clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Zaza Pachulia saved the Mavericks' failed plan at center

New, comment

Many expected the center spot to be a gaping hole for the Mavericks, but some misfit toys have shored up the position

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the DeAndre Jordan fiasco (and I feel like I've typed that phrase a hundred times now), the Dallas Mavericks were staring at an enormous hole in their roster. Tyson Chandler had departed, scoffing at the notion of being anyone's "backup plan", and the week-plus that Jordan spent privately debating his about-face left the free agent cupboard bare of centers. What were Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson going to do?

Well, somehow, they kind of figured it out. A perfect solution was never going to be there, but in a fashion Dallas fans have become strangely accustomed to, the Mavs front office managed to cobble together a workable rotation of castoffs, leftovers and wild cards, coached up by one of the sport's best strategists/motivators in Rick Carlisle. In a way, Zaza embodies what life has been like for Dallas the last half-decade, with Dallas missing on key free agent signings but still staying relevant in the playoff hunt by producing better than they would ostensibly have any business doing.

In the last part of our series, what we want to know is how all that stacks up against the West, though? We already discussed the point guardsshooting guardssmall forwards and power forwards. Let's find out about center:

1. SACRAMENTO KINGS

DeMarcus Cousins is widely considered the best center in the league, and from a production standpoint it's hard to really argue that. He's averaging 27-11 and has become a legitimately outstanding defender, thanks to quick feet, prodigious strength, and a Garnett-like intensity on the court. Yet, I hesitated with this rank, because the Kings remain such an underachieving mess, and in assigning blame it's hard to separate where the front office eccentricity ends and Cousins' moody, combative presence begins. Cousins has almost certainly played at least a small role in Sactown's extended run of cellar-dwelling, and at some point we may find out if DMC can fare better under another organization's watch. Helping matters is that if the Kings do decide to trade Cousins, they may have another young center ready to step in, as Willie Cauley-Stein (a center occasionally pressed into PF duty) looks like a Tyson Chandler starter kit.

2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Based on Real Plus-Minus, DeAndre Jordan is the best center in the league, not Cousins. Part of that is because he's asked to do so little on offense, but give credit where credit is due: Jordan has risen from a talented but undisciplined 2nd round pick to a legitimately dominant force who controls the paint at both ends. Even relative to last year, Jordan's defensive improvement is remarkable, and some of that may also be a credit to his coach, Doc Rivers. This is probably the last compliment I will pay either of those guys. Anyway, the Clippers sent Josh Smith packing and in doing so opened up a spot for some surprisingly strong play from Cole Aldrich, who after years of wearing the "bust" label as a former lottery pick, seems to have carved out a role as a solid backup. Aldrich may be the first halfway decent backup Jordan has had since Chris Kaman got hurt.

3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

I may be jumping the gun slightly on this one, but I think it's worth pointing out that Karl-Anthony Towns' current PER would rank as the best for a rookie since David Robinson. And if you discount Robinson (who was 24 his rookie season, having served in the Navy), it would rank as the best since some guy named Michael Jordan. Just think about that for a second. His rookie PER rates higher than Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul ... even legends like Tim Duncan and Shaq, who were destroying the league from day one. Towns (who barely plays 30 minutes a night) hasn't handled the kind of workload Duncan and Shaq did, of course, so on the whole I'm not going to say he's necessarily the best rookie since the Admiral, but take note of his historic season because he's making this look way too easy. As if that wasn't enough, the T-Wolves still have Gorgui Dieng around, a pretty solid third year center who could definitely start for other teams(and because Towns is so versatile, occasionally he starts for Minny).

4. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

This one may be cheating slightly, because the Warriors are maybe the NBA's first truly "positionless" team. Draymond Green logs significant minutes as the defacto "center", and when he's there he's basically the best center since peak Dwight Howard, something that if you'd told me prior to the 2012 draft I would have probably laughed in your face. Make no mistake, Golden State also has high quality traditional centers, as Andrew Bogut is still a monster on defense (2nd in the NBA in defensive RPM), and Festus Ezeli has emerged to become perhaps Bogut's heir and also -- in an ironic twist -- making Harrison Barnes the third best guy Golden State drafted in 2012.

5. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

The Spurs' impossibly good defense may start with Kawhi Leonard's tenacity and length on the perimeter, but for my dollar it ends with the man patrolling the middle: the ageless Tim Duncan. Timmy's offense is mostly gravy at this point, and his 8-point, 7-rebound line in 25 minutes probably doesn't wow you, but oh look he's leading the league in defensive RPM (that's not just centers, but any position), and he's still blocking a shot and a half and grabbing a steal per game, thanks to impeccable timing and anticipation. I've believed for some time that Duncan is the best defensive player of the last two decades, even though guys like Garnett and Mutumbo and Ben Wallace got the awards thanks at least partly to their flamboyance (something Duncan has literally zero interest in). It's no accident Duncan has the lowest defensive rating of any player in 35 years. Helping Duncan conserve his minutes is the Spurs' embarrassment of big man riches, with Aldridge, Diaw, West, Bonner, and a mythological creature named Boban all capable of filling in at the 5.

6. UTAH JAZZ

Rudy Gobert has some holes as a player, but he's awfully fun to watch block shots you were certain a human couldn't touch. He's averaging a double-double this year as the surging Jazz are starting to deliver on the promise of all those high picks and shrewd moves. Jeff Withey capably backs him up, in the Cole Aldrich mold of an ex-Kansas center built for backup duty. There's not much offense in this group, and especially in crunch time this can hurt the Jazz (Gobert had a key turnover that nearly cost Utah the game against Dallas), but with nicknames like "Stifle Tower" it's hard not to be a fan.

7. HOUSTON ROCKETS

This kind of highlights how much of a disappointment Houston has been this year, and perhaps more pointedly how far Dwight Howard has fallen since his frantic free agency recruitment a few years ago. This isn't to say Howard is a bum; he still converts a high percentage of his field goals, grabs 12 boards a game, and can block shots. I would imagine, however, that Rockets' fans expected a little more than 14 points a night out of their max contract signee and one-time best center in the league. Even Howard's calling card -- his defense -- now ranks outside the top ten in the league based on RPM, and despite the presence of quality perimeter defenders like Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza, Howard hasn't been able to prevent the Rockets from falling to 25th in the league in defensive efficiency. The silver lining here is the emergence of second-year big man Clint Capela, who could take over should Howard opt out and leave in the summer.

8. DALLAS MAVERICKS

Hey, relative to where we thought Dallas' center play would be, this is pretty great, no? Zaza Pachulia's breakout season has taken a little bit of a hit lately, as the 32-year old has slowed somewhat from his torrid start. Still, Pachulia actually ranks ahead of aforementioned Dwight Howard in both defensive and offensive RPM, and as of now he's 7th in the league overall. What he lacks in explosiveness he makes up for with guile, craft, and hustle. His offensive rebounding has been hugely important for the Mavs, who would be historically bad in this area without him (Carlisle has stated that when a shot goes up, everyone but Zaza is to get back on defense). Zaza isn't a shotblocker, but his defense has been another pleasant surprise, keeping a lineup full of the eldery and/or infirm out of the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency. Backing up Zaza has been a veritable clown car of oddballs and no-names, from Dwight Powell and Javale McGee to Salah Mejri and even Jeremy Evans. Add David Lee to that list, now, too. Zaza may not been the best longterm fit in Big D (especially not as the athletic pick-and-roll partner Chandler Parsons needs), but Zaza will go down as one of the shrewdest moves Donnie and Cuban were able to pull off in recent memory. Enjoy him while he's here.

9. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Mostly this rank reflects Marc Gasol's recent injury, but Gasol had been having a down year anyway, as he tried to play through various nagging issues. Gasol is really a fairly tough player to gauge, since he has such a unique skillset for a center: he's a subpar rebounder, great passer, a marginally efficient scorer, and a quality defender who's impact in that last regard may be just slightly overstated. In any event, the Grizz are in serious trouble without him, as their recent moves haven't given them much of a quality backup plan. They let Kosta Koufos walk in free agency, signed the brittle, undersized Brandan Wright, and then traded Jarnell Stokes, who is somehow without a job even though he's done nothing but torch the D-League. A 37-year old Chris Anderson and JaMychal Green don't offer much help at the 5, so expect to see Zach Randolph playing out of position a lot.

10. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

If you could take Enes Kanter's offense and combine it with Steven Adams' defense, you'd have a pretty good player. As a platoon, I can't help but feel like this group isn't nearly as good as their raw production might suggest. Kanter already gets picked on in the twitterverse as being the hollow stat superstar, and maybe that's being a little unfair, but I can't think of too many players in recent memory who does all the things Kanter can do (beast on the glass, good PnR finisher, and a corner three sniper) yet still comes out looking unimpressive. Steven Adams is the other young talent in this equation, and while his athleticism is a big, BIG step up from the Kendrick Perkins days, add up all his contributions and you have a pretty average center. There's upside here, but if the Thunder never win a championship despite having two of the four best players in the league, blame the centers.

11. DENVER NUGGETS

Towns is obviously the best rookie in some time, but the best rookie you've probably never heard of? Nikola Jokic, the super-skilled Serbian big man who looks like a second round mega-steal for Denver. Analytic models were fond of Jokic, and we all see why now, as Jokic is 6'11 250 and can rebound and bang inside, but also step out and hit threes. Oh, and he's a sensational passer. Really, go check it out. The big question mark with Jokic was what position he would best defend, but so far it would seem he's answered that one, as the defensive data on him as a rookie center has been quite promising. Jokic has been so good he's completely supplanted Denver's other talented Euro center, last year's top pick, Bosnian Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic and Jokic may not be able to play together(they do compliment each other well as an inside-outside tandem on offense, but I'm not sure Jokic can guard power forwards), but it's a nice problem to have, along with all those extra vowels and hard k sounds.

12. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Portland presumably began the year thinking Meyers Leonard would be their starter, and that may partly explain the team's slow start. Since then, the primary center rotation has been Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, and in further evidence that the league is shifting towards small, quicker players, that undersized pair has worked. Portland has been one of the league's hottest teams of late, and a big part of that has been because of that duo's energy and athleticism snagging rebounds by the truckload and closing up pick and roll lanes. Portland is a strange team because they seem so far ahead of where people thought they'd be after the mass free agent exodus over the summer. They have a lot of borderline starters and athletic dudes without a defined position(Aminu and Harkless fit in here, as well), yet somehow it's all fit together. Credit former Mavs assistant Terry Stotts for that. Just hope Portland doesn't fall victim to the overachieving team that builds expectations up too fast, like the next team in this list.

13. PHOENIX SUNS

Poor Tyson Chandler. I guess I shouldn't feel too bad for him, since I'm sure he wouldn't have felt bad if Phoenix and Dallas were switched in the standings, but it's unfortunate that it looks like he won't get to spend the latter part of his starter-quality years on a contender. Injuries have ruined a darkhorse top 5 seed pick in the preseason, but it also looks like Tyson was not quite as ideal a fit with the Suns as people thought, as he wasn't utilized in pick and roll action nearly as much as he had been previously in Dallas. If there's been any advantage to Chandler's injury problems, it's that former 5th overall pick Alex Len has got to start, but his development has been slow, at best. Len has great size and looks the part as a rebounder/shotblocker, but the finer points of the NBA still seem like a long ways off.

14. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

The Pels' grand plan to skip years 2-4 of the rebuilding process has not worked out. Their future could still be plenty bright with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, assuming the two can avoid the injury bug. Step one should be finding the right guy to play next to Anthony Davis. Omer Asik has regressed significantly, and now is on the shelf. Alexis Ajinca has returned from injury, but struggled to build on his breakout season last year. Things are so bad for the Pelicans that Kendrick Perkins is looking at an expanded role at center now. Here's the list of things Kendrick Perkins can do on a basketball court: set illegal screens, look angry.

15. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Why didn't this team want to keep Robert Upshaw? Roy Hibbert has not worked out, and Hibbert's plummet in play may see him out of the league relatively soon. Behind him are Tarik Black and Robert Sacre. Yuck. Like the Lakers in general, there just isn't much worth talking about here. L.A has tried to go small ball, but Julius Randle has yet to set the world on fire, and apparently the team is considering shutting down Larry Nance Jr. with a knee injury. Probably for the best, because the Lakers need as many losses as possible. If their pick lands outside the top three, it goes to Philly. Pardon me while I have a schadenfreude-induced orgasm.