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Barber: Not an All-Star, Warriors' Zaza Pachulia deserves some love, too

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter, right, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia during the first half Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Oakland. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

PHIL BARBER,

OAKLAND — The Warriors recently became the first NBA team ever to trot out four All-Stars in consecutive seasons. Consider that a moment. From 1998 through 2012, a span of 15 seasons, the franchise did not produce a single All-Star. Now there are four perennials being introduced before every game.

It’s an unprecedented wellspring of talent — a fact that is not lost on the Warriors’ fifth starter.

Center Zaza Pachulia is not an All-Star. He’s a lumbering 33-year-old Georgian (the Black Sea one, not the Suwannee River one) who is known more for knocking down people than knocking down shots. Pachulia recently played his 1,000th NBA game, and he has started just under half of them. But over the past season and a half, he has played in 111 games for the Warriors, and each one has been a start. There’s Zaza for the opening tip, right next to NBA royals Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

It’s an enviable position that Pachulia has nestled into, no doubt. Rest assured that he takes none of it for granted. When I spoke to him earlier this week at the Warriors’ practice facility, he told me he could have made more money had he bolted the Bay and signed with a different team last summer.

“Financially, yeah, it’s a sacrifice,” Pachulia said. “But it’s a great situation. You can enjoy playing basketball the right way — learn, experience, on and off the court, and be part of this amazing group of guys. Where we have an opportunity to win back to back. It’s something that doesn’t happen that often.”

Around the league, a lot of people think of Pachulia as a goon. He ruined San Antonio’s chances of beating the Warriors in the Western Conference final last year when he landed on the already-gimpy ankle of Kawhi Leonard on a 3-point attempt in Game 1. Pachulia swore it was accidental; Spurs coach Gregg Popovich suggested otherwise. If you go to YouTube, you can find video of Pachulia’s scuffles with Jason Richardson, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and even David West, a year before they became teammates with Golden State.

Talking to Pachulia on a quiet court in downtown Oakland, it was hard to reconcile those images. He has a deep voice, a cloak-and-dagger East Bloc accent and a massive face that looks like it has been used as a backboard, but he spoke quietly and reflectively. Pachulia displays a big man’s gentleness, and the long memory of someone who was born in an outpost of the Soviet Union and now makes millions of dollars playing basketball with flashy characters like Curry and Durant.

In his 15th season, Pachulia wants you to know that he’s enjoying the game more than ever before, though his 2017-18 season average of 14.7 minutes per game is the third lowest of his career.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think this is the way it’s supposed to be. Especially the older you get, the more years you collect in your resume, from now on it’s about having fun, it’s about enjoying the process.”

Pachulia was on some good teams in Atlanta, playing with the likes of Al Horford and Joe Johnson. More often than that, though, he has been an also-ran. His first NBA team, the 2003-04 Orlando Magic, finished 21-61. A decade after that, he played for a Milwaukee Bucks team that went 15-67.

So signing with the two-time Western-champion Warriors before the 2016-17 season made sense. But it came with a price. Pachulia might start, but he’d be part of coach Steve Kerr’s ever-shifting rotation in the post, and thus would share time with West, JaVale McGee, Kevon Looney, James Michael McAdoo, Damian Jones — even Draymond Green when the Warriors went small.

“Honestly, I had a really tough time last year,” Pachulia said. “But I adjusted. I found the balance as well. You’re getting less minutes, but let’s be efficient. Give 100 percent in that stretch when you’re playing.”

Pachulia had to summon the wisdom of all those NBA seasons.

“Gosh, your body’s used to like playing 25, 30 minutes,” he said. “Then it’s this half drop, like what’s going on? You used to average 10-plus points, and now you average five, six. But then you really have to think about understanding what you play for, who are your teammates and what this team really needs from me. Do they really need you to get 10, 15 shots?”

No. No, they don’t. Kerr wants Pachulia to shoot if the defense is leaving him alone. But mostly he is here to be a basketball Sherpa — to box out on the boards, to put a chest on an opponent in the low post and, especially, to set screens for all those Warriors scorers.

“We screen off the ball more than anybody in the league,” Kerr said, referring to screens set for someone other than the dribbler. “So with the shooters that we have, we need someone who’s gonna dedicate themselves to freeing them up, and Zaza’s really good at it. He’s an incredibly smart player … And I think our guys are very grateful to have him out there.”

Pachulia is 6-foot-11, 270 pounds and made of concrete, so he certainly has the makings of a good screen setter. But there is art to this, too.

In his early years in the league, Pachulia committed a lot of offensive fouls while screening. Part of it was his own footwork, he told me, but some of it was an inability to read the movements of the point guard, and vice versa. He has gotten much better at that over the years, and in reading the reactions of defenders, which is the key to the screen-and-roll game.

“Sometimes you hold a screen, sometimes you slip it, it depends on reading what the defense gonna do,” Pachulia said. “There are a lot of sequences where sometimes they drop, sometimes they’re flat. Sometimes they trap, for example. You have to have the solutions.”

Pachulia averages just 5.8 points per game for the Warriors. Just two years ago, he was at 8.6 for the Mavericks. No one here is complaining. Kerr and his staff understand the value of a well-laid screen on a team that is built on great outside shooting.

And yes, this skill is quantifiable. The NBA tracks screen assists. Pachulia averages 3 per game. That’s tied for 25th in the league, which isn’t remarkable. But remember, he averages only 15 minutes. Of the 24 players above him on the list, and the five who are tied with him, no one screens for more assists per minute than Pachulia.

He’s never been happier because he’s never been more comfortable in his role as an accomplice to All-Stars.

“You know what people remember? Who was the last champions,” Pachulia said. “I figured that out, that people don’t remember whether I had a career high, or what was my season high last year, how many double-doubles I had, how many minutes I average. But everybody remember that I had the Georgian flag on my shoulder, I was yelling like a crazy guy. My voice was all messed up. Everybody remembers that, that I was holding trophy. And then they didn’t have a big enough hat for me, everybody remembers that.”

He’s right. When the last chapter is written on this Warriors dynasty, Pachulia will be one of the more interesting minor characters.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.