Zaza Pachulia might as well have been a warm, well-used winter coat this summer, passed on to a friend in need.
The Milwaukee Bucks determined that that they needed to make room in their closet after pulling off one of the surprises of the NBA summer by successfully recruiting high-scoring center Greg Monroe. As much as Milwaukee appreciated the solid, unspectacular center for serving as a mentor to their young core, they decided that they had to dump Pachulia’s $5.2 million salary.
The Dallas Mavericks, desperate for a big man after getting left at the free agency altar by DeAndre Jordan, gave up what will almost certainly be literally noting (a top-55 protected second-round pick) to get Pachulia.
The ground-bound big man has responded with a career year in his 13th NBA season, averaging 10.7 points and 10.7 rebounds, a major reason why the Mavs are 21-15 and smack dab in the middle of the West playoff pack.
“I know it’s surprising for a lot of people, but honestly, I feel like I was just born,” said Pachulia, who returns to Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Friday night. “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 …
“With my previous team, it was all about building. Rebuilding, starting from scratch. This is a different situation for me, where this team is all about the winning, 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 Mavs would be lying if they said that they expected Pachulia, who is essentially matching Tyson Chandler’s production from last season, to be this productive. Dirk Nowitzki readily admits that he wasn’t very familiar with Pachulia’s game because the big man spent his entire career in the East.
“From the YouTube highlights he sent me, he had a good year last year,” Nowitzki deadpanned, but Pachulia really did email a highlight reel in the fall to help his new teammate get to know his game.
It’s understandable if you didn’t know much about Pachulia. He’s played for relatively low-profile franchises – the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Bucks – and rarely makes appearances on highlight reels that don’t require an Internet search.
Pachulia is a full-time starter for the first time since he was a 21-year-old on a 26-win Atlanta Hawks team a decade ago. He’s averaging double figures in points for the first time since 2006-07 and in rebounds for the first time ever. And it’s not just a case of Pachulia’s numbers improving because he’s playing more minutes. His player efficiency rating (18.4) is also by far a career best.
Pachulia’s name looks out of place on the list of the players with the most points-rebounds double-doubles this season. The only players with more than him are young physical specimens (Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Jordan) and five-time All-Star Pau Gasol.
How is this happening?
“He’s very smart,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “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.”
As nice as his numbers are, that’s not what comes up in conversations about Pachulia in the Mavs’ locker room. He’s beloved by teammates, who would much rather talk about his intangibles, such as toughness and leadership. Nowitzki calls Pachulia “the ultimate teammate,” an opinion echoed by those who have played with him in the past.
“He literally chest bumps me harder when somebody else scores,” Nowitzki said. “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.”
Pachulia has also become a Mavs fan favorite, perhaps even a cult figure. They’ve fallen in love with Pachulia because he’s filled such a huge void in sort of an everyman style. He doesn’t fire up fans by throwing down lobs – he dunks so infrequently that he has a good-natured bet with the 37-year-old Nowitzki about who will finish the season with more – but Pachulia’s double-fist pump celebrations electrify the home crowds.
“He’s just got that fight,” said Mavs guard Devin Harris, who also played with Pachulia in Atlanta. “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.”