Doc Rivers has a saying that he frequently uses – he wants his players to be stars in their roles. As it turns out, that's a much easier premise to put into action when the Clippers actually have stars to surround their role players.
"It’s funny, we know what we want to work on now," Rivers said after practice Friday. "It felt like today, you kinda knew what you needed to work on and you got through it."
One player who has excelled in the specifics of his role this season is Ivica Zubac. He doesn't play an overwhelming amount of minutes, even as a starter, but he gives the Clippers exactly what they need from his position.
Zubac is a defensive fulcrum to start games, and he cleans both the offensive and defensive glass. He ranks in the 87th and 83rd percentile, respectively, in rebounding misses on the offensive and defensive ends. Zubac also provides a roll threat on the pick-and-roll that isn't as widely appreciated as Montrezl Harrell's is, but is nonetheless effective.
"Zube's been phenomenal against [length]," Rivers said. "He's handled all the size they've put against him, he's still rolling, he's still scoring, that's still beneficial to us."
"[Zubac] knows exactly what he should be doing," Rivers added. "He embraces it, he does it every night, he's happy when he plays 30 minutes, he's happy when he plays 20 minutes. For a young guy that part's unusual, but it's been very good for us."
Patrick Beverley was similarly laudatory of what Zubac has brought to the Clippers as the team's starting center.
"He’s been phenomenal all year," Beverley said. "I kind of made an emphasis to kind of stay on him even when he’s playing well, but he’s been protecting the rim. The minutes that he’s been playing, he’s been making the most out of it. He’s here working on his game, he’s always in the weight room. You got a player like that, against any team, Zu’s been f***ing hooping this year for sure."
Part of Beverley's role is being a leader and motivator for the other players on the team. No one can come close to approximating the level of energy that Beverley brings to the game, and he knows it's his responsibility to spread that among his teammates.
He treads a fine line by being energetic and aggressive without getting into foul trouble or earning the ire of the referees. Beverley's been better about that since fouling out against Houston Dec. 19, and drawing a technical foul while on the bench. He only picked up two fouls against San Antonio Dec. 21 and was foul-less against the Lakers on Christmas. His effort certainly hasn't waned, as demonstrated by his strip of LeBron James in the game's waning seconds; Beverley's just being smarter about channeling his emotions.
The Clippers need Beverley on the court because he provides a certain toughness at the guard spot that they're lacking otherwise. He's also one of the best guard rebounders in the league.
"It’s so huge, he embraces his role," Rivers said about Beverley. "He understands who he is. He’s not out there looking for shots, although he can shoot. He knows his role, he’s accepted it, and he’s a star in his role. And if you can get each guy to be a star in their role, you’re on to something."
The Clippers have enough talent that they probably overcome most opponents on the strength of their two superstars. But great teams are great because of their depth; each player on the roster understands what he can contribute, and how he can meaningfully affect winning.
Now that the Clippers are finally healthy, players don't have to worry about filling in for missing members of the team. They can focus exactly on the specifics of their roles and work towards building a championship team.