There’s a Charlotte Hornets connection to a starter in the NBA Finals.
It’s tenuous, for sure. But who would have guessed, 13 years later, that a player chosen in the Bobcats’ 2004 expansion draft would be starting for the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 Thursday night?
Zaza Pachulia has recovered sufficiently from a heel injury that he’s available to start against the Cleveland Cavaliers (9 p.m., ABC). Pachulia, now in his 14th NBA season, was a rookie when the Orlando Magic left him unprotected in the June 22 expansion draft to stock the then-Bobcats’ (now-Hornets) first roster.
Pachulia never played for the Bobcats. He was immediately dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks in a pre-arranged trade for the 45th pick in the rookie draft, which became Michigan’s Bernard Robinson. “B-Rob,” as he was known to teammates, lasted until 2007 in the NBA.
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So, Zaza, do you consider yourself a Bobcat?
“For an hour,” Pachulia said with a laugh Wednesday at NBA Finals media day in Oakland
Gerald Wallace was the most talented player in that expansion pool, earning an All-Star spot with the Bobcats in 2010. But Pachulia, from Georgia in Eastern Europe, is the only player then-Bobcats general manager/coach Bernie Bickerstaff selected who still plays in the NBA.
Pachulia, 33, played eight seasons for the Atlanta Hawks. Along with the Magic and Bucks, he also played for the Dallas Mavericks.
The Pachulia trade was one of four side deals Bickerstaff negotiated as part of his expansion-draft strategy. Among those trades, the Bobcats moved up to No. 2 in the 2004 rookie draft to take Connecticut’s Emeka Okafor and received the 13th pick in 2005, selecting North Carolina’s Sean May.
Pachulia said he got no forewarning when the expansion draft was announced that he was in fact already ticketed to the Bucks.
“I had no idea,” Pachulia said. “I (saw) it on TV, actually. Back then, social media wasn’t as active as now. A lot of people didn’t have my (phone) number.”
Only seven of the 19 players Bickerstaff selected in the expansion draft actually played in Charlotte that first season. Many of those players were scheduled to be restricted free agents, and under NBA rules became unrestricted once the Bobcats chose them.
Why didn’t the Bobcats retain Pachulia? His physical nature sure fit how Bickerstaff wanted to play. A similarly rugged big man, Jake Voskuhl, was in the Bobcats’ rotation their second and third seasons.
Bickerstaff was focused on another big man from Eastern Europe, Slovenian Primoz Brezec. The Indiana Pacers left Brezec unprotected in the expansion draft, and Bickerstaff liked Brezec’ pick-and-pop jump-shooting ability.
“We had Primoz and we didn’t really need another big,” said Bickerstaff, now in the Cavaliers’ front office. “But (Pachulia) always knows his role. He plays so tough and physical, and there’s always a place for a guy like that. He stays in his lane.”
Brezec was a starter for much of his 3 ½ seasons with the Bobcats before being traded to the Detroit Pistons in a deal for Nazr Mohammed. He lasted 11 seasons with various NBA teams, but certainly was no Pachulia.
How Pachulia ended up with the Warriors – he signed as a free agent last July – is a function of the Warriors’ successful pursuit of superstar Kevin Durant in free agency.
Golden State traded center Andrew Bogut to Dallas to help create cap space necessary to sign Durant. The Warriors also renounced their rights to Bogut’s backup, Festus Ezeli, to facilitate the Durant signing.
Free agent Pachulia fit the Warriors’ needs: tough, adaptive, low-maintenance and cheap. He makes about $2.9 million this season on a team with five other players making $11 million or more.
Not bad for a guy who started 70 regular-season games this season for the Western Conference champions.
Even better for a guy cast off to an expansion pool the summer of 2004.