Zaza Pachulia is a dirty player. He’s not clumsy and he’s not dumb. He knew exactly what he was doing when he fell on Russell Westbrook.
Just like he knew exactly what he was doing when he landed under Kawhi Leonard,
or when he punched Iman Shumpert in the groin,
or when he tried to yank Leonard’s arm out of it’s socket,
or the countless other times Zaza has went after the opposition’s best player with the intent to injure.
Zaza’s vile and despicable acts aren’t basketball, they’re something much more heinous. They also harken back to a different time in NBA history, when every roster was equipped with an “enforcer” and any smaller player who dared travel through the lane should expect swift and severe punishment in the form of a forearm to the jaw. And that’s the problem with a player like Pachulia. His actions would’ve fit in perfectly in the 80s or 90s, when he would’ve been able to deliver career altering injuries with aplomb. Instead, players like Pachulia are viewed today in a much different light, a light that speaks to the evolution of the NBA, and our romanticizing of the past.
Objectively the NBA is in a better place today than it has ever been in it’s history. The league is more popular than ever, interest is growing among key demographics, and the talent pool is as deep as we’ve ever seen it. The evolution of basketball strategy has done wonders for the aesthetic portion of the game. Better athletes who are more technically skilled than their predecessors has only allowed the game to grow, and the implementation of the three point shot has led to a more efficient and nuanced brand of basketball. Players are no longer allowed to be truly one dimensional. Even the lowliest of bench warmers today offer unique matchup problems depending on their specific skill sets. With all that being said, players who one might describe as gritty or tough still have a spot in the league today. Players like P.J. Tucker and Jae Crowder have been sought after assets because of their ability to play tough and give their team an edge. What the league should no longer accept are players like Pachulia, who make it a part of their game to try and take the opposing star out of the game.
With all of the research and information that has been developed in the past decade concerning player injury and their long term affects, each league should have a zero tolerance for players intentionally injuring other players. Regardless of the stakes, athletes regardless of the sport have the right to feel safe from malicious attacks. Yet, with news today that the NBA will not punish Pachulia, Adam Silver and the rest of the league office are setting a clear precedent that these sort of actions are still permissible in today’s NBA. While Silver could’ve used this as a teaching moment to the league’s future generations, he instead decided to allow the ugly underbelly of the NBA to flourish. Hopefully, it won’t take an injury to one of the league’s premiere stars for the commissioner’s office to realize the error of their ways.