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.”

*****

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.”