He was far from perfect and often frustrating, but Detroit really didn’t know what they had in Aron Baynes prior to his departure to the Boston Celtics in 2017.
Following Baynes’ tenure in Detroit, the Pistons have found that consistently playable backup centers are few and far between. Whether it be implementing 7’3 behemoth Boban Marjanovic as an efficient post-scoring option when the offense ran dry or giving an opportunity for 26-year-old Eric Moreland to cement his spot in the NBA, the Pistons had plenty of options lined up behind All-Star Andre Drummond last season. The only problem? None of them were viable in most situations, which forced Drummond and Blake Griffin to share the center position for the majority of their time together last year.
Those two weren’t the only below-average big men that were would be looked to for big man minutes, either. Following Boban’s departure to the Los Angeles Clippers via trade, Willie Reed was also given an opportunity – albeit a short one – to grab the backup five spot prior to being released. Due to a domestic abuse case surrounding Reed, he was waived after playing just three games with Detroit.
Long story short, none of these players would remain on Detroit’s roster into the 2017-18 offseason, again leaving the team without a productive backup. The front office decided to fill that need with Zaza Pachulia, much to the annoyance to fans for multiple reasons. Pachulia’s most known for his past of injuring opposing players, most notably Kawhi Leonard in the 2017 Western Conference Finals during his time in Golden State. For basketball reasons, the signing wasn’t well-received either. Unplayable during the Warriors’ last title run, many were surprised that the 34-year-old Pachulia was given another contract in the NBA, as he doesn’t possess any above average attributes at this stage of his career.
Pachulia proved to be the Pistons prime option at backup center, over the recently returned Jon Leuer, however. Early in the season, his solid screen-setting ability was commended by the team, opening up lanes for Ish Smith to drive into the lane or getting shooters open looks off the bench. Through December 30, prior to an 8-game stretch in which he didn’t step on the court, Pachulia averaged a serviceable 4.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, along with an impressive 1.5 assists. He was a decent enough rebounder and could score inside when needed, along with being able to showcase his above-average playmaking skills from the high post in Detroit’s offense. However, as the season wore on, Pachulia was seen noticeably winded frequently during games, limiting his impact. Following Detroit’s trade for Thon Maker, Pachulia became a secondary option as he just couldn’t keep up with anyone on defense, with his rebounding and screen-setting effectiveness trailing off as well.
While he was what he was in terms of production, most of his highlights on the court came in the form of opposing players going at him due to his controversial past. The most prominent example of this came during Detroit’s second-to-last regular season game, against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook, the team’s star point guard and known for his emotional and passionate style of play, came down hard during a shot attempt from Pachulia, seemingly with the intent to hurt him. Pachulia has a history with Westbrook, nearly injuring him with a flop while he was with the Warriors, and Westbrook seemed to be trying to return the favor.
Pachulia finished the season slow, as his average dropped to 3.9/3.9/1.3 by the end and was a disaster – as many players were – against the Milwaukee Bucks in the postseason. He may have not been the best option for Detroit this season and almost certainly won’t be returning, but he did what he was asked to this season. He produced adequately enough early on in the season and brought a veteran presence to the team alongside Jose Calderon.
In the end, there isn’t too much to say about Pachulia’s one season with the Pistons. We can just hope that Thon Maker can develop into a consistently viable backup option in the future, or that Detroit uncovers a gem in the second round of this month’s draft.
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