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.
Even 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.
This 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.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
* * * * * *
With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”