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. Only a few others were in the team’s practice facility Tuesday when Zubac was shooting, with footage taken by the team showing guards Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and forward Amir Coffey also working out.
But Zubac isn’t totally disconnected, 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 that’s, 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 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 either the conference or 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 Kennard.
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 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.
“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.”
Reggie Jackson, the backup guard who played 29 games with the Clippers last season after joining at midseason, is returning to the team on a one-year contract, a person with knowledge of the agreement confirmed. Jackson, 30, averaged 9.5 points during the regular season and 4.9 points in the postseason, shooting 43% overall and 53% on three-pointers.