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Zaza Pachulia won’t be a sexy player for Detroit, but he will help them in the win column

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Pay no attention to the Pachulia haters.

Detroit Pistons v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Pistons signed 15-year NBA veteran big man Zaza Pachulia recently and DBB had a lot to say about it.

Many of you reacted in a pretty measured and logical way, realizing that Zaza is indeed a limited, plodding center who, also, happens to injure star players occasionally (although I contend that the Kawhi incident was not purposeful). A good question to then ask to the heavens is why on earth would a team sign Zaza at this point in his career?

About the only conceivable answer is that the 15-year veteran center can mentor young big men on the roster — Andre and Henry, that means you. Also, I think the idea is that occasionally Zaza can provide some savvy, bruising minutes if there’s an injury or foul trouble. Let’s just not expect much more to happen with his time in Detroit as the team chases a playoff spot.

However, for more than a season and a half Zaza was the starting center on the best team in basketball. That’s kind of a big deal. During his time with the Golden State Warriors, Zaza played solid team defense, boxed out, rebounded in his area well, set good screens on and off the ball, usually made the simple plays at the rim, and never got bent out of shape at the lack of touches or lack of extended minutes (averaged around 16 minutes per game as a Warrior).

Again, that’s kind of a big deal. And I don’t care if your teammates are Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Zaza started 70 regular season games in 2016-17 and 57 this past season (2017-18). In the playoffs in 2016-17 Zaza started 15 games (out of 17 that Golden State played), while this past season in the playoffs he played just 25 minutes in seven appearances. While Zaza was never light on his feet, his lack of mobility has started to show more these last couple of years. And last I checked Zaza, if given some rotation minutes, will be normally sharing the floor with the likes of Stanley Johnson, Glenn Robinson, Jon Leuer, Henry Ellenson, perhaps Blake Griffin — but hopefully you get the point. Zaza’s weaknesses will be more apparent in Detroit than they were in Golden State. That’s a given.

Hugo Kitano at the Golden State of Mind has the nitty-gritty on Zaza in an article published a few days ago entitled “Warriors Season Review: The NBA has left Zaza Pachulia behind” —

Pachulia’s second season with the Warriors was not nearly as successful. The Warriors struggled in the first quarter with him on the court all season long, never mustering the same speed or energy at the beginning of games as they did in years previous. Coach Steve Kerr took Pachulia out of the starting lineup after the All-Star Break, inserting JaVale McGee in his place. Throughout the rest of the regular season, Pachulia played limited minutes as a backup, and in the playoffs, Pachulia didn’t see one minute in the regular rotation.

Pachulia wasn’t playing much worse than he did in the previous season: his per-minute averages were actually all up from last year, save for his blocks per game. His stout defensive interior game held up, and his passing and free-throw shooting were still valuable.

But he was just too slow to be consistently effective for a Warriors team aiming for a title. Pachulia was never very athletic, and given his age, he’s become even more flat-footed and clumsy, sometimes posing an injury risk to teammates and opponents alike. He struggled finishing at the rim, defending in space, and running the floor. These problems were compounded by the other Warriors not playing at full capacity for much of the regular season. The other centers simply brought more to the table: JaVale McGee brought the energy, Kevon Looney brought the switching ability, Jordan Bell brought the defensive intensity, and David West brought the offensive playmaking. Pachulia was the odd center out.

Some good and some bad regarding Pachulia there — and if I correctly read between the lines I gather that for what the Warriors wanted in 2017-18 (an NBA Title), Zaza couldn’t sufficiently provide enough to help them get it. In regards to helping Detroit, Zaza as a situational big man might be just what the team needs. It’s not preposterous to believe that Zaza gives the team a better shot at finishing higher in the standings than, say, an Eric Moreland does.

*****

Momentarily, I’ll get to several clips of Zaza in 2017-18 and hopefully they will show fuel left in the tank for the big man and some ways he can add value to Detroit.

Though, up first is Zaza when he was an Atlanta Hawk in 2008, roughly ten years ago:

And second, here’s probably the pass of Zaza’s career:

Now that I got that out of the way, on to some of what Zaza excels at on the court besides making speeches and fancy passes while with the Hawks.

