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.