearing in at least 15 games this season.

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Hartenstein May Be the Real Anchor

When one compares Zubac’s defensive numbers to those of his backup, Isaiah Hartenstein, they’re even less impressive. Where D-rating is concerned, Hartenstein has the best mark on the team among players logging 15 or more minutes per night. When he is in the game, opponents are scoring just 99.7 points/100 poss.

Meanwhile, Zubac’s impressive defensive shot tracking pales in comparison to that of Hartenstein. Within six feet of the hoop, opponents are hitting at a rate 13.5% lower than their averages when Hartenstein is the closest defender. Within 10 feet, the number is still an impressive 12.2%.

Zubac has low-key been one of the NBA’s better shot-blockers this season, too. His 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes rank fifth league-wide; it’s a number that outpaces the likes of Gobert and Anthony Davis.

If anything, Hartenstein may be the guy who isn’t getting the recognition he deserves. It’s probably a safe bet, though, that he’ll be getting the pay raise he has earned once free agency hits. Whether or not it comes from the cash-strapped Clippers remains to be seen.


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