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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.”

LeBron James: Neighbor’s walls, not Breonna Taylor, got justice

Lakers star LeBron James
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Louisville police officers were not charged with killing Breonna Taylor. However, former officer Brett Hankison was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing firing recklessly into nearby apartments during the incident.

That outcome left NBA players unsatisfied.

LeBron James:

The emotions LeBron – and many others – are feeling are completely understandable. This was a tragedy. Faced with an obvious injustice, it’s easy to demand the harshest-imaginable punishment. That didn’t come.

But it is not too late to address the injustices – which were always far larger than the officers at the scene returning fire – at play in Taylor’s death.

Tyler Herro carries Heat over Celtics in Game 4, within one game of NBA Finals

Tyler Herro after Heat-Celtics Game 4
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If the Celtics targeted Tyler Herro in the 2019 NBA Draft, they have more reason than ever to lament their near miss.

Herro scored 37 points to lead the Heat to a 112-109 win over the Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday. The 21-year-old rookie put Miami up 3-1 and himself in the record book.

The only other player so young to score so much in a playoff game? Magic Johnson, who had 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals at age 20.

The Heat will look to reach the NBA Finals in Game 5 Friday. Teams leading a best-of-seven series 3-1 have won 95% of the time.

Miami’s big concern: Bam Adebayo, who hurt his wrist late in the game. Adebayo (20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals) played through the injury but appeared to be feeling it.

He and the Heat just kept grinding through everything, though.

Miami won despite shooting only 10-for-37 on 3-pointers (27%). Forget about make-or-miss league. The Heat willed themselves to victory with aggravating defense, hustle, rebounding… and, yes, big-time shot-making by Herro, who made 9-of-11 2-pointers and 5-of-10 3-pointers

The Celtics committed 19 turnovers – some forced by Miami, some self-inflicted. The Heat’s zone defense continues to make Boston uncomfortable, though Marcus Smart (10 points and 11 assists) found some success penetrating and kicking against it. Jaylen Brown (21 points and nine rebounds) knocked down some of those created looks.

After a scoreless first half, Jayson Tatum scored 28 points in the second half. Stephen Curry scored 33 second-half points after a scoreless first half in Game 6 against the Rockets last year. That’s the only time someone followed a scoreless first half with so many second-half points in the Basketball-Reference postseason database, which dates back to 1997.

But those successes weren’t sustained. Tatum (six), Smart (four) and Brown (four) all had too many turnovers.

This series is even by points scored. But Boston has been just a little too erratic, which is why Miami has the key 3-1 lead.

Report: 76ers open to trading if they hire Mike D’Antoni

76ers forward Al Horford and Tobias Harris
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The 76ers said they wouldn’t trade Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.

Which makes it confounding they reportedly want to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach.

D’Antoni has typically succeeded with teams that can play small to spread the floor and pressure opponents through speed… and struggled otherwise. Post-based Embiid and non-shooting Simmons don’t fit D’Antoni’s demonstrated style.

Maybe Philadelphia’s roster could change.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Keith Smith:

The 76ers could trade Al Horford and Tobias Harris to reduce their glut of bigs. But Horford was already on the block (good luck convincing anyone to take his contract), and Harris is also expensive. For what it’s worth, Harris could thrive as a small-ball power forward in D’Antoni’s system, but Harris is often pigeonholed as a small forward on this roster.

The Embiid-Simmons pairing is a fundamental issue, though. Whatever Philadelphia does with Horford and Harris, Embiid and Simmons just haven’t played like they’d fit well together under D’Antoni.

If the 76ers remain insistent on not trading Embiid or Simmons, there are only so many roster moves that can be done to help D’Antoni.

Adding further complications, Philadelphia might be seeking a new lead executive. That could explain why Tyronn Lue has also gotten so strongly linked to this job. It’s not even clear who’ll oversee the coach and roster, let alone what plan that person will have.

So, yes, it’s meaningful if the 76ers are advancing trade talks with other teams to make their roster fit D’Antoni. But there are still plenty of questions about what will actually happen in Philadelphia.

For NBA players, Breonna Taylor grand jury decision ‘not enough’

Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver wears Breonna Taylor shirt
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — LeBron James sent the word to the Los Angeles Lakers in a group text on Wednesday afternoon, and basketball suddenly seemed irrelevant.

A grand jury in Kentucky had finally spoken. And James was letting his team know that NBA players, who have spent months seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, did not get what they wanted.

“Something was done,” Lakers guard Danny Green said, “but it wasn’t enough.”

Wednesday’s decision by the grand jury, which brought no charges against Louisville police for Taylor’s killing and only three counts of wanton endangerment against fired Officer Brett Hankison for shooting into Taylor’s neighbors’ homes, was not unexpected by many NBA players and coaches. They had a sense it wasn’t going to go how they hoped.

“I know we’ve been using our platform down here to try to bring about education and a voice in a lot of players on our team, especially also spoken out on justice for Breonna Taylor,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We have not gotten that justice.”

Teams came to Walt Disney World to finish the season and crown a champion, and hoping that the platform of the NBA’s restart bubble could help amplify calls for change. Players and coaches have used the NBA spotlight to make statements at a time when the demand for racial equality and an end to police brutality is resonating as loudly as it has in generations.

And Taylor’s story – the tale of a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed March 13 by police in Louisville when they burst into her apartment on a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation centered around a suspect who did not live there – has captivated NBA players. Many have met, virtually, with members of her family to offer support. They say her name in news conferences, wear it on shirts, scrawl it onto their sneakers.

“We have moms. We have sisters, nieces, aunties. And just like men of color have experienced traumatic instances, so have women,” Boston forward Jaylen Brown said. “That is an example of some things that happen to women in our country. So, we wanted to stand alongside them, but also make it that it’s not just us. I think the future is female, so it’s important to show our sisters that we care. That’s why it’s been important.”

Even for teams not in the bubble, it mattered. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce leads a committee of NBA coaches tasked with finding new ways to use their own platform to create change, and he’s encouraged his own players – Black and white alike – to speak out and take action, whether in Atlanta or their own community.

Pierce took Wednesday’s news hard.

“Yeah, there was a grand jury and yeah, they went through the information and yeah, they have facts to support whatever the claims may be,” Pierce said. “But that doesn’t provide any justice for those that are on the outside, those that feel like the police and law enforcement are there to protect them. … What currently is happening isn’t good enough.”

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell:

Clippers big Montrezl Harrell:

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts went a step further. “Sadly, there was no justice today for Breonna Taylor,” Roberts said. “Her killing was the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her.”

The league shut down for three days last month when a boycott that was started by the Milwaukee Bucks – in response to the shooting by police of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin – nearly caused players to end the season because they felt their pleas for change were not being taken seriously enough.

And Wednesday’s news was another disappointment for them.

“We feel like we’ve taken a step back, that we haven’t made the progress we were seeking,” Green said. “Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough. But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue. We’re going to continue fighting, we’re going to continue to push, we’re going to continue to use our voices.”