Zach Randolph was once unstoppable.
The 2011 NBA Playoffs were the peak of his powers. He was utterly dominant, uncontainable, incomprehensibly capable of carrying the Memphis Grizzlies to their first playoff series win in history against the one-seed San Antonio Spurs. He was able to do it against the Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder (in a competitive series that Memphis lost), two of the best teams in the Western Conference, and usher in a new era of Grizzlies basketball. An era of never-before experienced success, of memories that will last from generation to generation in a city where the team and its fans made a bond that may never be broken.
From "Jailblazer" to subject of civic folklore. The villain became the hero.
His performance during that playoff run was remarkable, as these statistics from basketball-reference.com show. His per-game numbers were impressive, to say the least.
|Points Per Game||22.2|
|Rebounds Per Game||10.8|
|Assists Per Game||2.4|
|Steals Per Game||1.1|
|Free Throw %||82.1%|
What really stands out about that free throw percentage, in particular, was the fact that he attempted 8.2 shots a game from the charity stripe. Converting on 6.7 attempts is tremendous, and meant a lot to Memphis' success. Foul trouble for opposing bigs, aggression at the rim opening up opportunities for the Greivis Vasquez's and OJ Mayo's of the world.
His advanced numbers paint a similar picture- dominance and impact.
|2011 Playoffs (13 Games)|
|Win Shares Per 48 Minutes||.171|
|Wins Above Replacement||1.9|
Zach was a full two games better than a replacement player during this run. There were stretches of games where he was not only the best player on the Grizzlies- he was the best player on the court, and it wasn't close. His shot chart from those games shows a player who was aggressive at the rim and able to finish consistently.
His rebounding? Damn impressive, his calling card.
|2011 Playoffs (13 games)|
|Defensive Rebounds Per 100 Possessions||10.2|
|Offensive Rebounds Per 100 Possessions||4.5|
|Defensive Rebound %||22.4|
|Offensive Rebound %||9.4|
|Total Rebound %||15.8|
Not only was he dominant, he also was timely. He hit some pretty miraculous shots...including this one that is ingrained in most Grizzlies fans' memories.
He was Memphis' greatest story. He seemed like he couldn't miss. His defense was not a liability, and even when it was he was so dominant offensively and on the glass that it was negated and then some. The most impressive part was the minutes he played- 515 in 13 games, good for 39.6 per game. He was on the court, playing his ass off, giving his teammates and the city of Memphis a reason to believe. He inspired an entire movement, a sunrise on a new day in the Bluff City.
Zach Randolph was unstoppable.
Now? That Zach Randolph ceases to exist.
Of course it is hard for anyone to sustain those numbers, and Zach has had success in the past four years, with stretches and flashes of that folk hero. However, now more than ever, four and a half years later, "Super Z-Bo" is but a faint memory. This fall, alongside the movement in the NBA and recently of Memphis to "go small", has led the once "Super" Randolph to the bench.
While he is most certainly far from the only issue in Memphis, he is under-performing and starting to show his lack of versatility more than ever. His current season stats, in per-36 minutes form, since his minutes per game this season are nowhere near what his 2011 playoff run was. He is at 29.3. MPG...and falling. He only played 14 minutes in the win against Indiana, his lowest minutes in a game since 2012.
|Points Per 36 Minutes||15.9|
|Rebounds Per 36 Minutes||10.3|
|Assists Per 36 Minutes||1.9|
|Steals Per 36 Minutes||0.7|
|Free Throw %||77.4|
Lower across the board, and he also is only attempting 3.2 free throws per-36 minutes, a far cry from the 8.2 he attempted at his Memphis peak. He is not getting to the line because he is not attacking the rim as often; he is settling for his outside jab-step jumper far more often, as his shot chart demonstrates.
He is shooting less inside, and at a worse clip. 27.1% of his attempts are coming in the five zones between in and around paint and the three point line. During the 2011 playoffs? 14.3% of his shots came from these areas. Too much of his work offensively is currently being done outside of the lane.
His rebounding numbers, while close to his 2011 playoff stretch, are misleading. Below are Memphis' rebounding rankings as a team the past five seasons...since "Super Z-Bo".
|Year||Rebounds Per Game/Rank|
The lowest ranking of the past five years. Their rebounding differential in 2015-2016 of -2.3 (meaning opposing teams are on average winning the rebounding battle against Memphis by 2.3 per game) is also the worst of the past five seasons, and has been on a steady decline the past two seasons. In 2013-2014 the differential was +3.2...in 2014-2015 it was +.2.
Of course, Zach Randolph cannot grab every board, and as stated above his individual rebounding numbers line up with his 2011 playoff stats. He is not necessarily the problem on this end. But the team's gradual decline in this category coincides with Zach's declining numbers and minutes, especially since the movement to "small-ball" often means a bit of a loss on the glass. The losses in rebounding were happening with Zach on the floor; why not try something else to get the offense flowing, the defense moving?
