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Memphis Grizzlies 2016-2017 Player Previews: Zach Randolph

Will Z-Bo begin his 16th season on the bench?

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NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

2015-16 Season Overview

During David Joerger’s swan song season, Zach Randolph averaged his lowest marks in points, rebounds, and minutes played (not counting the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, where injuries limited him to just 28 contests) since 2003. That stat line was still decent, if no longer awe-inspiring: 15.3 points, 7.8 rebounds (his first single-digit average for Memphis over a full healthy season), 2.1 assists, 79.6% free-throw shooting, 47.5% field goal shooting, and 29.6 minutes.

But last season’s Grizzlies had been beset by a rash of injuries (including to Marc Gasol and Brandan Wright, two other key rotation big guys), and Randolph if anything should have stepped up his offensive output and his rebound-shagging in their absence. But it was a feat he couldn’t quite muster, as he too struggled against some nagging aches and pains, missing 14 games. Randolph was also 34, and playing through his 15th season in the NBA. His age had finally started to show in a hurry.

Projected Role

It happened not with a bang, but a whimper. After finally delivering on a decade of unfulfilled promise, with an All NBA award, two All-Star seasons, and six straight playoff berths, Zach Randolph quietly came off the bench in the Memphis Grizzlies’ first preseason contest on Monday night. The Grizz won, netting a 102-97 victory over Orlando. Z-Bo, the most beloved basketball player in Memphis, was replaced in the starting five by young blood JaMychal Green, a move that GBB knew was a real possibility heading into this season -- but I for one was not expecting this to happen so soon. Randolph hit the hardwood for just 10 minutes and 31 seconds (but, you know, this is preseason, so don’t worry about the number being quite that low).

He converted just one of four field goal attempts, but pulled down five rebounds and added one dime and one steal during his limited window; his plus-minus was a respectable +7. Green, meanwhile, didn’t fare significantly better stats-wise in double the time. He had six points (going two-of-four from the field), four rebounds, and one steal in 21:29 worth of game time, and a plus-minus score of -1. Is Green’s starting job safe? Of course not. But I think he’ll steady his nerves soon enough. Internally, the Hollinger-Wallace front office brain trust seems to want to try Green out there, too.

New head coach David Fizdale, formerly a top assistant with the Miami Heat, has openly discussed speeding up the Grizzlies’ offensive attack, despite most of their big-money personnel being better suited to a half court pace. Certainly, Randolph and fellow post behemoth Marc Gasol have always put the “Grind” in “Grit ‘N’ Grind,” winning their battles beneath the basket with bulk, strength, and resilience, not dexterous quickness.

Although it was just one game, all signs pointed to the obvious: Randolph’s days as the signature starter on the team that he and First Team All-Defense have defined more than any other player are probably over. That doesn't mean that the 6’9”, 260-pound Michigan State product can't still be a huge contributor for the new Fizz Grizz, feasting on backup bigs in the time that he does log. Again, it’s unclear whether or not the Green-for-Randolph swap is permanent now, but the fact that’s already happening in the preseason does not bode well for the former Mr. 20 and 10.

A conciliatory Randolph tidbit, since a lot of this player preview feels like a eulogy of sorts: he is one of only six players from his 2001 draft class to survive into his 16th season. This in itself is quite the feat. In kicking the tires for another go-round, Z-Bo joins future Hall of Famers and champs Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, borderline Hall of Famer Joe Johnson, former Defensive Player of the Year and champ Tyson Chandler, and reigning title winner Richard Jefferson.

Best-Case Scenario

The extended rest and generally inferior competition reinvigorate the grizzled Grizzly in his 16th season. Randolph bullies backup bigs on the block, scoring and gobbling up rebounds by the bucketload. His efficient numbers in combination with a terrific Grizzlies record (thanks to healthy seasons from Memphis’s key cogs) earn him a Sixth Man Of The Year award. It's really frustrating to see Randolph possibly transitioning in what feels like a more permanent capacity than last season, when he came off the bench for 15 of his 68 games. I wanted to see him make another All Star team or three, and be the second-best player (after Conley or Gasol) on a championship team.

Why? Not just for the glory of the Grizz, but also for the glory of Zach. There was never a question about the ceiling of Randolph’s talent — it was Hall of Fame caliber. Dumb choices in his prior stops (especially his boneheaded behavior during his Jail Blazers run and his quest to get even fatter than Eddy Curry on the Knicks) ultimately doomed his Springfield chances. He left several All-Star seasons on the table before finding some redemption on Beale Street. But we’ll forever be left to wonder what might have been.

Worst Case Scenario

Randolph’s PER will improve, but the bench demotion and his advancing age will hurt him in free agency next summer. Z-Bo is a great teammate in Memphis now, but he sure wasn’t in Portland, New York, and Los Angeles. While I don’t see things descending to that level of interpersonal bad feeling, I do think it’s quite possible that the smaller role bruises Randolph’s pride, and he at least sniffs around for a richer deal (either in money or in Vegas title odds) elsewhere this summer.

If he’s looking for a payday, Sacramento, as we know, loves power forwards. If a slower, less-decorated player like Al Jefferson (who was healthy for just 47 games and averaged just 12 points and 6.4 rebounds, in just 23.3 minutes, for Charlotte last season at age 31) can ink a deal as a bench cog on a good Pacers team for three years, at $10 million per, then the odds are good that a healthy Zach Randolph can net at least a similar annual rate (though he probably won’t get three guaranteed years anywhere) with his next contract. That number would prove a bit too rich for Memphis’s tastes. Z-Bo is making that much now, but of course a $10 million season was significantly more impressive before this past summer’s massive salary cap hike.

Randolph would automatically be the second-best player on the Kings, by the way, if he signed with them today (fine, fine, maybe third; I see you, Rudy Gay). If he’s looking for postseason hardware, he’d be a big help to a suddenly-thin Spurs front line rotation (their third big man is, uh, David Lee).

Overall Expectations

Zach Randolph will be healthier this year than he was last year, thanks in no small part to that reduced minutes load and the return of Marc Gasol. He will be Memphis’s most valuable bench asset this side of Wade Baldwin. Barring a deep playoff run, Randolph will also absolutely test the market this summer.

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