NBA Finals 2017: Tristan Thompson vs Zaza Pachulia
It’s the NBA Finals matchup we have all been waiting for, well at least since last year and maybe the year before that. The Cleveland Cavaliers are taking on the Golden State Warriors, again. There are plenty of noteworthy matchups in this NBA Final, but the most exciting matchup of all is Tristan Thompson vs Zaza Pachulia. Alright, maybe it is the least exciting matchup in the whole series. The competition between the two centers may be the most important though. What is the fun in analyzing the LeBron James vs Kevin Durant matchup? All in all, the other four starters on both teams may end up being a wash. The Thompson vs Pachulia matchup has all the potential to make a difference in this series. On one team, there is a player that has been a building block on the team for years. On the other team, a newly acquired veteran with grit and experience. Which center has the advantage?
Believe it or not, Thompson is one of the longest tenured players on the Cavaliers roster. Since coming into the league, Tristan Thompson has been the model of consistency. He is a rebound machine that averages 8.6 rebounds a game in his career. This is an important part of how Cleveland wins. They are a high percentage three point shooting team which leads to a lot of rebounding opportunities, That is where Thompson comes in. At 6’9”, Thompson would be considered small for a center in the NBA, but he still manages to collect rebounds at a high rate on a team that has plenty of mouths to feed. In the playoffs this season, the former Texas Longhorn is averaging 9.3 rebounds per game and 9.2 points per game. Those numbers are almost a double-double a game. If Thompson can continue this production along with defensive proficiency, he will be tough to handle for the Warriors.
On the defensive side of the ball, Thompson certainly does not hurt the Cavaliers. According the NBA.com, Tristan Thompson ranks 7th in the NBA in defensive win shares. Even LeBron James is lower on the list than Thompson. According to the Basketball Reference, defensive win shares are an “estimated number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense.” Needless to say by his ranking this season, Thompson is a force on defense. His current defensive win shares for the playoffs are 0.5. Based off the rest of the league, that is above average in defensive metrics. When the Cavaliers have a team that can score like they do, it is great to have a two-way player in the center that excels on defense. Thompson will for sure be a tough matchup for the Warriors to control.
On the other team, two new players try to fill the Center position. After having consistent options like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli leave, the Warriors had to grab a new center to play alongside the big four. That man was Zaza Pachulia, who has been a bit of a journeyman throughout his career. The golden state may be the best destination choice the Georgian center ever made. The NBA playoffs have not been too kind to Pachulia so far this year. He is coming off a heel injury that apparently is no longer an issue and he has been branded a dirty player. Dirty may not be the best word to describe the big man. Unfortunately, injuries do happen in the NBA and Pachulia may just have been the reason for a specific one this postseason . If you watch the play over, it looked like a mistake, even though others think it was intentional. Either way, Zaza is one of the grittiest players in this series. He is the closest equivalent the Warriors have to a hockey enforcer (unless you count Draymond Green). How has Pachulia done in California though?
Zaza has actually produced pretty well in Northern California. It is tough to put up high production numbers when the other starters around you are all-stars. This leaves the center to be a rebounder that plays defense. In fact, both teams in the NBA Finals ask their centers to do the same thing. For the season, Pachulia averages 5.9 rebounds a game, 6.1 points a game and 0.5 blocks a game. Those numbers do not really jump out at you as productive. What does jump out though are his 2.5 defensive win shares. He is actually a really efficient player on a team that just needs another body to go along with their stars. In the playoffs, the numbers are very similar. His rebound average is down almost by two rebounds, but his points are very close with the same 6.1 points per game. It is important to note that Pachulia is not asked to do as much as Tristan Thompson is. He also gets fewer minutes. If either of these players play above their averages, the series will be hard to predict.
The JaVale McGee Factor
The Warriors also have another center that may impact this matchup. Some critics of Pachulia have called for JaVale McGee to get more playing time. Overall, he matches up better physically with Tristan Thompson. McGee is very athletic, but does not hold the grit or basketball IQ that Pachulia does. Basically, Zaza is more willing to get his hands dirty and that can throw off the game of Tristan Thompson. Although it can be argued that Thompson has no problem getting his hands dirty either, I mean he is dating a Kardashian. The big factor here is that the Warriors have: two 7-foot centers that can attack the boards. Cleveland tends to run more of a small frontcourt. The size advantage could end up becoming a problem if the Warriors use their big men properly.
This matchup will probably not matter much at all. Both teams will start using smaller lineups to try to beat each other at their own games. If I had to pick an advantage between the starting centers in this matchup, Tristan Thompson would win every time. He is a young, quick center that can rebound, score, and play defense on one of the best teams to ever play basketball. The problem is the Cavaliers do not have a great option off the bench for when Thompson is not on the floor. Channing Frye is a nice piece, but he cannot be relied upon to be a force in the middle. That is where the Warriors have the advantage. They have two players that put up similar numbers and can rotate in and out for each other. The center position as whole goes the Golden State. Either way, it would be surprising to see any of these centers receiving significant playing time this series. Look for a lot of Draymond Green and LeBron James manning the middle during small ball lineups. The NBA is changing and quickness is winning over size these days.