The Golden State Warriors checked nearly all of the boxes for their title defense in the first week of free agency. They locked Stephen Curry up with a five-year maximum contract in the opening minutes of free agency. Then, they agreed with Shaun Livingston, David West, and Andre Iguodala before the end of the day on July 1st. Golden State continued their fantastic start to free agency by signing Kevin Durant to a below-market deal that gave them more money to work with in their pursuits of Nick Young and Omri Casspi.
However, Golden State's strong opening to free agency was notable due to their lack of big man targets. While convincing West to return for one more year did give them at least one useful big man, the Warriors did not have any true center on their roster after the first few days of free agency.
The Warriors solved that issue by inking yet another returning free agent before the end of the first week of the league's 2017-18 season. Zaza Pachulia will return to the Warriors for at least one more year:
Zaza's new contract will pay him slightly more than his $2.9 million deal from last year, despite Golden State's jump in total salary commitments with Stephen Curry earning closer to his market value. Pachulia's contract is for the Warriors' Non-Bird exception per Dan Feldman, which is the maximum that the team could pay him for next season.
While Zaza is the least vital member of Golden State's starting five, his re-signing is critical to the Warriors' title defense. Pachulia is incredibly valuable to the Warriors during the regular season, as he allows Kevin Durant and Draymond Green to avoid playing significant taxing minutes at five before the playoffs. Although Pachulia's role decreased during the postseason, his solid passing, great rebounding, and excellent screen setting are still quite valuable to the Warriors. Pachulia might not provide enough as Golden State's only center, but his return fills a void that could have led to overtaxing the Warriors' most valuable pieces before beginning their title defense in the postseason.
Zaza Pachulia played the seventh-most minutes for the Golden State Warriors during both the regular season and the playoffs. However, Zaza started in all 85 of his appearances last year between the regular season and the playoffs.
Golden State's motion offense, along with their emphases on three-point shooting and transition play, would seemingly leave a player like Pachulia in the dust. However, he fills three of the four niches that made a healthy Andrew Bogut such an important part of the Warriors' title run in 2015: great passing, excellent rebounding, and brutal (and occasionally questionable) screen-setting.
Zaza is not in Bogut's echelon as an elite passing big man from the post. However, he has a solid vision and rarely misses the open man. On rare occasions, Zaza can reach into his bag of tricks and dish out some impressive dimes:
Pachulia's Assist Percentage tied for 17th-best among 65 centers who averaged 15 or more minutes per game last year per NBA.com--just behind Bogut's 13.3 percent mark. While Bogut did not have the same caliber of teammates as Pachulia did last year, it is telling that Pachulia was able to hit the open man so effectively. Zaza was also efficient with the ball in his hands; his True Shooting Percentage was well above league average at 58.8 percent, and his Assist to Turnover ratio was 15th on that same list of centers who played more than 15 minutes per game.
Zaza is also a force on the glass, and his rebounding (combined with his passing instincts) allow him to contribute to Golden State's transition attack despite his relative lack of foot speed. The Warriors can afford to let players leak out in transition while sending Zaza to the glass; his Rebounding Rate of 18.0 percent (per NBA.com) was in the upper third of centers in the league. On the rare occasions when Zaza did get out in transition, he averaged 1.39 points per possession which ranked in the 92nd percentile league-wide per Synergy Sports.
The biggest concern with Zaza is his defense. While starting Pachulia did not prevent the Warriors from having the second-best Defensive Rating in the league last season, Pachulia is not quick enough to contain pick and rolls. Furthermore, his rim protection declined significantly last year--opponents shot 66.6% against Pachulia on shots from less than six feet away from the basket, a full five percent worse than league average.
However, Pachulia's defense at the rim last year may have been more of an anomaly than a trend. Defensive field goal percentages near the rim are strongly correlated from year to year, and opponents shot worse than league average against Pachulia in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. While it is possible that Pachulia has declined enough athletically to offset his high defensive IQ, last year's rim protection numbers might be an aberration. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus pegged Pachulia as the eighth-best defensive center last season with a DRPM of 3.23. Although that figure could be thrown off by the quality of Pachulia's teammates, the goal of Real Plus-Minus is to sift through most of that noise. With that concept in mind (along with Pachulia's excellent Defensive RPM of 2.59 during his 2015-16 season in Dallas)
Zaza Pachulia might look somewhat out of place in a starting lineup with four All-NBA caliber players. However, he fills some niches for Golden State, and his production in those areas would have been difficult to replicate on the open market. While the Warriors are still a little thin at center (with JaVale McGee still on the market and James Michael McAdoo now an unrestricted free agent), they will at least have Pachulia back to man the middle. He might not be the perfect fit, but Pachulia is a fantastic signing at his price point. The Warriors did not need any extra help, but their title defense will be significantly easier with the big Georgian back in the fold.