Hawks’ Zaza Pachulia Off The Trading Block?
NBA franchises sometimes don’t know what kind of assets they possess on their roster until they’re gone out of the door.
Whether it’s the high scoring franchise player who receives the majority of the headlines or the reserve big man who consistently contributes the things found outside of the nightly box score each guy on truly successful teams play a pivotal role.
This theory fully applies to the 2012 Atlanta Hawks who lost All-Star center Al Horford for the remainder of the season just eleven games into the current campaign.
Usually this type of long term injury would be a fatal blow to a team’s playoff aspirations, but Horford’s replacement, Zaza Pachulia, has filled in admirably by averaging 8.1 points and 8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting as a full-time starter this season.
However if things went as initially planned last year, head coach Larry Drew wouldn’t have had the luxury of calling Pachulia’s number off the bench in Horford’s absence.
“Last year I was very close to being traded,” Pachulia told HOOPSWORLD reflecting on the drama of last year’s trade deadline. “It was tough. It wasn’t easy. I won’t lie. I didn’t have experience with the trade deadline and after getting used to this city, the fans and the arena – this is my home. The [trade] talks lasted a tough couple of days. During my career I haven’t been traded often, only after my first year when Charlotte came into the league with the expansion draft. They picked me and traded me right away to Milwaukee and that was the only time. My last six or seven years I’ve been here with the Hawks.”
Pachulia admittedly battled through a tough stretch from a mental standpoint after hearing the trade chatter last year, but quickly understood the move the Hawks were trying to make was business motivated and had nothing to do with the dedication he shows to his craft, his overall game or presence in the locker room.
“Everybody knows this is a business,” Pachulia said. “You really can’t control it. If you are traded to a different team, you’re going to still play basketball with a NBA jersey but just in a different system. You just have to be smart and not listen to all this stuff. If you’re here, play hard. True professionals are more respected around the league. If you end up going to another team, you have to do the same thing by bringing your presence and experience. That’s how you have to look at it.”
The Hawks have been one of the most successful teams in the league in recent memory, reaching the playoffs four consecutive seasons and the second round the past three campaigns.
But it’s the inability of the team to advance past the second round which has driven persistent speculation on Hawks executive vice president and general manager Rick Sund’s potential willingness to break up the club’s core if progress isn’t made this season.
The heightened expectations from the fans and media placed on the team haven’t been lost within the locker room. The players do feel the heat.
“Honestly our schedules are so crazy we don’t have the time to read into many rumors,” Pachulia said with a laugh before turning serious. “But of course, expectations are high. I remember just a couple years ago we were the young team full of prospects of the future, but now the addition of the older players has given us the status of a veteran team. We know the clock is ticking for everybody.”
When evaluating Pachulia’s strong play this season, often forgotten is the fact he served as the club’s full-time starting center from 2005-07 – before the arrival of Horford.
Also, a rarely reported statistic is that the ninth year center is a double digit scorer (10.4) as a starter for his career (193 starts).
Not surprisingly, his early season success while filling in for the injured Horford hasn’t surprised him in the slightest.
“Everything starts with the minutes,” Pachulia said. “I have more confidence now. It definitely feels great playing all of these minutes – night in and night out. The big thing for me this season is I’ve started running on the fast breaks more and getting easy buckets. Playing in Europe, those guys really helped me to get out faster on the break so when I came back to Atlanta I started using the same approach and it works perfectly.“
At one point this season Pachulia was the Hawks’ only healthy center on the roster with Horford and Jason Collins both battling the injury bug.
The team has since signed veteran center Erick Dampier for the remainder of the season to add even more depth, but its clear Pachulia will receive the lion’s share of the minutes on the interior as we head down the stretch.
“I guess all those years I wasn’t getting that much playing time saved my body,” Pachulia joked. “Body wise I feel good. I’ve always been known as a physical player and hard worker so I have no problem with that. I came into the season in good shape. Playing in Turkey (last summer) definitely helped me. That was the key to coming into the season in game shape.”
The Hawks currently hold the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, despite the loss of Horford and shooting guard Joe Johnson’s ongoing nagging knee issue.
Throughout their recent rise in the Eastern Conference standings the team has been the lucky beneficiaries of good team health – right up until now.
“As you mentioned we’re not used to a lot of injuries and having guys out for such a long time,” Pachulia said. “Since I’ve been here Al’s injury is the worst we’ve had on the team, but this is sports it can happen to anybody at any time. It’s part of the game, but good teams find a way to cover the missing part. I think we’re experienced enough but also good enough to do that.”
Yes, good teams do indeed find a way to compensate in times of extreme duress and with Pachulia successfully anchoring the interior with strong and aggressive play it’s also probably safe to assume the veteran big man is off the trading block here in 2012.
What a difference a year makes.