Around this time last year, Zaza Pachulia sent an e-mail to Dirk Nowitzki that contained a video attachment to his own personal highlight reel.
Pachulia had recently been traded to Dallas and had a sudden realization that most of the Dallas players probably weren't familiar with his game. He wanted them to see what he could do before they started training camp. He figured sending all of the players a video containing his highlights was the best way to do this.
So, if his peers didn't know about him, it's only fair to say every Warriors fan could be forgiven for not knowing much about Pachulia either. The 13-year veteran center from Tbilisi, Georgia has tended to fly under the radar for most of his career despite almost making the All-Star Game last season. To help guide our expectations, I'm going to take a closer look at his game and try to work out exactly what he brings to a star-heavy Warriors' roster.
I'm starting with rebounding because it's the one thing that really shows up in the box score with Pachulia. He is known for having a very physical presence in the paint, especially when it comes to rebounding. In 2013, Pachulia set a new franchise record for the Milwaukee Bucks when he pulled down 18 offensive rebounds in one game. This may not be a regular occurrence for him, but in his last season with Dallas, Pachulia finished 14th in the league overall averaging 9.4 rebounds per game. Hassan Whiteside, Julius Randle, Tristan Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas are the only other players in the league who averaged at least nine rebounds while playing fewer than 30 minutes per game. Furthermore, Pachulia finished fourth in the league in offensive rebounding -- an area where the Warriors struggled last season. In comparison, Andrew Bogut finished 45th in offensive rebounding (tied with Draymond Green). Pachulia was also one of the best centers in the league when it came to pulling down contested offensive boards. According to NBA.com's offensive rebounding stats, of all starting centers in the league, Pachulia was eighth in contested OREB%.
Pachulia is an intelligent player who usually seems to know where his teammates are on the floor. He knows how to use his body to box opponents out and he isn't afraid to deploy some questionable tactics. In that sense, he's a lot like former Warrior Andrew Bogut. But the big difference between Bogut and Pachulia is Pachulia's tenacity. When rebounding or chasing after a loose ball, he will tear through any obstacle, and he never quits on a play. Looking for some examples? Check out the video below.
Pachulia fights for position and demonstrates his rebounding prowess, thanks to a high basketball I.Q. and solid effort.
Pachulia's former teammates have spoken highly of the big man's unbreakable resolve. Devin Harris once compared him to Rocky, stating: "Every time he comes to the locker room, you see him bloodied up. He's diving on the floor. It's that grit that he brings to us that really fits the team well."
Like any part of his game, when it comes to defense Pachulia relies on solid fundamentals and toughness. He doesn't have the speed or athleticism to keep up with most of the athletes that dominate the NBA. Often caught flat-footed against quicker post players, Pachulia is definitely a downgrade for the Warriors defensively. The chart below compares him to other centers from around the league, all of whom played in the playoffs last season. The stat we are looking at here is defensive field goal percentage (DFG%) from the 2015-16 season. For those who aren't familiar with this statistic, it is simply the percentage of shots made when Player X is defending the rim (Player X being Pachulia, in our case). So, the lower the percentage, the better.
Pachulia's DFG% isn't great and he isn't a true rim protector like Andrew Bogut. But he clearly has the ability to alter shots.
So does this mean Pachulia is a bad defender? No. To be clear, Bogut is one of the best defenders in the league at the center position. But there's a difference between not being as good as the player you're replacing and not actually being good. Defensively, Pachulia does a great job of staying vertical, getting his body in front of drivers and avoiding fouls. He understands defensive positioning and, despite his size and lack of speed, manages to contest shots and recover quickly enough to cut off driving lanes. The veteran has a whole bag of savvy and outright sneaky tricks that can force players into off-balance shots or turnovers. He will likely never be a lock-down defender, but his work ethic means he won't ever stop trying to become one.
When it comes to scoring the basketball, Pachulia is far from an All-Star caliber player who can "make it rain" offensively rather than drizzle. Again, due to his lack of athleticism, Pachulia has to rely on intelligent fundamental play and veteran craftiness. His footwork is good and he uses an array of fakes to create openings for scoring. He has become adept at pivoting around defenders in the post and using his body to protect the ball. He also has a semi-reliable jump shot from within ten feet of the basket. While former Warrior Andrew Bogut has more defensive ability than Pachulia, on offense, it is Pachulia who has more moves in his repertoire. And, at the very least, Warriors fans can take solace in the fact that Pachulia is a reliable free-throw shooter (averaging just under 77% from the line last season).
However, what has let Pachulia down offensively is lackluster efficiency. The following shot chart compares Pachulia's field goal percentage at different areas of the floor against the league average:
While his efficiency has been low, it is quite possible that his percentages will go up playing alongside Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. There's a pretty good chance that while the opponent's defense is scrambling to guard those other four (along with the Warriors' emphasis on ball movement), Pachulia will find himself with some wide-open shots. He doesn't need to be an elite finisher for this team, which is just as well.
A part of Pachulia's offensive game that often goes unnoticed is his ability to set screens. He does so at just the right angle for the ball handler to get open and with impeccable timing. Much like Bogut, he knows how far he can push the rules when it comes to screening and he makes it tough on defenders to get around him. When Pachulia sets a screen, he does so with emphasis. This is great news for Warriors fans who've had concerns about Pachulia's ability to fill Bogut's shoes when it comes to screening and freeing up shooters.
The last part of Pachulia's offense I want to examine is his passing ability. Bogut was excellent at creating opportunities for his teammates, but Pachulia is also a great center passer, which is yet another underrated area of his game. Of all starting centers in the league, Bogut was tied third in secondary assists last season but Pachulia wasn't far behind, tied at fifth. On average, Bogut created 5.6 points through assists per game. While Pachulia created 4.3 points through assists per game, he was less turnover prone -- totaling 25 turnovers from bad passes compared to Bogut's 45.
Pachulia's selflessness will be key for the Warriors as they rely so heavily on ball movement. When talking about Pachulia's team-first attitude, Nowitzki once said: "He literally chest bumps me harder when somebody else scores."
And when it comes to passing he's not afraid of being a little flashy.
If, at this point, you're still unconvinced of Pachulia's value, Kelly Scaletta of todaysfastbreak.com recently published an article evaluating a player's stats versus their actual impact on the court. Basically, he created an RPM-to-stats/100 ratio, meaning a ratio of a player's Real Plus Minus (RPM) and their stats per 100 possessions. The higher the ratio the greater impact their stats have on the game. Interestingly, Pachulia was labelled as a "high impact, high production" player. His impact-to-production ratio was actually better than Tristan Thompson's, Hassan Whiteside's, Serge Ibaka's, and Derrick Favors'.
In regards to how Pachulia will fit with this roster, only time will tell. But Pachulia functions well as a role player and has some advantages over Bogut.
There's an old proverb here in Scotland: "An auld dug snaks siccar" ("An old dog's bite holds fast"). Essentially, experience makes us more formidable. Older dogs are more tenacious.