Zaza Pachulia was never meant to be the Bucks’ starting center. He was supposed to be a familiar face for Larry Drew as the head coach transitioned into his first year in Milwaukee after three seasons at the helm of the Atlanta Hawks. And Pachulia was supposed to offer Larry Sanders competition in training camp, keeping Sanders from growing complacent and gliding through the season after signing a $44 million extension last summer. In a perfect world, he would have been a serviceable veteran backup as Sanders continued to elevate his game.
Of course, that’s not quite what happened. Pachulia wound up starting 43 games, due in large part to various injuries sustained by Sanders. The role was not new, as Pachulia had started 229 games over his previous 10 NBA seasons. The results, however, were a regression, at best. Let’s begin gently…
Good: Usage. The Bucks cycled 19 players through their roster this season and Pachulia used fewer possessions than 12 of them. Nate Wolters and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only Bucks further down on the list who played more games than Pachulia. While younger players like the aforementioned rookies may not have been using those possessions to shoot the basketball, they likely were handling or passing it, allowing them time to adjust to the speed of professional competition. More importantly, it most certainly put the ball in the hands of more efficient scorers when Pachulia did not assume the possession for himself.
Better: Assist percentage. Pachulia dished out 136 dimes this year, averaging 3.7 per 36 minutes and racking up assists on 16.3 percent of his teammates’ shots — all career highs. Those numbers rank Pachulia as fifth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the team’s final statistics for the season, and he primarily trails guards. Of all centers and center/forward tweeners in the league, Pachulia ranked seventh in assist percentage, within shouting distance of Marc Gasol (17.7 AST%) and DeMarcus Cousins (17.8), both of whom use significantly more of their teams’ possessions (21.7 percent for Gasol and 32.7 percent for Cousins).
The uptick in assists was a relief for a squad that was so sorely riddled by injuries and generally poor basketball-playing. Pachulia’s presence on the floor also helped young, developing guards Brandon Knight and Wolters, not to mention Antetokounmpo, who was no stranger to being the primary ball-handler in Greece.
Best: Cool highlights, Zaza. The 6’11” European made 100 percent of his backward-over-the-head-bank shots and became a true hero when, very early in the season, he kicked Tyler Hansbrough.
Not-So-Good: Three. It’s a number that can be really good in basketball, especially if a player is scoring that many points at once. For Pachulia’s season, the number three takes on an entirely different connotation, in that it’s the number of dunks he completed. Three dunks. A jam just about every 14 starts. He’s 6-11. Without checking official statistics, that’s probably about five fewer than Steve Nash had for the Lakers this season.
Three dunks for a center is unacceptable, much less a starting center. Pachulia’s never been one to seek out dunks or be particularly tenacious as a rim-rattler, but this is emblematic of a larger problem, that being a shooting percentage shy of 43 percent. Of the top 20 players in field goal percentage this season, the best – the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan – shot over 64 percent, while Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic finished with an even 52 percent. The Bucks didn’t expect to get a world-beater when they signed Pachulia, but they also didn’t expect him to have an inferior shooting percentage than every center on the Philadelphia 76ers’ roster this season (which he did, even falling short of Daniel Orton’s 44.7 percent clip).
Let’s Just Not Mention It: The senior slump. Many of Pachulia’s stats neared those he posted as a rookie, when he recorded career-worsts in several categories. Otherwise, the majority of the numbers were middling. The aforementioned field goal percentage is the second-lowest of Pachulia’s career (but the three dunks are the lowest by a margin of just one); the second-lowest Win Shares per 48, a 0.60 compared to the league-average 0.100; a lousy 0.7 defensive WS (surprise — second lowest); and a deplorable defensive rating in which the Bucks allowed 111 points per 100 possessions with Pachulia on the floor.
“Is there really more?” Yes, there really is, including turning over 18.5 percent of his possessions, blocking a meager 0.9 percent of opponents’ shots (second lowest!), and grabbing just 14.4 percent of available rebounds. When all is said and done, Pachulia’s most groan-worthy stat may be that he finished — take a guess — second-to-last in effective field goal percentage for the Bucks. The single three-pointer Pachulia shot this year (a desperation heave, according to Basketball-Reference) does not weigh heavily against him in this category, which takes into account all shots from the field and adjusts for the increased point-value of a triple. However, measuring Pachulia against teammates in eFG% paints a better picture of his offensive output compared to those who shoot from more varied positions on the court. It also paints Pachulia (42.7 percent, still) and Ekpe Udoh (39.9 percent) into a corner as Milwaukee’s two least efficient scorers.
In Summation: Honestly, when it comes to low grades, a “plus” and “minus” are just a practice in yeoman’s work. Pachulia could do worse than D- or even F+, for that matter, but for having the best free throw shooting campaign in his career by a significant margin (bonus stat: 84.6 percent compared to his second-ranked 78.6 percent), Pachulia ends with a D. Not at all ideal, but not surprising for one of the least productive players on a 15-67 team. It would be a lie to say kicking Hansbrough didn’t influence this grade.