As Zaza Pachulia prepares for a homecoming game, the Milwaukee Bucks miss him more than they likely ever could have imagined.
(Editor’s note: This is an editorial borne out of a broken heart. It has been brewing for some time.)
The Milwaukee Bucks made a mistake last summer. Well, they might actually have made a number of mistakes, but there was one which feels more costly than any other. They traded Zaza Pachulia to Dallas.
To quote legendary Beatle and 20th Century philosopher John Lennon:
"Zaza is a promise; Zaza is a souvenir, once given never forgotten, never let it disappear."
Okay, I’ll admit that I might have substituted Zaza for “love” in that quote, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the sentiment holds through. Pachulia has long been one of the league’s more interesting figures. The Georgian is a gentle giant and a practical joker off the court, and a warrior on the hardwood.
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On Friday, Pachulia makes his first playing return to Milwaukee since the Bucks virtually dumped his contract last summer, on a night which is sure to provoke mixed emotions in all parties involved.
Pachulia had long been one of the league’s most underrated players in terms of how his contributions to good teams were recognized. He was an experienced enforcer and agitator who acted as the perfect deputy to Al Horford during his time with the Atlanta Hawks, and last season, he was very much part of the glue that held the Bucks together and pushed them on to a surprise playoff appearance.
Zaza cannot be denied his spotlight any more.
Pachulia will arrive at the Bradley Center on Friday night averaging 10.7 points and 10.7 rebounds, with 18 double-doubles to his name (tied for sixth best in the league) and as somewhat of a figure head on a team who have surprised many with their 21-15 record to date.
I know what you’re thinking, a Zaza Pachulia team surprising people with their record; who’d have thought it?
When the second round returns for this year’s All-Star ballot were revealed on Thursday, Pachulia ranked seventh among Western Conference forwards, 13th among all Western players and 24th overall.
Pachulia’s 194,421 votes not only sees him lead the Dallas Mavericks in terms of All-Star votes, but sees him over 50,000 votes ahead of their legendary forward Dirk Nowitzki even when his votes are combined with Milwaukee’s leading vote getter Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Even as a massive fan of Pachulia’s, I would never have been naive enough to suggest that this was what the Bucks gave up in exchange for a highly protected second round pick, but in many ways, that’s not even the point.
What the Bucks already knew they had in Pachulia, what they saw from a player who averaged 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, was undervalued to begin with.
It’s easy to label a role player as having a high IQ and speaking about how significant their contributions are as a result of that, but as the Bucks have found out, it’s much tougher to fill a gap left on a roster by that sort of player.
Pachulia was not solely responsible for Milwaukee’s success, or their defense last year. Of course, he wasn’t even remotely close to that important, but when all of the small positives he offered were combined, they equaled something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Basketball is, like virtually all sports, played within a space with specifically designed, constraining dimensions; in this case being a court. That makes movement, and the ability to see openings to attack, as well as gaps that need closing while defending, an incredibly valuable skill.
It sounds crazy to say it of a man who looks lumbering as he runs up and down the court, and is regularly described as being unable to jump, but at 6’11” and 270lbs, Pachulia is a master of movement.
Don’t believe me?
Take some time to watch this excellent breakdown of the Bucks offense from last year by Half Court Hoops. As much as the video will make you sad at the comparative coherence of so much of Milwaukee’s play, I want you to focus in on Pachulia.
In the first half of the video which focuses on a lot of the Bucks work from the elbow, you’ll see a variety of first class passes from Pachulia. This is something that many countered that Greg Monroe was capable of when Pachulia was traded, seemingly lessening the need for much of what Pachulia offered. To some extent, that has been proven true, yet that wasn’t the most important asset that Pachulia supplied Milwaukee.
The consistent trend almost every time you see the big Georgian in the clip is in fact his biggest strength. Pachulia is an outstanding screen-setter, who played a large role in earning high quality looks for his teammates last year.
Setting screens is a skill which depends on court awareness and movement marrying together, and Pachulia’s superior abilities in both departments allows him to set multiple screens with ease. This leaves defenses befuddled, and is a dream for shooters.
It’s all about positioning, which coincidentally enough was Pachulia’s biggest strength on the defensive end too. The Georgian has never been a prolific shot blocker, but he has a habit of putting himself in positions that force difficult shots, or even better again force passes away from the paint in search of another opportunity.
These are all almost tangible skills that Pachulia brings to the game, they’re there for all to see when they watch him play. So I haven’t even mentioned Pachulia’s attributes that are most commonly listed as being missed by the Bucks.
Ahead of the Bucks game in Dallas just after Christmas (the Mavs won 103-93 and Zaza had 17 points and eight rebounds), Pachulia spoke to Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Gardner accurately observed:
"The Bucks have dearly missed Pachulia’s leadership, both on the court and in the locker room."
Pachulia’s character cannot be disputed, and was further enhanced by news that he visited Milwaukee’s team hotel prior to that December game, yet the same reasons why Pachulia, himself, doesn’t seem worried about the Bucks future, explains exactly why Milwaukee should have kept him:
"This is a young team. The Bucks are now younger than last year. I think it’s normal that it’s not quite the same as last year. But this team has a future."
It’s true what he says, and on one hand it seems sensible on the front office’s part to decide that a 31-year-old shouldn’t necessarily be a part of that future, yet that ignores everything he did with the Bucks, as well as why the Mavericks wanted him in the first place.
John Henson, like almost everybody else who is ever asked about him, can only speak of Pachulia in the highest regard. He told Gardner:
"I couldn’t thank him enough for the impact he’s made on me as a professional, on and off the court. With what has happened to me in my career, he’s an integral part of that, from watching him every day, learning from his work ethic, practicing against him."
It’s the utterance of “on and off the court” that’s important in that quote too. Greg Monroe is clearly a player with far superior basic talent to Pachulia, but he spent the entirety of his career before Milwaukee in a terrible situation in Detroit. Did the Bucks never consider that the perfect way to maximize Monroe’s talent was to have Pachulia step in as his first real mentor both on and off the court?
Instead, Monroe is asked to step up now. O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless are the guys forced to give guidance. All in all, the Bucks have lost part of what made their development so exciting last season.
To pin one aspect of Pachulia’s play as the missing ingredient for Milwaukee is unfair to the Bucks, but even more so to Zaza as a man.
As Rick Carlisle, his current coach in Dallas, put it:
"He’s one of the great people you’ll ever meet in the NBA. A great competitor and person."
If the Bucks didn’t know that in June, they sure do now.
I miss Zaza Pachulia.