On paper, the Golden State Warriors are arguably the best NBA team ever assembled.
Stephen Curry is the league’s back-to-back Most Valuable Player and also the first unanimous winner of the award. An argument can also be made that Kevin Durant – the last player to hoist the MVP trophy before Curry – is the game’s best player. All-Star Draymond Green is one of the toughest match-ups in the league due to his versatility, unique skill set and two-way production. All-Star Klay Thompson is the NBA’s second-best shooter (trailing only Curry) and he’s one of the best two-guards in the NBA. Steve Kerr is widely considered one of the league’s best head coaches. Their bench features veterans who would be starting on most teams such as Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and David West.
However, there’s one player who hasn’t been mentioned here and he’ll very likely be in the starting five for Golden State during the 2016-17 season: Zaza Pachulia.
The 32-year-old is poised to start at center alongside the Warriors’ Big Four and he could emerge as a secret weapon of sorts. Just as he’s done throughout the duration of his 13-year NBA career, he’ll rebound, set screens, make hustle plays, defend the paint (even if he doesn’t block many shots), hold teammates accountable and do the dirty work. He’s a team-first guy who will make sacrifices, play without ego and carry himself as the consummate professional. In other words, he’s exactly what Golden State wants alongside their star-studded core.
“The little things are what get you to the next level,” Pachulia told The Mercury News. “I believe in the little things. The screens you don’t see in the stats, the hockey assists. I’m a big believer in that.
“I’m going into my 13th year and most of the years, I’ve done the same things,” he added. “What this team needs from the big man is obviously setting good screens, making free throws, rebounding, defending, blocking. All the little things, basically; doing the work to help these guys and to help the team win games.”
Pachulia’s consistent production has always seemingly been overlooked, despite the fact that he has been a serviceable big man for years – whether he was starting or coming off of the bench.
Now, he’s coming off of a great year with the Dallas Mavericks in which he averaged 8.6 points and a career-high 9.4 rebounds, while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 76.8 percent from the free throw line. Perhaps most impressive is that Pachulia produced at this high level while playing just 26.4 minutes per game. Even with the limited playing time, he ranked fifth among all NBA players in offensive rebounds (249), 14th in total rebounds (718) and 23rd in double-doubles (26).
Advanced analytics paint Pachulia in a very positive light as well. He posted career-highs in Win Shares (6), Offensive Win Shares (3.4), Value Over Replacement Player (1.7), Box Plus-Minus (1.4) and Total Rebound Percentage (19.7 percent). And because he was so productive in under 27 minutes per game, his per-100-possessions were excellent: 16.5 points, 18.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals.
Pachulia’s first sacrifice came in July, when he opted to sign one of the most surprising contracts of the summer. Despite reportedly garnering a two-year, $20 million offer from the Washington Wizards, Pachulia agreed to a one-year deal worth $2,898,000 with Golden State.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers admitted that he “didn’t really want to call [Zaza’s] agent” because he believed there was no way the big man would be interested. Having worked as an agent prior to becoming an executive, Myers knows firsthand that calling with a low-ball offer can be awkward and sometimes even considered offensive. But rather than scoff, Pachulia agreed to come on board.
The bargain deal would’ve been shocking during any summer, but it was particularly surprising during an offseason in which just about every productive big man inked a lucrative, multi-year deal. However, to Pachulia, money wasn’t the only factor for him as he weighed his options.
“Of course money is important,” Pachulia told The Mercury News. “Very important – important to everybody. If I said it wasn’t, I’d be lying, especially because it’s not like I’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars in my career. [Editor’s note: His NBA contracts have totaled a little over $51 million].
“[I turned down] a pretty significant amount,” he continued. “[I] don’t want to get into the details, but a pretty significant amount. I’ll be a free agent next year, so we’ll see again. But first of all, I’m not thinking about next year. I’m all-in on this year. That’s the reason why I sacrificed financially. It’s not because of next summer. It’s because of this season.”
When Pachulia signed with Golden State, reports surfaced that executives around the NBA were almost as unhappy about the Warriors stealing Pachulia for next to nothing as they were about Durant bolting to the Bay Area. Coach Kerr said essentially the same thing.
“I was almost as happy with Zaza signing as I was with KD, and I mean that,” Kerr told The Mercury News. “You have to have a good solid center in this league and we didn’t have one. We had some guys who could play that role, but a consistent, starting big man is tough to find. And he’s been a pro in this league. He’s been so consistent. He’s a guy who knows how to play – fits our style well.”
Pachulia appreciated his head coach’s remarks and the warm welcome he’s received from the Warriors organization.
“It’s a huge compliment for me; I’m very thankful,” Pachulia said. “When I signed here, I said that I always wanted to play for a team that [wanted me]. That feeling continues. That’s what makes you excited and really makes you want to do anything for this team, because they really need you, they really want you to be here.
“We closed the deal basically after I talked to Coach [Kerr]. He’s a good salesman, good guy. You can tell from interviews what kind of person he is. Trustworthy. Honest. You can tell from his tone, from his manners. After our phone conversation, I knew I wanted to be part of it.”
Like most players who decided to take less money to join Golden State this summer, Pachulia was attracted to the situation because of the realistic title odds and positive atmosphere around the organization. Players from rival teams often comment that the Warriors just look like they’re having so much fun together – on and off the court – and that’s something that free agents certainly consider when making their decision.
For Pachulia, he also knew that there would be plenty of minutes for him since Golden State had to part ways with Andrew Bogut in order to free up the necessary cap space to add Durant.
“I’m excited to be here,” Pachulia said. “To answer your question, obviously I had some options, but knowing my game and what I’m capable of doing and knowing that Andrew left, I thought it was a perfect fit. I think we’re going to complement each other, my game with these guys. So that, and talking to Coach [Kerr], made me convinced that it was the right place for me to come.
“The goal is to win the championship. I’m sure everybody has said the same answer, and I’m no different. And we mean it. It’s going to be a fun year. Of course, we’re going to need some breaks. But we have a good group of guys who are going to work hard on and off the court, who are going to help each other. Our goal is to win the championship.”
Championships aren’t won on paper, but the Warriors certainly strengthened their title hopes when they got Pachulia to put pen to paper in July.
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