But they do bring up some vital questions about trustworthiness and motivation. It’s never really been a matter of whether Zach is good at what he does. It’s more a question of what his ultimate goals are and whether those fit with the long-term goals of this team.
When the Clippers traded Zach Randolph to the Grizzlies (for Quentin Richardson) in 2009, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. All I knew of Zach Randolph was that he got in trouble a lot, was a bad teammate, and got paid a whole lot of money – so much that he hampered the ability of his team to go out and get other good players. All I knew about Zach Randolph was all I’d read about him in the media: that he was a drama guy, a selfish player, a bad apple.
He didn’t seem like the kind of guy I wanted on my team. I didn’t want to have to root for him.
I wish I could take back my initial reaction to that news. The way I judged Zach Randolph before he’d played a single minute in a Grizzlies uniform was completely unjustified. Zach Randolph immediately proved to everyone in Memphis that he was a changed man – or, if he hadn’t changed, he’d at least grown up a little, had mellowed into a (not very) lean, (very) mean, scoring and rebounding machine. He was still sort of a ball-stopper, but when he had the ball, he was dumping it on people’s heads with reckless abandon.
In February of his first season as a Grizzly, Z-Bo grabbed 25 rebounds in a road game against the Knicks. Earlier, in December, he’d scored 33 on the Warriors and had a 32-and–24 game against the Nuggets. This was an inside force the Grizzlies had never had before, and he was playing with something to prove. You could tell Randolph was on a mission to prove that he was a top-level NBA player, and that he wasn’t the man the media portrayed him to be – not anymore.
The crowning moment, the point at which the old Jail Blazer Z-Bo was completely replaced by the Grizz Z-Bo rising from his ashes, was his exchange with Doris Burke (at 5:15 on this video) after he dropped 31 points on the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs:
We all love Zach now. If his private life hasn’t actually settled down any, he’s at least figured out how to keep it out of the media. Now we see news stories about his badass car collection and his donations to help rehab a rescued pit bull. This is a guy we can get behind. The reason Memphis is such a good place for Z-Bo is the reason Memphis was a great place for Elvis, and a great place for artists and musicians throughout history: Memphis has a habit of rallying around people nobody else likes. We claim misfits as our own, give them space to breathe, and defend them. Zach Randolph is one of us now.
All of this leads us to the events of last season: Z-Bo needs to make another comeback, one just as improbable as his last one. His knee injury last year left him at 85% in the playoffs, and everyone wonders if he has it in him still. A Z-Bo that can’t play the way he did in 2010 and 2011 is a Z-Bo that can’t help this Grizzlies team reach new heights and contend for an NBA title. If Randolph can return from his knee injury and play the way he played two seasons ago, the Grizzlies will be a long way toward making another deep playoff run. If he can’t, it’ll be that much harder.
Zach Randolph, to me, is the quintessential Grizzlies comeback story. Nobody wanted him except for us, and now everybody wants him and we have him. He’s an indelible part of the identity of this franchise now. In 2009, nobody would have believed that that would be a good thing. Not even me.
That we’re even using the words "Grizzlies" and "NBA title" in the same sentence is a tribute to the change in attitude that accompanied Z-Bo’s arrival in Memphis: this is a real NBA team, who fights hard and wins games and swamps people with defense and obliterates them with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, one of the two most fearsome post scoring duos in the league right now. (The other one also features a Gasol, of course.) ↩