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The Kool-Aid Stand: Zaza Pachulia and the art of being a dependable situational center

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Yes, I believe Zaza can still do this.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think my mind and body moved any faster during this entire year than it did when I called dibs on doing Zaza Pachulia’s Kool-Aid Stand post. I know that says an awful lot (read: little) about me, but make no mistake, Zaza will be a fan favorite in Detroit — if this team is any good — and I clearly want to have most of the ‘Zaza is terrific’ and ‘Zaza is a beast’ content on this site attributed to me. Really, folks, it’s about the small things in life.

Back in mid-July I wrote far too many words on Zaza Pachulia and what his signing meant for the Pistons. While I was a bit disappointed on having to say goodbye to Eric Moreland, a fringe NBA talent that I usually stuck up for when very few would, I knew full well that at this point in time (make the playoffs time?) Pachulia is more suited to help the Pistons in a situational, veteran role than Moreland was.

After all, Pachulia has been playing a situational role in Golden State for the last two seasons and wasn’t dead weight by any means. He fit in, played his reliable but unsexy role as pick setter and paint rebounding anchor without any grievance, and still had just enough modern day ball skills to make teams pay if they ignored him too much during his 16 minutes of action per game as a Warrior for the past two seasons (139 regular season games). He’s got something left in the tank, and a team like Detroit seems like a potentially solid situation for him to contribute and also simultaneously wind down his playing career in a more mentor-like, stress-free manner.

Sure, while there was a legitimate drop in Zaza’s effectiveness last season, due largely to a decline in foot-speed and agility in space, the drop had to do with something else not under Zaza’s control. It was more the Warriors just having, point blank, too many other desirable center (big men) options to choose from. In the “Warriors Season Review: The NBA has left Zaza behind” piece that I touched on in my article from mid-July, the center situation in Golden State last year is explained pretty simply:

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.

*****

This upcoming season, Zaza likely will not appear in all 82 games, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if he played 70-plus games or darn close to that. Having a wise, grizzled vet with sneaky offensive talent still left in the tank as a backup center option at, say, 8-12 minutes per game, can be an underrated positive factor for a team, especially a team with some semblance of competent outside shooters at their disposal.

Zaza, offensively, will be tasked with at least two key duties: set screens to free shooters (and perhaps cause a scuffle or five via rather brutish screen setting) and help keep the ball moving on a bench unit that might have to heavily rely on quick and precise ball movement to flourish. This means simply executing particular sets within the offense to get the ball where it needs to go (i.e. ball needs to go to Kennard, Bullock, Robinson III, Galloway) and also not hesitating taking open 12-15 foot jump shots when available, as it’s a shot Zaza can knock down but doesn’t often take. It will be intriguing to see how much Zaza is asked to handle and pass the ball on the perimeter and otherwise — whether it’s him finding cutters or having guards funnel off him for dribble hands off and the like — because as I mentioned in my previous piece about Zaza, turnovers were a slight problem for him last season.

If Andre Drummond isn’t on the floor and Pachulia isn’t on the floor, the center minutes are probably going to Blake Griffin or Jon Leuer. It would seem that there are minutes available for Zaza for the taking as the front court is currently constructed, even if Henry Ellenson breaks out for consistent minutes off the bench. I don’t think for a second that the Pistons brass signed Zaza to only be a mentor and positive figure for the young players on the roster. They’re looking for steady bench minutes from a player that has maybe another season or two in his NBA career and who has 73 playoff appearances to his name.

I’m going to stick with my thoughts I had when Detroit signed Zaza earlier in the summer:

Zaza can still help a team out in four to five minute shifts, and heck, he might even be forced into a frontcourt 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.

Zaza will be a dependable backup center for a couple of shifts per game. He may not see action versus certain teams/lineups that could especially exploit his somewhat declining agility, but on the whole, having Zaza as a ninth or tenth man on a probable top-six Eastern conference playoff team isn’t a bad situation to find yourself in. He will generally give you fundamental and smart minutes with occasional impressive rebounding, physicality and activity inside. Plus, he can knock down a free throw line extended jumper and will be consistent at the free throw line, too.

The NBA has certainly in many ways left a plodding 34-year-old Zaza Pachulia behind — this is largely true. It’s hardly rocket science.

However, Zaza’s decline in the past few seasons hasn’t been quite enough to lop him from the NBA-body or even from its very best team. Of course, there are reasons Zaza was benched during last season’s playoff run and is no longer employed by the Warriors, yet there’s seemingly enough “there” there with Zaza that he can perform a situational bench role on a team that is not expected by many outside of Detroit to be anything more than first round playoff fodder.

I reckon that Zaza has some presence still, and has something to prove after being benched at the end of last season after being a key front court player most of his stay in Golden State. This ‘presence’ and ‘something to prove’ mindset is something to watch for — even if Zaza can only manage to be useful for one more season. In the end, I’m heavily leaning towards Zaza showing more than a little something this next season in a Pistons uniform.

It’s surely a gamble. And frankly, it’s an excellent little one-year, $2.4 million dollar gamble.