They aren’t quite the Dallas Pistons, but the Detroit team that visits American Airlines Center Friday night will have some familiar looking pieces to Maverick fans.
Zaza Pachulia, who was a fan favorite in his one season in Dallas, is with the Pistons after two seasons (and two championships) with Golden State.
Is it a coincidence that the Mavericks’ last playoff appearance in the 2015-16 season, came with Pachulia starting at center? Always happy to provide some laughs, Pachulia joked that maybe it’s not.
“I think there’s a reason why they haven’t made the playoffs, because I’m not here,” he said after the Pistons’ off-day practice in Dallas. “No, just kidding. The West is pretty tough. And Dirk getting older and older, that also hurt. But I have good memories of here.”
Speaking of Dirk Nowitzki, Pachulia still likes to remind the Mavericks’ legend of how he won the dunk contest that the two ground-bound big men had in that 2015-16 season. It was mostly a friendly wager to see who would end up with the most dunks during games through the course of the season. Pachulia pulled away, although neither his nor Nowitzki’s dunk quantity would move the needle for DeAndre Jordan.
In addition to Pachulia, the Pistons also have Jose Calderon, who started 81 games at point guard for the Mavericks in 2013-14, when he averaged 11.4 points and shot 45 percent from 3-point range. The Mavericks also made the playoffs that season, losing in seven games to the Spurs in the first round.
Also with the Pistons? Head coach Dwane Casey, who was on Rick Carlisle’s staff for three seasons, including the 2011 championship, took over the Detroit job this year after a terrific run in Toronto.
Casey developed a close relationship with a lot of Maverick players and personnel, including Nowitzki. And a little piece of the Mavericks’ franchise icon has gone with Casey at both Toronto and now in Detroit.
“I tell stories about his work ethic to our young players,” he said. “I say, you think you’re working hard? This is a guy who spent nights in the gym. He’d come back after games. You almost had to lock him out of the gym. He didn’t just fly over from Germany, land in Dallas and become a great 3-point shooter. No. He made himself into that. He’s self-made. That’s one thing that some of our young players today feel like: OK, if I just show up in the NBA, it’s going to happen.
“No, no. It doesn’t. To be great, it takes work and perseverance. Dirk represents all that. And on top of that, he’s a good human being. He’s just as good with the No. 15 player as he is with the No. 1 player. He treats everybody the same, from the janitor to the secretary — I don’t know about sportswriters — but he’s a beautiful human being. And that makes him even more special.”
Casey said new Maverick star Luka Doncic is fortunate to have somebody to serve as a mentor of sorts like Nowitzki. Like everybody else, Casey has been thoroughly impressed with the rookie from Slovenia, who finished second in Western Conference All-Star voting by the fans.
“I see a star, a young man who has a great feel for the game,” Casey said. “I see a guy who seamlessly has come into the NBA and had an impact, just by his skill set, his demeanor. He’s got a swag about him that helps you in this league. You’re not going to take his confidence from him. From a talent standpoint, the young man is going to be a big-time player in this league for a long ”
Meanwhile, the Pistons, who come into Friday’s game with an identical 21-26 record as the Mavericks own, are fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. For Pachulia, it’s a little different than the last two seasons have been when he had the benefit of playing with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and the rest of the Warriors’ stars.
Like Casey did with his coaching, Pachulia took a little of Dallas with him to Golden State.
“I had a really good time here,” he said. “The fans were amazing. And it was great to play for coach (Rick) Carlisle. That experience actually carried me over to the Warriors. I won two championships and the experience I got here, I definitely got better.”
As for the scene with the Warriors, Pachulia said: “It’s definitely special. We had great teammates with Steph and KD and Klay. It was definitely the team that the NBA didn’t have before, no disrespect to other teams, but with
Things are a little more subdued with the Pistons, but Pachulia still is producing at 34. He had to start Wednesday’s game in New Orleans because Andre Drummond was out. The league’s top rebounder will be back against the Mavericks.
“After moving on from the Warriors, I thought Detroit was a great fit for me,” he said. “It starts with coach Casey and a winning mentality he brings. Looking at these last couple years and what he did in Toronto was amazing. I wanted to be part of that culture. Also, playing behind one of the most talented big men we have, Andre, having his back, was something that was interesting. We’ve been building the right atmosphere and fighting for a playoff spot, so it’s been fun.”