Ever since the Big Georgian squared off against Kevin Garnett in an epic 7 game series against the Boston Celtics in 2008, Zaza Pachulia has been a fan favorite and the emotional heart and soul of the Atlanta Hawks. Sadly, we may have already seen the last of him in an Hawks jersey. He has chosen to undergo surgery on his sore right Achilles tendon. Pachulia becomes an unrestricted free agent this season after 8 seasons in Atlanta and new General Manager Danny Ferry and the rest of the Hawks front office may choose to go a separate direction from the era of perennial first and second round playoff exits.
Pachulia started every game he appeared in the 2005-06 season, but since then he has been a part-time starter. Part of this was because of the drafting of Sheldon Williams in 2006 and then Al Horford in 2007 but despite his decreased role, he always provided gritty hard-nosed play when called upon. He has never averaged more than 8 points or 8 rebounds per game since the drafting of Al Horford but, as KG will attest to, Zaza will never back down to any challenge.
The role of low-post banger may now belong to Ivan Johnson, who had his first career 20 points, 10 rebound game against the Magic yesterday. With the loss of Al Horford for most of last season, Ivan was inserted into the rotation as the backup center behind Pachulia and played extremely admirably for an undrafted 27 year old rookie. It will be hard to project how many more minute Ivan is allotted going forward, but he averages a solid 15 points and 9 rebounds per 36 minutes on very good shooting numbers (50.7 FG%, 53.3 TS%). His lack of size for the center position may be a hinderance but Larry Drew is almost near being out of options in that regard.
Johan Petro will also play a bigger part in the last 8 games and postseason. He is the only remaining player above 6’10” on the roster and may be called upon to protect the paint and neutralize the likes of Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah or Brook Lopez in the first round of the playoffs. The positive effects of Jason Collins in the past few season should not be overlooked, as Petro profiles as a similar type of player who may frustrate with his seemingly ineptitude on the offensive end. However, though it is hard to quantify defensive contributions and his seem unsightly (opposing offenses see a 7.2 point per 100 possessions increase in production with Petro off the court as compared to on the court according to Basketball-Reference.com), the effect of having a large body down low on defense cannot be overstated even in an era of increased small-ball play.
The increased roles of Johnson and Petro sets forth a chain of events that could end up in a heavier reliance on Anthony Tolliver and rookie Mike Scott at the power forward. Scott had a career game in a loss to the Boston Celtics Friday night, scoring 19 points on an efficient 10 shots. Like Pachulia, Scott can step out knock down the midrange jumper with ease as the team tries to cope on the offensive side in the days forward. Tolliver is known as a stretch 4 forward, who has hit 35.7 % of this shots from beyond the arc so far this season. Over 60% of his shots this season have come from that range according to Hoopdata.com so he isn’t the likely candidate for an inside presence.
A team that withstood the departure of 6 time All-Star Joe Johnson a season after enduring Al Horford’s pectoral injury while remaining in solid playoff positioning can do the same in the wake of Zaza Pachulia’s unfortunate setback. I’m sure all of Atlanta wishes Zaza Pachulia a safe recovery and hope that he can return in a Hawks jersey next season.