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NBA Sunday: Zaza Pachulia Was a Steal for Mavs

Zaza Pachulia has been a huge steal for the Mavericks and dulled the sting from DeAndre Jordan’s rejection.

Alex Kennedy

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When DeAndre Jordan decided to back out of his verbal commitment to the Dallas Mavericks and re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers in July, most people felt bad for Mark Cuban and his organization. The saga was understandably frustrating, and it left them with a seemingly enormous hole at center.

Jordan’s flip-flop occurred nine days into free agency, meaning that notable big men like Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, Tyson Chandler, Omer Asik, Robin Lopez and Kosta Koufos among others were no longer available for the Mavericks since they had already committed to other teams.

This left Dallas with very few options in the free agent pool. Names like Joel Freeland, Larry Sanders, Samuel Dalembert and JaVale McGee were mentioned. The team ultimately added the latter two big men, but Dalembert was waived in late October and McGee has played a limited role thus far.

Things weren’t looking good for Dallas, but then they pulled off one of the most underrated moves of the offseason 24 hours after Jordan had his change of heart.

Shifting their focus from free agent possibilities to trade options, the Mavericks acquired Zaza Pachulia from the Milwaukee Bucks for virtually nothing. Dallas sent Milwaukee a 2018 second-round selection that is protected for picks 31-55. The only way the Bucks will get that pick is if the Mavs happen to have one of the last five picks in the 2018 draft, so Milwaukee essentially gave Pachulia away for nothing – just to dump his $5.2 million ending contract.

When the move was announced, some fans and pundits mocked Dallas since they went from landing a potential star in Jordan to settling for a 31-year-old role player in Pachulia. The addition of Pachulia, who was joining his fourth NBA team, obviously didn’t generate the same amount of excitement that Jordan’s arrival would have.

Some casual Mavericks fans even took to social media to ask questions about Pachulia’s skill set and style of play because they simply hadn’t seen much of him due to the fact that he has primarily been a back-up throughout his career.

These days, Dallas fans know exactly what Pachulia brings to the table and they couldn’t be more excited about the addition. Pachulia has been extremely successful through 39 games with the Mavericks, which has certainly dulled the pain from Jordan’s rejection.

The trade with Milwaukee has worked out wonderfully for Dallas, as Pachulia has been an enormous steal and a big reason for their success so far this season. The team is currently 23-18, putting them in the Western Conference’s fifth seed.

most2Even though he’s turning 32 years old next month, Pachulia is having the best year of his career, averaging 10.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and one steal in 29.3 minutes a night, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 79.1 percent from the free throw line.

This year, Pachulia has 20 double-doubles, which is the fifth-most among centers, and he’s the only player in the NBA with 20 or more double-doubles despite averaging fewer than 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, Jordan is making $19,689,000 this year and will earn $67,927,050 in the following three seasons if he finishes out his contract with the Clippers (rather than opting out of the final year). Jordan is averaging 11.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, one assist, 2.4 blocks and .5 steals in 33.1 minutes a night, while shooting 71.5 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from the free throw line.

A look at their per-36-minutes numbers provides further evidence that Pachulia has been a bargain addition for Dallas and that there isn’t a huge gap between the two centers.

Pachulia’s per-36 averages: 13.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, .5 blocks and 1.3 steals.

Jordan’s per-36 averages: 12.6 points, 14.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 2.6 blocks and .6 steals.

Jordan is obviously the superior rim protector and that’s a huge part of his game, but Pachulia has been incredibly consistent for Dallas and a double-double machine. He also does things that don’t show up in the box score, such as setting excellent screens and making smart, unselfish passes.

Pachulia is also a strong leader who has pushed the Mavericks to play to their full potential. According to Zach Lowe of ESPN, after Dallas’ blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the third game of the season, Mavs players were celebrating and laughing. Pachulia, however, put an end to that.

“[He] chastised his teammates for letting Kobe Bryant pop open on a set play – a play they’d seen over and over, he told them – late in the fourth quarter, when the game was already decided,” Lowe wrote. “His teammates understood Pachulia’s message: We don’t have the talent to cut corners on defense.”

That’s the kind of competitor that Pachulia is, and that kind of mentality is contagious. He is a strong locker room presence who is determined to contend with these Mavs.

With that kind of attitude, it didn’t take long for Pachulia to win over his new teammates.

“He literally chest bumps me harder when somebody else scores,” Dirk Nowitzki said, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “He’s unselfish. He wants the team to win. When he has zero points, he’s as happy as when he has a double-double. He’s a team guy.”

