The 2015-16 Dallas Mavericks have surprised the league by jumping out to a 17-13 record. While a 57 percent winning percentage is not overly impressive, the fact the Mavericks are even in the discussion for the playoffs has been entirely unexpected.
The rejuvenated play of Deron Williams and Raymond Felton are big keys to the early success. Wesley Matthews returning from injury sooner than expected has helped as well. And it goes without saying that the offense would be nowhere without the continued excellence of Dirk Nowitzki. But the case can be made that without the addition of Zaza Pachulia to the squad, Dallas would be toiling clearly outside of the playoff picture.
This offseason, as we all know, Dallas tried unsuccessfully to lure DeAndre Jordan to be the defensive anchor of the future. The Mavericks desperately needed rebounding as they ranked 23rd in the league in both defensive and total rebounds per game last season. To make matters worse, their leading rebounder from 2014-15, Tyson Chandler, was on his way to Phoenix to solidify the Suns’ front line.
With not many options remaining after the Jordan fallout, Dallas swung an under-the-radar deal, trading a second-round pick to Milwaukee for Pachulia. A 31-year-old, 6’11” journeyman center, he never stood out from the crowd as he averaged only 7.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks per game in his 12-year career.
Even though he was a primary starter only five of his 12 seasons, Pachulia immediately moved to the top of the depth chart at the 5 spot, primarily out of default. His main competition for the starting spot in Dallas was an out-of-shape Samuel Dalembert and an oft-injured JaVale McGee—not an especially impressive duo.
Despite the low expectations, Dallas is receiving high-level production from their modest investment in the former Buck. Pachulia’s $5.2M salary is approximately one-quarter the cost of Jordan’s. Those returns started coming in immediately as Pachulia made an impact on Day One. Playing only 25 minutes in Dallas’ opening night win in Phoenix, the center put up a hard earned double-double with a plus/minus of 26 as Dallas beat the Suns by 16.
Through 30 games this season, Pachulia is averaging 10.6 rebounds per game, ranking him ninth in the NBA. His 20.6 percent Total Rebound Percentage ranks him in the top 10, ahead of other prolific rebounding big men, Pau Gasol, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and DeMarcus Cousins. His rebounding prowess has catapulted the Mavericks from a bottom-tier squad to sixth in defensive rebounds this season.
Besides the rebounding, Pachulia has been providing solid defense as well. While he has only racked up only 12 blocks all season long, Pachulia has had the effect of altering opponents shots. He has allowed opponents to shoot 54.8 percent on all attempts from six feet or less. That is 4.1 percentage points less than one would expect on shots that close to the rim. In comparison, former Defensive Player of the Year center Marc Gasol is allowing opponents to make 56.1 percent of the same shots.
As a whole, the defense has been one of the better units Dallas has trotted out in years. While their Defensive Rating of 104.3 ranks them right in the middle of the league, their Relative Defensive Rating, how their Defensive rating compares to the rest of the league, is -0.1. That marks the first time in four years it has been better than the league average. That would not happen without Zaza patrolling the paint.
Throughout most of his career, Pachulia’s offense has been an afterthought. Only twice had he averaged over 10 points per game. Not a skilled jump shooter, the former Hawk is sloppy finishing around the rim as well. This season, however, he has stepped up his offensive game too.
In his first 12-years, Pachulia has made only 53.6 percent of his shot attempts from 3′ or less. Through 30 games, though, Pachulia is making those shots more consistently as he is hitting them at over 61 percent, destroying his mark of 51 percent over the last three seasons with the Bucks.
Highlighting his exceptional two-way play, Pachulia is averaging over 10 points per game for the first time in nine years when he posted 12.2 points per game way back in the 2006-07 season. One of the most shocking stats. He has put up 16 double-doubles this season, leaving him in truly elite company. Pachulia ranks fourth in the association behind Andre Drummond, Russell Westbrook, and Davis.
Dallas even runs the offense through the center at the elbow, giving him space and freedom to deliver backdoor passes to cutting guards or to perimeter shooters. He’s averaging 1.8 assists per game this season, the third-most of his career. His net rating of plus 12 is the best of his career. He is also in the top 25 of fouls drawn.
Pachulia has brought the intensity, grit and heart desperately needed by this Mavericks squad. Diving and fighting for loose balls, Pachulia has helped Dallas limit turnovers. Their 13.6 per game has them fourth in the NBA.
Further highlighting his ferocity, the 31-year-old has drawn 4.4 fouls per game, good for a top 25 ranking. He also has shot 4.5 fouls shots per game, over double the number of average attempts the past six seasons.
Put it all together and you have Pachulia having an unlikely resurgent season deep into his over decade-long career. Once thought to be a lost season, Pachulia has Dallas on track for their 16th straight season with a .500 or better record.
Without his numerous contributions, the Mavericks would undoubtedly be facing the lottery and would not find themselves in second place in the Southwest Conference and looking likely to make another playoff appearance.