Dallas Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia, a full-time starter for the first time in a decade, was almost voted in as an All-Star starter.
Pachulia finished fourth among Western Conference frontcourt players with 768,112 votes, just more than 14,000 behind San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard for the final starting spot.
Pachulia said he is humbled and honored to have come so close.
“Oh, man, it’s a great feeling,” Pachulia told ESPN.com. “I have a bunch of smiles. It’s all good vibes. I’m so thankful. I don’t think there is one player who is liked by everybody. Every single person has their own flavor. They like different players or whatever.
“What I’m thankful is that fans, without me asking anybody, they took it to this level. I was so close. It’s just an amazing feeling. I feel loved. That’s more important to me than being an All-Star, honestly. It’s not easy to be an All-Star, but it’s even more difficult to be loved by so many people and have so many people have your back, especially a guy coming from a small country like Georgia.”
Pachulia is in the midst of a career year in his 13th NBA season, averaging 10.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game after arriving in Dallas this summer in a salary-dump deal from the Milwaukee Bucks, who traded him for a top-55-protected second-round pick.
Pachulia finished with significantly more votes than several players with All-Star pedigrees who have strong cases to be selected to the team by the conference’s coaches. That group includes Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (651,850), San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan (431,087), New Orleans Pelicans forward/center Anthony Davis (400,688), Sacramento Kingscenter DeMarcus Cousins (364,270), Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge(268,003) and Mavs power forward Dirk Nowitzki (173,317).
Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (726,616) and Clippers centerDeAndre Jordan (269,427) are other worthy All-Star starting candidates who finished below Pachulia.
Nowitzki, a 13-time All-Star, joked that Pachulia lobbied for votes from “everyone with an Internet connection in Georgia,” his native country, when Pachulia had more than twice as many votes as him when the initial balloting was released weeks ago.
There was some truth in that jest, and Georgia, a country with a population of approximately 4.5 million, certainly stuffed the cyberballots. Musician Wyclef Jean, who has a mutual friend with Pachulia from Georgia, posted a song on social media campaigning for the big man.
“Man, my country is amazing,” Pachulia said. “It feels so great to be loved by this many people. That’s what I care about the most, and that’s why I’m so happy.”
Pachulia, whom the Mavs traded for after being jilted by Jordan in free agency, also has quickly achieved a cult-figure sort of status with the Dallas fan base because of his production, passion and easygoing personality. He is beloved by his teammates, who consider him an emotional and vocal leader, and is a major reason the Mavs are in the middle of the West playoff pack at 25-19.
According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, Pachulia never had finished higher than fifth among centers in the old All-Star voting system when that position was on the ballot, and never higher than 10th among frontcourt players in the new system.
“I’m so humbled by it,” said Pachulia, who spent Thursday afternoon visiting patients at the Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas. “Words can’t describe how happy I’m feeling with the love I’m feeling from the fans, from the Mavs fans and my people in Georgia. They appreciate what I do.”