“He’s just got that fight,” said Devin Harris, who also played with Pachulia for one season on the Atlanta Hawks. “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 our team well. He kind of talks like Rocky, kind of looks like Rocky, always getting in the mix of things. We need that.”

Nobody is saying that Pachulia is better than Jordan, but the point is that Dallas found themselves a terrific stopgap center when it seemed that all hope of adding a starting-caliber five was lost.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this whole situation is that Pachulia has significantly more All-Star votes than Jordan, which is shocking considering Pachulia isn’t a household name by any means and All-Star voting is usually a popularity contest driven by casual fans. However, Pachulia is eighth among Western Conference frontcourt players with 299,584 fan votes, whereas Jordan is 13th among West frontcourt players with 133,484 votes. Yes, Pachulia has more than doubled Jordan’s vote count. He also has more votes than frontcourt stars like DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard and teammate Dirk Nowitzki. Remember, we’re talking about Zaza Pachulia!

Pachulia has never been an All-Star or even come close, quite frankly. In fact, he has rarely been a full-time starter throughout his 13-year NBA career. The only other season in which he started every game he appeared in was back in 2005-06 with the Atlanta Hawks. Prior to this season, he had started just 317 of a possible 815 games (38.9 percent) and he averaged just 21 minutes per game for his career.

totaloff1This year, he has taken his game to another level – particularly on the glass. His 10.9 rebounds per game are even more impressive when you consider that his previous career-high average for a season was 7.9 boards per game (with the Hawks in 2011-12).

Pachulia ranks second in the NBA in total offensive rebounds and third in total rebounds – which, again, is pretty incredible considering he plays significantly fewer minutes than the other players near the top of those rankings. Consider this: Pachulia has grabbed more offensive boards than Jordan despite playing 116 fewer minutes.

He also ranks fifth among all NBA players in offensive rebound percentage (14.4 percent) and sixth in total rebound percentage (20.3 percent).

Other advanced analytics also demonstrate Pachulia’s importance to the Mavericks. He leads all Dallas players in offensive rating (116.1) and actually ranks 18th among all NBA players in that category. He also ranks 12th in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2.5) – ahead of stars like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook among others. He’s also very efficient, as his 18.9 PER is second on the Mavericks (trailing only Nowitzki).

Part of the reason Pachulia has been so productive is because he is a perfect fit for the Mavericks. When Dallas acquired Pachulia, Cuban cited his 15-foot jumper as one of the reasons they wanted him. Sure enough, the Mavs have been able to play Pachulia and Nowitzki at the elbows at times and let them do damage from there by shooting, passing or putting the ball on the floor (something they definitely wouldn’t have been able to do with Jordan, who can’t do much offensively away from the rim).

Pachulia is thrilled that things have worked out so well in Dallas and that he has fit in so well. Players rarely like to compare their current team to past squads to avoid offending anyone from their previous stints, but Pachulia isn’t afraid to say that this is easily the happiest he’s been in his NBA career.

“I know it’s surprising for a lot of people, but honestly, I feel like I was just born,” Pachulia said, according to MacMahon. “I don’t want to say anything bad about the places I’ve been, but this is the greatest situation I’ve been in during my career. Starting with the coaching staff and the players, the experienced players I have, the winning mentality, [it’s great].”

Pachulia is excited to be playing for a winner again, considering Milwaukee was a 15-win team during his first year there and just a .500 team last season.

“With my previous team, it was all about building, rebuilding, starting from scratch,” Pachulia said. “This is a different situation for me, where this team is all about the winning [now], all about the success. I think that’s part of the reason why my numbers are that way. I’m just thankful for the opportunity. I’m thankful for the situation I’m in right now.”

The feeling is mutual, as the Mavericks know they’d likely be in a very different position without Pachulia providing such solid production at center.

“He’s very smart,” Carlisle said, according to MacMahon. “He’s figured out how to play efficiently and effectively within our system, and he loves the challenge of trying to win. He’s a guy who’s totally immersed in the proposition of trying to win and being a part of something bigger than himself. When you do that and give into that and make it all about being a part of a team, great individual things can happen from there.”

Of all the notable players Dallas has acquired over the last few years – from Chandler Parsons to Wesley Matthews to Deron Williams – who would’ve thought that Pachulia would lead the team in All-Star votes and arguably be the best addition? As we learned during the Jordan saga last July, the NBA is full of surprises.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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