Sometime over the offseason, Zach Randolph turned into Bizarro Tony Allen. Instead of "turning off the water", as Tony likes to call it when he reigns havoc on an opposing player or team on the defensive end of the floor, Zach is now the guy the Grizzlies use to "unclog the toilet". The transformation of his game has been subtle, yet remarkable.
Going into last season, Coach Dave Joerger remarked that he wanted to get into his offensive sets more quickly, much to the derision of people around the city, national commentators, and rally organizers. The presumption, of course, was that he wanted the team to get up and down the floor, but as Chris Herrington noted in his post for ESPN's TrueHoop series, "For the Grizzlies, a quicker pace is less about pursuing early offense than avoiding late offense."
Z-Bo's career resurrection in Memphis has taken on a popular narrative, that of a "black hole" with a bad attitude whose game and outlook changed when his adopted hometown embraced him. While I'd argue that his past transgressions were generally blown out of proportion, it's inarguable that Zach has become a model citizen and player whose charitable endeavors have been recognized multiple times by the league and civic organizations. Moreover, he's so beloved in Memphis because he is so genuinely loveable: interacting with fans, flashing his million-dollar smile while posing for pictures, beating Kendrick Perkins' ass, saving the day on Pitbulls and Parolees (according to my wife), wearing white to his own wedding...
He also earned the respect and trust of his teammates along the way, and the team just seemed to fit his style of play (especially when Rudy Gay wasn't on the floor). But, let's be honest: Z-Bo never stopped being a black hole. Now, when he was routinely scoring 30+ points per game in 2011 and single-handedly torpedoing the Spurs (while earning 2nd Team All-NBA honors), that was something everyone could live with, but the past three seasons, there were hints of trouble brewing.
Until this season, Zach was the #1 scoring option for the Grizzlies, and an offense that runs through Zach is not one that is avoiding late offense. The most common set piece I can recall during the Grit 'n Grind era is a feed to Marc Gasol at the elbow from Mike Conley that works its way inside to Zach, either directly from Marc or via a pitchout from Marc to a wing player working around the arc that forces it back in. By the time Zach goes to work, the play clock is under 10 seconds, and Zach is forced into a contested shot. Even with his expansive and unique arsenal of post moves, Zach's skills undoubtedly slipped from "superhuman" to plain ol' "superstar" levels after he returned from a knee injury in 2012. As the league started catching on to the Grizzlies' brand of bully ball, this particular play has produced diminishing returns.
One of the prettiest plays that has ever been run in the history of this franchise is the Mike Conley to Marc Gasol pick-and-roll. Since Marc slimmed down and Mike improved his handle to The Professor-level, there are myriad options off the initial pick-and-roll that are almost unstoppable. Sometimes skinny Marc will just roll to the basket and posterize whichever poor SOB happens to be in his way:
Sometimes Mike will just shimmy-shake some poor SOB out of his jock and knock down one of those patented off-hand floaters.
Rarely do these plays utilize Zach, but watch those videos again closely and take note of where #50 is when the shot goes down (if he's on the floor): right under the basket. Every single time. Doing what Z-Bo does better than probably any basketball player alive right now: mop-up duty.
Unquestionably, Marc and Mike are more dynamic and prolific offensive players than Z-Bo at the respective stages of their careers. But look around the league: there are a lot of teams with a high-powered one-two punch that can run pick-and-rolls all day. What gives the Grizzlies' offense its jet fuel is having a player of Z-Bo's caliber willing and able to do the dirty work: crashing the boards, bodying up the best defenders, mopping up missed bunnies from his Bizarro Brother Tony Allen, and doing so with an energy and focus that haven't been seen for years. The Grizzlies' offensive rating has perennially been near the bottom of the league, but this year, it's jumped all the way up to the top 10, and it's not because the team is getting up and down the floor (their pace is still the third slowest in the league). Tanks are slow, too; but they'll get you through a minefield faster than a Maserati, and in his new custodial capacity, Z-Bo has made this tank hum.
Just to clarify: this piece is in no way intended to be a criticism or an indictment of Zach's play over the past few seasons. He was the number one option on the offensive end for a reason: he was the best offensive player on the team. Now, this honor may very well end up going to Marc Gasol or Mike Conley some time in the near future, but I don't think it would be any contest today if you polled experts and asked who they thought was the franchise's greatest of all time ("GOAT"): it's Zach Randolph in a landslide. Nevertheless, I can't think of a season since 2011 when I would've selected the GOAT as the team's MVP. This season, he's the guy that's making everything easier for his teammates, that's inspiring the team with his hustle and motor, that's doing the little things that tip the scales from a loss to a win.
Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown
Z-Bo was certainly never uncomfortable in his alpha dog role; he relished being the go-to guy, and he led the Grizzlies to heights that were nearly unthinkable when he arrived in Memphis. As I mentioned earlier, the popular narrative that he stopped being a black hole on offense was largely unfounded...that is, until this year.
"Marc is the engine of this team. How he goes is how we go," said Randolph earlier this year to NBA.com.
Later today, Marc Gasol will likely be announced as the first player in franchise history to start on an All-Star team. It's a unique honor for the team that's both well-deserved and slightly puzzling.* If he doesn't, he's a mortal lock to be named an alternate by the coaches.
*He absolutely deserves this honor, but I'm still confused as to how a guy who's never come close to cracking the list of top jersey sales and plays in Memphis is beating out the likes Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Tim Duncan in a contest that's voted on by the fans. Kobe Bryant sucks but he's still a starter. If you'd asked me before the season if this was possible, I would have told you that Yao Ming had a better chance of getting onto the All-Star team via the fan vote. My theory, though, is that because the Lakers and Knicks are both so incredibly awful (and so delusional), their fans have been voting for Marc as a way to "show love" to next year's biggest free agent.**
**Thanks for the support, fellas! But yea... keep dreaming.
Making the transition from alpha dog to a supporting role is one of the most difficult tricks to pull off in the NBA, and the above quote showed not only that Z-Bo understood that there was a new number one, but that he embraced it. It's just further evidence of the special bond between these two "brothers from another mother" (to borrow a phrase from Brevin Knight), but it also gets to the heart of why Zach has been so impactful this year on the floor. I think Zach knows that he would never have been able to blossom into the player he became and will be remembered as without Marc Gasol by his side. The deferential Spaniard set him up for success in every conceivable way: dropping dimes, sealing off defenders, coming over for backside help, etc. etc. As Gasol's game grew and Zach's became less effective, Z-Bo passed the baton with a smile and a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And then, if there was any doubt about his commitment to the long-term health of the team, the Grizzlies' GOAT gave the franchise its very first hometown discount when they re-signed him this summer. This dude's gonna be playing for $10 million next year! THIS DUDE!
Would you like to know some of the guys who will be making more than that next year?
Eric Gordon, Roy Hibbert, David Lee, Josh Smith, Rudy Gay, Nicolas Batum, JaVale McGee, Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin, Danilo Gallinari, Tyreke Evans, Larry Sanders, and Jrue Holiday, among others. That's not even including the contracts that are going to get inked this summer to guys who aren't half the player or person that Z-Bo is.
Without the stresses of carrying the load and being the franchise player, Zach has been rejuvenated on both ends of the floor this season. Most notably, he's rebounding better than at any time in his career, which is almost unthinkable. He's grabbing an absurd 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, and both his offensive and defensive rebound rates are top-7 in the league. His PER is as high as it's been since 2011, and his win shares per 48 minutes is higher than at any time in his career outside of 2011. He's also taking 2 fewer shots per game than he did last year while his scoring average is down only 0.7 points; and his real plus minus is up from 2.09 to 2.88 over the same span (according to ESPN.com).
One of the reasons that I likened him to Tony Allen is because I can't remember a time that I've seen so much effort from Zach since the 2011 campaign. Tony has caught heat throughout his career for taking extra time off when he suffers an injury, but one of the reasons that he does that is because he realizes his limitations and understands that if he can't give 100% effort, he's not going to be able to positively impact the game. I have no inside knowledge with respect to Zach's knee injury earlier this year, but the way that he came roaring back suggests that he may have adopted this mentality. If that's the case, then it offers a unique insight into Z-Bo's transformed perspective when you consider how things played out in 2012 when he came back from a prolonged knee sprain. First, he demanded his spot in the starting rotation back from Day 1 even thought Marreese Speights was doing a pretty admirable job in his stead. Then, when it was clear that the injury was still hampering him, he continued to demand the ball, which created extra tension with Rudy Gay. This year, on the other hand, Z-Bo waited until he got right. And when he got back, there's no doubt that he was playing with 100% effort. Almost every year he's been in Memphis, Zach Randolph has been the best player on the team, but this is the first time he's been the catalyst for making everybody around him a better player.
Number Fitty for da City. Z-Bo. Midseason MVP.