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Chronically undervalued Zaza Pachulia key cog and sudden ‘star’ for Warriors

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2004: Magic general John Weisbrod called Zaza Pachulia into his office and told Pachulia his value to the team.

It wasn’t necessarily much, but Pachulia had just finished his rookie season and was on a minimum contract. Charlotte was entering the NBA that summer, and Pachulia said Weisbrod assured him Orlando would protect him in the expansion draft.

The Magic didn’t. Charlotte picked him.

2016: Warriors coach Steve Kerr called Zaza Pachulia on the phone and told Pachulia his value to the team.

Golden State couldn’t offer much, just the room exception, but the team wanted Pachulia badly. Kerr assured him he’d start at center to complete a star-studded lineup that just added Kevin Durant to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

“I just told him, I knew that he could make more money elsewhere and that we were lucky that he was even considering coming here,” Ker said, “but that we had a real need for him.”

After being misled earlier in his career, Pachulia trusted.

“That was a deal-maker for me,” Pachulia said. “I kind of feel like I always wanted to go somewhere where I’m wanted.”

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Pachulia, who has spent about half his career as a starting center and most of the rest as a prominent backup, has never earned more than $5.3 million in a season. His salary this year: $2,898,000.

He won’t say how much he left on the table to join Golden State – he was reportedly discussing a two-year, $20 million deal with the Wizards – but calls it a “pretty significant amount” between repeatedly saying it doesn’t matter.

“The decision I made, I told myself, and I told my wife and close people who I’m with and my family members, that we’re not going to look back and say I wish,” Pachulia said. “Because it’s a risk. There’s nothing guaranteed. So, we’re never going to look back and say I wish we’d taken the other offer. I thought about it. I had time to think about it wisely, make the right decision.”

Pachulia will be a free agent next summer, and the Warriors will be squeezed to re-sign Curry, Durant and maybe Iguodala. Fitting in Pachulia will be a challenge, and the offseason could become another referendum on his value – if he chooses to test the market.

There are at least indications he’ll have suitors. Zach Lowe of ESPN:

But if those executives valued Pachulia so greatly, why did they never pay him more or trade for him? All those years as an undervalued commodity opened the door for the Warriors to poach him.

Pachulia is glad they did.

It helps that he spends most of his minutes with the Curry-Thompson-Durant-Green foursome on the floor, but Pachulia is doing his part. He plays sound positional defense, crashes the glass, sets effective screens and passes well out of the high post. He’s a little sloppy with the ball and his subpar athleticism limits him, but the Warriors will gladly take the entire package. Their starting lineup has been about as good as their vaunted death lineup (with Andre Iguodala in for Pachulia).

Pachulia does all the little things a super team needs, playing the role that never receives enough credit.

Except, paradoxically, Pachulia is getting outsized credit in All-Star fan voting.

With help from his native Georgia (the country), he ranks second to Durant among Western Conference frontcourt players. In previous years, Pachulia would be on track to start the All-Star game. But, likely with an eye on Pachulia’s stunningly strong finish in last year’s voting, the NBA changed its process this season. Now, players and media also have a say, making Pachulia a huge longshot to start.

“I respect it,” Pachulia said of the format change.

The league never appeared bothered by fans voting in Kobe Bryant years after he declined far below star production. Dwyane Wade getting similar, though far less pronounced, treatment now doesn’t cause an uproar.

Yet, a little recognition for Pachulia turns the system on its head – and he doesn’t complain.

Pachulia doesn’t gripe about any of the times he’s received the short end of the stick.

Immediately after picking him in the expansion draft, Charlotte flipped Pachulia to the Bucks, and he embraced it.

“Milwaukee is a perfect place,” Pachulia said. “Nothing much to do there. It’s cold, so you’re thinking about basketball. You can spend as much time as you want in the gym.”

After one year with the Bucks, he signed in Atlanta and played a supporting role in the Hawks’ rise. He eventually signed back with Milwaukee and was quietly instrumental in the Bucks’ breakout 41-41 season two years ago. They outscored opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and got outscored by 3.1 per 100 when he sat – hardly a coincidence. Pachulia’s basketball intelligence boosted that team.

Yet, Milwaukee essentially gave away Pachulia, trading him to the Mavericks for a top-55-protected second-round pick – or, as new teammate Dirk Nowitzki joked, for “a case of Gatorade.”

Does Pachulia hold a grudge about the trade or feel insulted by the return? Nope. He still raves about Bucks coach Jason Kidd – “I learned so much from that guy. Genius” – and appreciates Kidd sending him to Dallas, where Rick Carlisle (who previously coached Kidd) taught Pachulia even more.

Pachulia stresses how badly he wants to keep improving, even at age 32. He finds the Warriors’ players and coaches to be a wealth of knowledge, and his fifth-Beatle status allows him to fly under the radar and enjoy Golden State’s strong basketball culture.

It’s a long way from Orlando and Weisbrod, who – seemingly to Pachulia’s delight – now works for the Vancouver Canucks (yes, the hockey team). Pachulia takes a rare moment to gloat about his staying power in a league that has only lately – and still reluctantly in important corners – revered him.

“The guy was obviously doing his own things,” Pachulia said. “Not necessarily was the smartest thing to do, I think about it looking back.”

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.