A detailed look at the numbers reveals that Zaza Pachulia is more or less exactly who we thought he was.
The native of Tbilisi, Georgia and his 3-year, $16-million contract did not turn the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks into a playoff team, even though that seemed to be the goal of general manager John Hammond when he signed Zaza and a pile of pricy veterans last summer. On the other hand, Pachulia brought to Milwaukee the exact same set of skills for which he was known during his eight seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.
For instance, a skill prized in NBA big men is rim protection. Pachulia does not block shots frequently. In his final season with the Hawks, Pachulia amassed only 12 blocks.
Continuing the trend after signing in Milwaukee, Zaza blocked 14 shots in 2013-14. Here is a Bucks-y partial list of players who blocked more than 14 shots last season:
Nate Wolters (!): 15
Chris Douglas-Roberts: 16
Caron Butler: 17
Brandon Knight: 17
John Salmons: 19
Monta Ellis: 23
From their respective Milwaukee tenures, it’s fairly clear that none of those guys were shot repellents, no? Zaza isn’t one either.
Sometimes protecting the rim goes beyond blocking shots though. If Pachulia was instead dissuading or altering shots — forcing opponents to miss shots near the rim — that would be sufficient. But again, Zaza falls short of his peers.
For each of the Bucks defenders who faced 3 or more shots per game while within 5 feet of the rim, here are the NBA.com/stats defensive numbers sorted by the field goal percentage of their opponents.
In short, teams are making a lot of shots over Zaza. He doesn’t jump well, and a 2013 injury to his Achilles’ tendon has robbed him of what little vertical burst he had to begin with. He’s an easy mark in the paint.
The team numbers reflect the same trend. The Bucks block 3.4 shots per 100 possessions with Zaza playing and 6.0 shots per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
Enough with the bad numbers though. Pachulia helps the Bucks in a lot of subtle ways. Despite his substandard rim protection, the Bucks still played better with Zaza on the court (-6.9 points per 100 possessions) than off it (-9.4 points). He must be doing something right.
One of Zaza’s strengths is passing. Per 48 minutes, his assists created 10.9 points — the top mark on the team among non-point guards. To revert to anecdotal evidence, it was visibly clear that young players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nate Wolters moved better off the ball with Pachulia in the lineup. HE seemed to have a strong big-to-big connection with John Henson as well. His sharp passing soothed the offense like a cozy security blanket.
The difference was most noticeable from long range. The Bucks shot 46% on two-point field goal attempts whether they were playing with or without Zaza. However, Milwaukee was a markedly better three-point team with Pachulia playing.
Bucks 3-pt. FG%
Zaza on: 38.0%
Zaza off: 34.1%
As a point of reference, the difference between 38.0% and 34.1% on a team-wide scale is the difference between Golden State (4th-best of 30 teams) and Minnesota (26th out of 30). Good passing is contagious, and good passing leads to better shotmaking. And in 2014, the NBA is a shotmaker’s league.
Breaking down the numbers on Pachulia is a mixed bag, and one that is predictably mixed. He makes the offense better and the defense worse — with the net difference being a slight positive. Ultimately, the factor that probably swings the balance in favor of Zaza is that he provides a calming veteran presence in a locker room full of youngsters searching for one. For a group without viable championship aspirations for 2015, a team like the Bucks could do a lot worse than Zaza Pachulia for their backup center.