Zaza Pachulia is a 13-year NBA veteran who has carved out a very respectable career as a bruising, old-school big man. After being traded to the Mavericks this season, Pachulia is having one of his best years yet, averaging 10.5 points and 10.8 rebounds while starting every game. While those are good numbers, and Dallas is incredibly grateful for finding Pachulia when they were in desperate need of a center, they're not All-Star numbers.
So, why did Pachulia just come within 14,227 votes of representing the Western Conference as a starter in Toronto next month?
Although Pachulia had done well in early voting returns, he was still a long ways away from being an All-Star starter. But when TNT revealed the All-Star starters on Thursday, there was Pachulia, less than 15,000 votes away from passing Kawhi Leonard and suiting up next to Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. It sounds like a prank planned by a niche group of basketball comedians, but here's how it happened.
Fan voting allows things like this
When you let fans to vote for an All-Star Game, a popular, undeserving player could always get voted in. In fact, that's exactly the reason why Kobe Bryant is starting in the game next month, despite shooting under 35 percent from the floor. Purists hate it, because All-Star nods are still considered during Hall of Fame considerations, but it's mostly fun. If enough fans really group together wanting to see a specific player, isn't that what this otherwise meaningless game is about?
But how does Zaza Pachulia, who has spent a majority of his career coming off the bench, have enough fans to garner more than 750,000 votes!?
Meet Georgia, and not the one with Atlanta
Pachulia was born in Tbilisi, the capital and largest city in Georgia, a country located south of Russia and north of Turkey with a population of 3.7 million. Because Pachulia is the only Georgian in the NBA, and because he was having his best season ever, it wasn't hard for the country to singularly rally around him.
We've seen international voting swing players into the starting lineup before, notably with China pushing Yao Ming into several games when he was with the Houston Rockets. But Yao was a borderline All-Star anyway, while Pachulia is simply a hard-working yeoman. That he got this close is a testament to the Georgian people.
Pachulia had some unexpected support
With so much of the All-Star voting being conducted over social media in recent years, we get to see some strange endorsements of players. There was the president of Georgia, of course, as you might expect.
There was also Grammy winner Wyclef Jean, who sang a song in favor of Pachulia's All-Star candidacy. Listen to this!
But by far the most impactful endorsement must have been Vine star Hayes Grier, who earned nearly 10,000 votes alone with these two tweets.
Make sure you put his last name! #NBAVOTE Zaza Pachulia— Hayes Grier (@HayesGrier) January 16, 2016
By pandering to his 3.23 million Twitter followers, Grier must have brought in at least 50,000 votes from this alone, you'd imagine -- maybe plenty more. We saw a huge push from the final voting returns to Thursday's actual results and this sure seems like it must have been a major part. Why Grier decided he was joining the Pachulia bandwagon, though, is anyone's guess.
This was closer than the votes even indicate
In the final All-Star returns prior to Thursday's announcement, the Warriors' Draymond Green actually held the final spot. Pachulia beat him by more than 40,000 votes, but they were both lapped by Kawhi Leonard with the help of a very strong push by the Spurs fan base and social media staff, along with this one very viral tweet.
Kobe Bryant, the NBA's leading vote-getter, was also strangely listed as a forward, despite playing guard his entire career. If he had been properly listed, Pachulia would have sneaked in.
It's probably for the best. It would have been great fun to see Pachulia joining the starting lineup -- basically a glorified pickup basketball game -- and bring his hustle and offensive rebounding to a game typically devoid of it. NHL fans will be treated to something similar in their All-Star game this year. But Leonard is clearly on of the top-five players in the NBA, never mind just the Western Conference, and Bryant's inclusion will already cost one deserving player his spot.
For a brief moment, though, we got to imagine the hilarity that would have been Zaza Pachulia as an All-Star starter. And for that moment, everything seemed right with the world.
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