Randolph's advanced numbers? Down as well.
|Win Shares Per 48 Minutes||.065|
|Wins Above Replacement||-.54|
Zach is in unfamiliar territory. He is no longer the hunter- he is the hunted. His usage rate is the lowest it has been since 2012-2013, and will likely only go down in his new role (18.5 in the last five games, which would be the lowest usage rate of his career). He is becoming more and more unable to finish at the rim due to the length and athleticism that more and more NBA bigs have at their disposal. Defensively, he is becoming more and more limited- and is subject to the attacks of opposing teams, especially on the pick and roll. Shooters are converting 2-point shots 5.2% more often when being defended by Zach than their average, according to nba.com/stats.
Compare that to Jeff Green (shooters perform .1% better on 2-point attempts), who has slid in to that "4" role more often with Zach going on the bench, and consider Jeff's ability to move his feet laterally/switch (in theory) in those pick and roll situations, and you have a better understanding of why the move of Zach to the bench occurred. In addition, Matt Barnes can defend that position as well. That versatility makes for more effective defense and offense in the modern NBA, and Zach is not versatile. His issues are not new, either- our own Andrew Ford made this compilation of poor pick-and-roll defense by Zach last season.
The issues have become more pronounced as this season has moved along. He simply cannot overcome his defensive shortcomings like he once could. JaVale McGee denied him at the rim against Dallas not once, but twice, with the second being a questionable goal tending call. Time and time again, Zach struggles with fours who can space the floor, or wings/point guards who create off the pick and roll. He can't recover to the three point line, he can't stay in front of dribble penetration. A Grizzlies team that has issues scoring the ball is trying to get out and run more, and that is not Randolph's strength. While the NBA is evolving, it isn't just that the game has passed him by- it's the fact that time has caught up to him, and what once made him great now only makes him as his PER suggests...average.
Super Z-Bo? He no longer exists.
2011 Zach Randolph is but a distant memory. But this is not an obituary, or an ending; it actually can be the beginning of the last great chapter of this Memphis legend.
None of this means that he has no value. On the contrary, as a bench player he can provide a wealth of experience and take advantage of non-starting bigs who are not as good as him, skill regression aside. Zach will see lesser competition and can play as a back-up Center type in his new role, going up against players who have either a similar athletic skill set or are simply not to his level as a basketball player. With Brandan Wright out for at least the next six weeks with a knee injury, this is most certainly a position of need.
Playing alongside a big like JaMychal Green can allow for Zach to play to his strengths, defending the less-athletic of the two opposing bigs and operating in the paint while JaM works in the pick-and-pop. What you lose in rim protection, you gain in veteran presence and theoretical scoring pop off the bench. If Zach can adapt to being defended consistently by centers and not power forwards, while challenging it can work.
He can play less minutes as well; with guys like Barnes and both Greens being able to play the "four" now, Zach can be saved a bit more to the tune of 20 or so minutes a night on average. The 34-year-old Randolph will benefit mightily from this as the season goes on, and if he is called upon to start? On any given night, Zach can pull a 20 and 10 out of his pocket. They may be more few and far between, but Randolph is not that far gone, as his recent 10 point, 11 rebound, 5 assist game against Chicago shows.
Perhaps the greatest thing Zach Randolph can offer to Memphis at this point? Solidarity. Camaraderie. Professionalism. Here is a guy who has started 786 regular season games in his career, 83.6% of them, and has started 56 out of 60 career playoff games. Here's a man who has done just about everything right since he arrived in Memphis, who has truly grown with the city and made it better. Here's a player who has carried this team on his shoulders multiple times and boasts a (arguably) Hall of Fame resume.
And he is now on the bench. And he is OK with it.
Zach Randolph's twilight does not have to be a depressing time. It doesn't have to be a negative and divisive issue on Twitter or on blogs, much less on the team. It shouldn't be a Zach vs. Jeff or Zach vs. Matt debate, and that isn't how Randolph is handling it, at least not publicly. He has said all of the right things, even jokingly acknowledging that this is the direction that the league has been trending and that Coach Dave Joerger has wanted to do this for a long time. When someone with the type of career that Zach has had is able to be that selfless from a playing time perspective, it serves as a shining example for teammates and organizational members alike.
It isn't about me. It's about the team. That's uncommon not just in the NBA, but in the world at large.
Zach Randolph continues to surprise, and rise, as his career nears its end. He is going out not in a blaze of glory, like his storied 2011 playoff run, but in a way that is better served for this incarnation of the Memphis Grizzlies. He gets paid regardless, but his actions, play, and demeanor point toward him truly believing that he is there to do his job, whatever it may be. He will do his best to deliver, regardless of role. Whatever his teammates look for him to be, he will be. He is showing that the growth as a man that so many believed had occurred in the Bluff City was genuine. He is leading in one of the most difficult ways to do so- on his way out.
Zach Randolph the basketball player was once unstoppable. Now? He is unconquered, staring in to his twilight, prepared to embrace what is next for himself and the team he once carried to relevance.
This new role may not be 2011 "Super". But those memories, and the man who helped build the Memphis Grizzlies and continues to lead in his own unique way, sure as hell is.