The Mavs acquired Zaza Pachulia yesterday from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for a future second-round pick. Pachulia, 31 and a 12-year pro, is the type of player who has seen everything in this league. He’s a veteran who has both started and come off the bench for playoff-caliber teams, and he’s been a steady, consistent player throughout his career. That, combined with his toughness on the inside, makes him a valuable addition to this Mavs roster that needed to fill out the center spot.
Whether or not Pachulia starts — he’s currently the most seasoned center on the roster, though the Mavericks also have second-year player Dwight Powell who could play center in a small-ball lineup — is almost beside the point. He brings with him much of what you want in a center on the defensive side of the ball, and considering Dallas is determined to improve on that side of the ball this season, it makes sense they’d look to add a player like Pachulia.
Of big men who saw at least 300 such possessions last season, Pachulia ranked fourth in the NBA in terms of points per possession allowed to pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.708) and limited those players to 43.5 percent shooting from the field. More impressively, he forced turnovers 28.5 percent of the time on those possessions, the highest mark among that same crop of players. (In general, Pachulia forces a lot of turnovers, ranking second in the NBA among centers last season in steals per 36 minutes.) Dallas ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency against pick-and-roll ball-handlers last season, so Pachulia should help solidify the unit in that respect.
The Bucks’ defensive system often saw Pachulia sink down beneath a ball screen in an effort to keep both players in front of him. This led to opposing guards taking a lot of pull-up 17-footers, generally considered some of the least-efficient shots in basketball. Whether Dallas will follow suit with Pachulia remains to be seen. The Mavs’ pick-and-roll coverage could very well change under new top assistant defensive coach Melvin Hunt. Regardless, Pachulia showed even last season, his 12th in the league, that he does indeed have the foot speed to keep up with guards on the outside if he has to.
He’s also a solid rebounder, particularly on the offensive end. He’s never averaged below 2.5 offensive rebounds per game when he’s played at least 20 minutes per game in a season. Pachulia has also only grabbed fewer than 9.0 rebounds per 36 minutes once in his career, and the 10.4 he secured in 2014-15 was the third-highest total of his career. Despite his age, he can still attack the glass, and that’s particularly important to the Mavericks.
In addition, more than 47 percent of his rebounds last season were contested, according to SportVU, meaning there was a player within a few feet of him at the time he grabbed the rebound. He’s big-bodied at 6′ 11″, 270 pounds, and he plays like it, using his body to fend off opponents as he goes for boards. His brand of physicality has almost become a calling card of sorts during his career, as he doesn’t shy away from contact on either end of the floor.
Offensively, Pachulia has an enviable shooting touch. He shot 49.3 percent last season on shots from 10-16 feet, and he’s a career 34.9 percent shooter from between 16 feet and the three-point line, per Basketball-Reference. The center should certainly benefit in that regard from playing in Rick Carlisle’s wide-open offensive system, particularly in pick-and-pops with Chandler Parsons and the other Mavericks guards. Between guarding Pachulia and of course worrying about Dirk Nowitzki, it’s going to be difficult for opposing big men to protect the rim against penetration. They can’t afford to give too many easy looks to the Mavs big men.
Pachulia is not exactly a glamorous center, however, meaning he’s not going to soar through the air and throw down a monster alley-oop. But one way to measure any player’s offensive value is to compare his club’s performance with him on the floor versus when he’s off. And, in Pachulia’s case, at least last season, the numbers are striking.
The Bucks were better across the board last season with him on the floor than without him, on both sides of the ball. However, the drop in offensive efficiency is most striking, particularly with the team’s three-point shooting. One might suspect that a player who never shoots threes could not influence his teammates’ ability to hit shots from long range, but that might not always be the case.
Another way to measure a player’s value is to look at single-number stats like ESPN’s RPM. Last season, Pachulia ranked second among all NBA centers in RPM, behind only DeMarcus Cousins. That includes finishing 5th in offensive RPM and 7th on defense. (RPM measures individual impact in net point differential per 100 possessions, taking into account teammates and the opponent.) In short, the Bucks were better when he was on the floor because he was on the floor, not necessarily just by circumstance.
Pachulia will also have a unique connection with new Maverick Wes Matthews, as the center injured his Achilles during the 2012-13 season, ultimately missing the home stretch of a playoff run by his team at that time, the Atlanta Hawks. But he bounced back and had a terrific season in ’14-’15, which is what the Mavs hope to see happen with Matthews in 2015-16. There haven’t been many Achilles injuries in NBA history, so Pachulia could have some tips to help the Mavs’ new 2-guard come back better than ever.
As free agency unfolded, it became evident the Mavs would need to add a center, and Dallas acted quickly by landing Pachulia. He’s instantly a rotation-caliber player, if not even a starter, having started 45 games for the Bucks last season. He solidifies the defense, rebounds well, and has a valuable impact on the offense as well. Experienced in years but still an effective athlete, Pachulia is the type of veteran who usually excels with this team. It remains to be seen exactly how and when he’ll be used, but he has the potential to be a solid big man for the Mavericks.