Zach Randolph: The Heart of the Grizzlies
by T.P. Stockton, featured FanJam writer
The Memphis Grizzlies are up 3–1 on an injury stricken Portland Trail Blazers side in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Despite their (albeit less significant) injury woes, the Grizzlies went into this matchup as favorites. If Memphis had relied upon the odds and counted Portland out, they would have done so at their own peril, as they’re well aware of the chip on the shoulder that comes with being the underdog (especially considering the Rocket’s first round exit to the Blazer’s last year.) But true to form Memphis have performed excellently, without easing up and have done everything, from grinding in the paint, to making free throws, they’ve built a two game lead over Portland.
While this matchup has been eagerly awaited by Memphis fans and the organisation itself as it meant it wouldn’t be another heart attack inducing series against the Thunder, Clippers or Spurs (who Memphis faced in it’s last seven playoff series), it likely holds special significance to one member of the Grizzlies above others. Zach Randolph spent his formative NBA years in Rip City playing for the notorious Jail Blazers who were looked down on by the people of Portland. Of that roster, only one player remains, LaMarcus Aldridge (Joel Freeland, the 30th pick in 2006, but was stashed in Europe and not brought over to the NBA by the Blazers until 2012), just in his rookie season for the overlap before Randolph was shipped on to the Knicks in ‘07, followed by the Clippers a year later before finding a home he made his own in Memphis. Of course, Randolph has played in Portland many times over the past seven seasons but a playoff return to the city has been exciting, in particular seeing Randolph go up against his replacement LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint.
Forgetting narratives, the Grizzlies were very impressive in the early season but suffered from a lull post All-Star break, which was partially due to injuries. They are however still a formidable side and are one of the best teams in the league when hitting their rhythm. A deep team with a solid five bench players — six if you include the emerging rookie, Jordan Adams, who has pleasantly surprised the Grizzlies lately. On top of the addition of Jeff Green (who has been less impactful than expected thus far) and Russ Smith.
While these new additions and emerging talents are great, it is the core of the Griz that is the most important. If Mike Conley is the brains of this cringe-inducing metaphorical bear I’m about to describe, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen would be the claws, one offensive the other defensive (just roll with it!), then Zach Randolph is the heart. Memphis really need all four healthy to make any decent progress in the playoffs but if Randolph goes down they just seem to lose something more than the numbers he puts up. This is true of all players to some extent, but just seems more significant in the case of Randolph. He embodies the Grizzlies grit and grind spirit so thoroughly, it’s impossible to picture him on any other team for the remainder of his career. While Tony Allen has earned himself the nickname the “Grindfather”, Randolph has been key in forming that gritty identity in Memphis over the past few years. And although more recently the offensive torch has been passed to Marc Gasol from Randolph who is 33 and at a point where his intangibles seem to be as important as his statistics.
Just as the majority of the NBA shifts in one direction with the shooting of the Warriors and Hawks and efficiency of the Spurs leading the way, Memphis has been opting for a style that harkens back to that of the early 2000s, 90s and beyond. Being a relatively new team, maybe they just felt like they missed out on the physicality of the previous decades and need to play catch up. A lot of Zach Randolph’s value lies in the toughness and resilience he brings to the team, that has helped get them so far. Even as the Grizzlies’ front office has taken on a more analytical approach over the last couple of years with the addition of John Hollinger as Vice president of basketball Operations, Z-bo has not just survived in Memphis but outlasted other’s on the roster who might play more to the new NBA’s style in Ed Davis, Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter. Rookie Jordan Adams seems to suit the new direction the rest of the league is taking and if he continues to develop this aging Grizzly team could have a brighter young future sooner than some might expect.
If you don’t buy into the ‘eye test’ and ‘intangibles’ argument, Randolph’s regular seasons stats this year are fairly consistent with the last couple of years, but a mild decrease in minutes this regular season has seen some of his numbers drop a little, the main exceptions being his FG% which is up by exactly 2% (shoot less make more) to 48.7%, and his rebounds have gone up by 0.4 to 10.4 rebounds per game. The drops are all miniscule and can be attributed to the fewer minutes he’s received and the addition of Green and Lee, even if neither are having a dramatic impact alone. Not to mention that Marc Gasol’s increased offensive output especially in the early season would have taken away from his numbers.