I’ve seen over and over that Zaza is aware of the importance of open space and knows to get there just at the right time. Moving without the ball is a skill. It also helps that Zaza has a quick release on his jump shot — and having his mind made that he’s going to shoot it before he gets it doesn’t hurt, either. These two clips illustrate his awareness and patience within the offense.

Let’s say Luke Kennard is the focal point of the offense on a certain night — with his shooting ability and his legitimate handles, he could draw enough attention from a couple of defenders (similar to what Durant drew below) so that Pachulia can slip a screen (or run away to open space) and be open for those little jumpers and floaters. Reggie can also draw similar attention when paired on a pick-and-roll with Zaza, especially if he’s “on” on a certain night. This will not result in sexy offense, but it sure can be efficient offense if teams leave Zaza room and the ball handler gets him the ball.

And, let’s say Griffin has his perimeter game really cooking — then that presents opportunities for Zaza to get to the middle of the floor with some Griffin pick-and-roll action and make an overplaying or lazy defense pay. If Zaza doesn’t catch cleanly or if the help defenders converge too much or too quickly, then he can whip a pass out to a wing or a guard. The defense will usually stay home on a good shooter, and if so, Zaza must consistently take his open shot to keep defenses honest. And he can hit that shot at least five out of ten times.

You know how Golden State can effortlessly lull you to sleep — well, they did that below by running a simple set where Zaza darts up to the free throw line from a screen and unleashes the jumper. Towns, nor Jones, saw it coming and haphazard defense like that will get an otherwise limited player like Zaza an easily convertible opportunity. Remember, Zaza is a pretty good free throw shooter (75 percent for his career). The man has touch!

Rebounding wise, Mr. Pachulia isn’t going to corral rebounds outside of his immediate area very much, but what he will do is plant his body down firm and stay there for as however long it takes to get the job done. Not many players are going to be able to move him from a spot. When Zaza boxes out, he actually boxes out. Plus, Zaza’s got some sharp elbows, so if he hasn’t already beat you up with his constant bumping with his arms or his handsy engagements, he’ll make sure the elbows get their shots on you too. Zaza knows how to work the glass, has dependable hands, and will be patient when he has the ball with good position inside. And sure, Zaza knows how to sell contact.

In October of last season, Zaza turned the ball over four times in 19 minutes against the Pistons. When he tried to do too much with the Warriors, he tended to have issues with turnovers. He averaged 2.7 turnovers per 36 minutes last season. That’s not great for a player seldom asked to make a play. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say that Pachulia sometimes felt a bit left out by starting with that star-studded crew. Sure, they often made him look maybe a little better than he actually was, and he definitely enjoyed that. But at times, he tried to force a certain style to his game that’s just not there. When he made the simple play, he fit right in and was a solid contributor. In Detroit, Zaza won’t have half the pressure or temptation to go beyond his comfort zone.

And finally, here you go. While Zaza is clumsy and the complete opposite of smooth, once he gets going then it’s probably going to be hard to stop him. He’s fundamentally sound in a league where a lot of the times many players aren’t as fundamental as you’d think. And for good measure, it seems clear that Zaza still has fun playing basketball. Bringing that attitude to Detroit will go a long way in warming him to his teammates and the fans.

*****

In all, something that sticks out after watching more Zaza Pachulia clips than I ever imagined I would, is that Zaza’s teammates trusted him. They absolutely trusted him. Draymond Green or Steph Curry or whomever, nobody hesitated to rifle the big man any type of pass. They knew he was going to be in the right spot for a screen. They knew he was going to get the outlet pass out in a hurry. It didn’t matter. His teammates knew that he’ll make the smart and simple play more times than not.

Without a doubt, it’s an excellent job by the Warriors front office to have had so many different types of usable centers on their roster (especially in 2017-18) and for Steve Kerr to have had confidence in all of them. Indeed, the Warriors could have succeeded with Zaza still playing rotational minutes this past playoff, but the fact is that they had several better, more versatile options instead. That’s actually not any knock on Zaza.

Zaza can still help a team out in four to five minute shifts, and heck, he might even be forced into a bench anchor role in Detroit with the lack of quality depth as it now stands in the front court. For a team that should be in the hunt for at least the fifth seed in the Eastern conference, Zaza provides dependability as a back up center that the team clearly needs.