The Milwaukee Bucks reportedly agreed to terms with center Zaza Pachulia on a three-year, $15.6 million contract over the weekend. Just like the O.J. Mayo signing, the move will do little to move the franchise’s needle either way.
That’s understandably frustrating, but some people seem to be a little too perturbed by the signing. While the amount of money and years are somewhat surprising at first glance, capable centers are always valuable. He could easily be an asset through the end of his contract.
Even if this turns out to be a futile signing, which is likely, it certainly won’t a crippling one. (The Warriors recently confirmed that literally all contracts are tradable by shipping Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson to the Jazz.) More importantly, not only does Pachulia fill an immediate need, but his presence opens the door to further moves that can acquire other assets and balance out the roster. We will have to wait and see if general manager John Hammond walks through it.
The Bucks struggled immensely in two key areas last season: offensive efficiency and defensive rebounding. According to Basketball-Reference.com, they ranked 22nd in offensive rating (103.6 points scored per 100 possessions) and 24th in effective field goal percentage (.476). Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding woes were actually worse. They ranked 28th in DRB% (71.3) — the percentage of available defensive rebounds the team collected. If the Bucks wanted to get better, their offseason had to revolve around fixing these issues.
Monta Ellis‘ departure will inherently improve the offensive efficiency, and the Mayo signing shouldn’t hurt. The same, however, can’t be said about rebounding and the departure of Samuel Dalembert, Milwaukee’s best rebounder last season. If Joel Przybilla, a historically solid rebounder, played more than 68 minutes all of last season, he’d probably sneak into this discussion. There’s my shameless plug for Joel Przybilla.
As the chart below demonstrates, Dalembert led the Bucks’ centers with a 19.4 TRB% (percentage of offensive and defensive rebounds). Larry Sanders was Milwaukee’s best defensive rebounder — and one of the best in the league — grabbing 25.8 percent of available misses. If Pachulia would have played in enough games to qualify for the leaderboards, his 17.0 TRB% would have ranked 20th in the NBA last season.
When Dalembert was actively participating in Scott Skiles‘ rotation the first month of the season, Milwaukee was an elite rebounding team. Throughout the season, Sanders and Dalembert individually vacuumed up roughly a quarter of available defensive rebounds while they were playing, which lessened the rebounding burden for the undersized guards. However, defensive rebounding at the center position decreased roughly 60 percent when Ekpe Udoh subbed in for Sanders or Dalembert. Other players — and Mike Dunleavy, whom the Bucks just lost in free agency, was probably the most successful — were forced to compensate for Udoh’s lack of individual rebounding, likely sacrificing transition opportunities along the way.
Unfortunately, Dalembert has been perpetually out of shape since leaving Philadelphia, and for whatever tangible benefit he gave the Bucks on the glass, he quickly took away with agonizingly slow defensive rotations, poor defensive awareness and questionable focus. Udoh rightfully assumed nearly all backup center minutes as the season progressed. Despite his individual rebounding woes, Udoh subtly helps his teams in nearly every aspect of the game — including, oddly, team rebounding. As has been the case his entire career, Udoh’s team rebounded better with him on the court last season. The Bucks’ DRB% of 72.5 actually decreased to 70.8 when Udoh was watching from the bench.
The playoff were a different story, however. The Miami Heat, a very poor rebounding team during the regular season, absolutely pounded Milwaukee on the glass during the four-game sweep. Udoh was a big contributor:
|On − Off||MIL||28%||-7.5||-6.7||-7.9|
As a bonus, Pachulia is a better offensive player than Udoh. While Pachulia is an average-at-best scorer at the center position (career 54.0 true shooting percentage), Udoh has yet to shoot above 44 percent from the field in his career. Udoh lacks any consistent post move, and the effectiveness of his hookshot, which looked semi-promising in Golden State, has plateaued. Neither player offers an appealing shot chart from last season, but Pachulia’s is slightly more digestible. I guess.
Pachulia is also an extremely skilled offensive rebounder, which creates easy putback opportunities. The Hawks had a stunning +8.8 percent offensive rebounding percentage differential with him on the court last season.
This isn’t to bash Udoh — he’d be a perfect fit on a lot of NBA teams. It’s just that Pachulia is probably a better option for the Bucks at this point, and he now makes Udoh an expendable piece (but more on that later).
The Bucks had another center at their disposal when they completed the J.J. Redick–Tobias Harris trade. They just opted not to use him. Gustavo Ayón only appeared in 12 games with Milwaukee after the trade, but he showed a pretty unique skillset in his limited time. His face-up game is promising, and he masterfully utilizes the baseline — even standing out of bounds at times — to sneak in for easy baskets. However, his lack of length hinders his ability to alter shots at the rim. Ayón rebounded extremely well with the Bucks (19.4 TRB%), but that could be an aberration given his career numbers (14.7 TRB%).
Simply, the Bucks had a glaring need to fill — and Pachulia goes a long way in filling it. Udoh has been hopelessly incapable of grabbing rebounds consistently, and Ayón hasn’t had the opportunity, right or wrong, to show he can. If Ayón were a legitimate prospect, it would make sense to give him the benefit of the doubt and see whether his numbers are replicable over a significant sample size. The Bucks clearly don’t feel they have that type of margin for error, and that’s understandable — the risk is far greater than the reward. Ayón is 28. Pachulia is 29.
In addition, concerns over Pachulia’s presence eating into John Henson‘s playing time seem like a reach. Pachulia is a center. Ersan Ilyasova and Henson should exclusively play power forward. A frontcourt rotation of Sanders, Pachulia, Ilyasova and Henson is a lot more balanced than ones the Bucks have utilized the past few seasons.
Yet, it’s important to acknowledge that a tunnel vision approach to plugging holes in the off season scarcely pays off for a middling small market team.
Need more athleticism? TRADE FOR CHRIS DOUGLAS-ROBERTS
Need to replace Luke Ridnour? SIGN KEYON DOOLING
Need a better rebounder and floor-spacer next to Bogut? SIGN DREW GOODEN
Need to draw more fouls? TRADE FOR COREY MAGGETTE
Need more rebounding? TRADE FOR SAMUEL DALEMBERT AND SIGN JOEL PRZYBILLA (another plug)
Need some points per game? TRADE FOR STEPHEN JACKSON
exciting basketball swag? TRADE FOR MONTA ELLIS
Need a shooter to mask Monta Ellis’ weakness? TRADE FOR J.J. REDICK
The end game to all of these moves are far too familiar: 35 to 45 wins. The Bucks don’t have the allure to attract high-end free agents and haven’t accumulated enough assets to land a budding star via trade. They have been plugging holes with veteran, mediocre and limited-upside players — leaving a shameful trail of burnt assets along the way. It’s within this context that some angst (not outrage) about the Pachulia signing is certainly understandable.
Indeed, the Bucks need to shrewdly manage assets — and, surprisingly, it’s here where Hammond can still save face. If he exchanges Udoh for a guard with similar value, the Pachulia signing transforms from questionable to sensible. The Bucks would be simply swapping assets, while balancing out the roster and improving in an area of glaring deficiency last season. It wouldn’t be in the same ballpark of, say, snagging Eric Bledsoe by absorbing a large expiring contract, but there would be many worse ways of reaching the payroll floor.
Of course, if Hammond trades Udoh for 32-year-old Luke Ridnour and his expiring contract, I’ll embrace the anger.
But let’s wait for everything to unfold first.