Zach Randolph has been a beast among boys this season, averaging a double-double in 16.7 points and 13.6 rebounds per game. He is second in the league in rebounding, and has gotten a double-double in every single game this season so far. After struggling with a slight tear in his MCL last season, Z-Bo has stormed back in a big way.
So, there's no better time to trade him than now.
Sure, the Grizzlies are on top of the world right now. They're tied for first in the Western Conference with the San Antonio Spurs with a 9-2 record, and that includes three consecutive victories over the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the previously undefeated New York Knicks. If the Grizzlies are playing this well, why shake up the team and trade Randolph?
You could've said the same thing about the Oklahoma City Thunder and their high-profile trade for Kevin Martin just prior to the beginning of the season. Fresh off of a trip to the NBA Finals, the Thunder's core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden looked poised to take the team right back there again this season. Then, Sam Presti, the General Manager of the Thunder, went out and traded James Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a few other pieces.
At first, the move caught many off guard. Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, had proven himself to be one of the league's most dynamic scorers, and he was still only 23 years old. Meanwhile, the 29-year old Kevin Martin was beginning to transition out of his prime, and rookie Jeremy Lamb didn't look to be anywhere near the prospect Harden was.
The reason Oklahoma City made that trade was for the same reason Memphis will need to trade Randolph: financial flexibility. Oklahoma City's finances were tied up between the huge contracts of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and giving Harden the hefty extension he was looking for would've meant sending the team deep into the luxury tax next season. With hiked-up tax rates starting next season, it was not something Oklahoma City wanted to do.
The Grizzlies are in a similar situation with Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies are financially tied up between the heavy contracts of starters Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Randolph. As a small-market team like the Thunder, the Grizzlies can't afford to put themselves in the situation of having to pay luxury taxes. They don't have the $3 billion TV contract the Los Angeles Lakers do or the Russian billionaire the Brooklyn Nets have, and even if the new group of owners include names like Penny Hardaway, Justin Timberlake, and Peyton Manning, paying the luxury taxes is unfeasible for a small town team like Memphis.
Memphis will need to make a trade and offload one of their big contracts to ensure that they can stay out of the luxury tax and have cap space going forward to sign free agents and resign their own players. Trade rumors have swirled around Rudy Gay for a long time, but trading Gay doesn't make sense for Memphis. Elite small forwards in their prime are a valued commodity in the NBA, and for a team with little to no depth at that position, it makes no sense for the Grizzlies to trade Gay.
Mike Conley, a top-10 point guard and one of Memphis' few capable playmakers, isn't an expendable piece for the Grizzlies, either. It comes down to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and that isn't much of a debate at all. Gasol, the fifth-year center in his prime, is much more valuable than Randolph, the 31-year old power forward coming off of a major knee injury.
As I alluded to earlier, Z-Bo has been playing extremely well, no doubt. But, he's the player that least fits the equation for the Grizzlies, and because of his high level of play, he can be traded while his market value is high despite the injury risk and the age factor. Not only that, but for the Grizzlies, they have enough talent behind Randolph in Gasol, Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur, who made his return last night from a leg injury that put him out for all of last season.
Trading Randolph will clear up $50.8 million of cap space over the next three years for the Grizzlies (provided Randolph doesn't opt out of his contract before the last year). A playoff team in need of a big body that can rebound at an elite level, like the Boston Celtics, would likely be interested in the 13-year pro. In the case of the Celtics, the Grizzlies could ask for a player like Avery Bradley—a young guard known for his scrappy defense, very similar to a Tony Allen (who happens to be on the last year of his contract for Memphis), albeit one at the outset of his NBA career rather than the end of it. More players and possibly a third team would have to be added to help facilitate the trade between the lopsided contracts of Randolph and Bradley, but it's one that could be very interesting for the Grizzlies to explore.
Regardless of who Memphis gets for Randolph, trading him is something they will need to do. It won't be easy to trade Z-Bo. He's endeared himself to the city of Memphis since he joined the Grizzlies, and now he's one of the city's most beloved figures. His hustle on the court brings energy to the crowds at FedExForum while he's on the court, and his bright smile lights up the city off of it.
It'll be an emotional farewell, but the Grizzlies need to suck their gut in and make a trade for the future. In a Western Conference dominated by aging superpowers like the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, it's important that Memphis maintains their cap flexibility going forward so that they can continue to compete when the veteran superstars of those teams retire. While Memphis has experienced solid success in the past few years, they haven't been able to reach the next level, and when the Lakers and the Spurs are knocked down a peg, the Grizzlies need to be right there to replace them.
The Thunder didn't have an easy time of it following the James Harden trade, but in a few years' time, the financial flexibility will pay off and they will not only have some of the NBA's most talented superstars, but also one of the NBA's deepest benches. That's the same path the Grizzlies need to follow for their best chance at winning a championship ring.
It's never easy to trade a player when he's contributing the way Randolph is currently, much less one that's a favorite of the fans. However, even if backlash from the fans will be harsh at first, it'll pay off three years later, when Memphis is not only still a elite team in the Western Conference, but an elite team in all of the NBA as well.