Of minor interest is that he had the highest 3pt% of his career, but that doesn’t mean much when he’s only made 17 attempts beyond the arc this season, making seven of them. However, two of those seven were from beyond half court! That’s almost one third of his three’s scored from his own half. Here is one from a game against Sacramento in February:
A few quick milestones from the regular season:
In terms of the playoffs, all four of the first round series Randolph has been involved in on the Griz have gone to at least six games, if not the full seven games. Considering they were all against the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder that’s a lot of miles gruelling miles with tough competition. Last year’s first round in which he was ejected late in the 6th game against OKC and suspended for the crucial 7th game for punching Steven Adams who has an uncanny ability for getting under opposing player’s skin. There’s no telling what way that series would have gone had Randolph been in game seven but that Memphis side sorely missed his presence was painfully obvious.
Randolph, as unique a character as he is in the NBA, he works best as part of a unit and him and Gasol form the perfect one, feeding off each other in the paint:
Gasol returns the favor:
Z-Bo might be the most fun player in the NBA right now, certainly in the playoffs. Through what appears to be sheer will power and instinct he is often found in the right place at the right time, pulling off ridiculous rebounds, saves and impromptu shots. It’s not like watching someone like Harden or Curry who know their next 10 steps, I’m fairly sure Z-Bo knows his next one, and if that doesn’t work he’s happy to roll with it until something does. The thing is, none of it is by accident, it’s by design, genetic as opposed to calculated, each a decision made by intuition and a feel for the court ingrained in Randolph’s DNA, these are moves that can not be rehearsed.
In these two plays he keeps the ball alive in an almost comical manner that benny hill music would not be amiss on, yet despite the chaotic nature of the plays and how they unfold, Randolph sticks with the ball and both times his team ends up on top.
Opportunistic as they come, here Z-Bo is playing a different game to everyone else ignoring the mad dash to make/cover the fast break and instead with these impromptu jumping jacks he negates his own team’s turnover and gets Conley an open three, Jane Fonda would be proud.
One thing that Z-Bo most certainly practises is this jab step, he has it down so well that even when things go wrong after committing to the drive he can regain his composure to pull off a spin move in the paint:
As entertaining as those clips are you’d be mistaken if you considered Randolph a clown, when hot he can become clinical in his offense and can keep the defense on it’s toes in a much more controlled manner, here are a couple of clips from a Dallas game back in January where this happened.
No, just a bullet pass.
Z-Bo dominated that side of the court the entire game finishing with 22 pts and 10 rebounds, the shot chart is below. In the second clip above, you can see the entire Mavericks lineup looks a bit shell shocked by the pass, although Calathes’ cut played it’s role.
As mentioned earlier, Z-Bo’s main weaknesses is his temper, which can be taken advantage of by craftier players looking to provoke him. Saying that it’s not all down to other players and in that King’s game with the half court shot, he got riled up at one point and kept trying to trash talk DeMarcus Cousins who wouldn’t engage so then he turned to anyone who’d listen and was lucky to not get a double technical and ultimately elbowed Cousins in an ill-disguised move. As long as he keeps that energy in check and focused on the ball, he’s a serious asset to the Grizzlies in any matchup.
Randolph despite having a temper that can flare up comes across as playful at times and there are often glimpses of a grin appearing through a mean mug after a big play, with the grimace usually dissipating as he throws his hands around in a curious and childlike fashion as he celebrates when running back down the floor.
His style of play, especially that jab step, is reminiscent of a boxer poking at his opponent looking for an opening, an old school brawler who seems a bit rough around the edges and what often looks like aimless flailing is just an improvised dance, always looking for that weak spot, constantly feinting, and right when they least expect it — there’s the uppercut in the form of a drive, spin move, assist or fade away.
Or just some good old fashioned forcing his way into the paint for an and one against the future best player in the league, followed by ‘the strut’.
Randolph may not be the top scorer for the Grizzlies in any game in the playoffs, but you can be sure he’ll make his mark on both ends of the floor when it counts.
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