Since joining Memphis in July of 2009, Zach Randolph has been a staple in the Grizzlies’ starting lineup. Excluding the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, Randolph started 380 of 382 regular season games that he's played in through the end of the 2014-15 season.
That started to change last season. As Dave Joerger shuffled his lineups around in the middle of the season, Z-Bo found himself the odd man out, relegated to a bench role while guys like Jeff Green took starts at the four.
The removal from the starting role also came with a reduced workload. Randolph's minutes per game dropped below thirty for the first time since '11-'12, and only the second time during his Memphis tenure. Several factors contributed to that drop: the development of JaMychal Green, the arrival (and ability) of Jarell Martin, as well as Joerger's attempts at Jeff Green-centered small ball all played a part in Randolph’s diminished role. If not for the injury plague of the second half of the season, it's arguable that Z-Bo's playing time would've dropped even lower.
Now, on the verge of a new season and under a new coaching staff, it's worth asking what Z-Bo's role will be moving forward. Will he return to his starting spot, or will he be relegated to the second unit?
The answer, most likely, is both.
Fizdale will have his work cut out for him early figuring out how to manage his rotations, particularly given the team’s lack of experience in the backcourt (and, more specifically, at point guard). Randolph’s presence, on the other hand, offers him options in the frontcourt, the ability to match up based on opponent. When faced with size early, Fizdale can pencil Z-Bo into the starting spot. On nights when the opponent presents more athletic play at forward, Fizdale can roll out a small lineup with Chandler Parsons at the four.
Speaking of Parsons, the recent injury update likely means Randolph will keep his starting job early in the season. The Grizzlies' new toy figures to be the key to small ball for the team, and with him limited to start camp, it's likely Fizdale will want to lean on Randolph's veteran leadership to anchor the power forward position, at least for his starting five.
But regardless of whether Randolph starts or comes off the bench or some mixture of both, the important thing to watch in the upcoming season will be his minutes. You might not have heard (sarcasm alert) but Randolph is somehow succumbing to the immutable laws of the universe and getting older. It’s likely not the best decision if Z-Bo wants to play basketball forever, but it is what it is. He’s getting older, and can no longer shoulder the sort of playing time that he did in his younger years without putting himself at risk of injury.
This isn’t really new. Randolph’s playing time has been trending downward for a while now. Since 2009, his minutes have decreased every year (again, excluding 2011-12), and there’s no reason to think that will change this season. But even while his playing time has decreased, Z-Bo has managed to contribute meaningful minutes to the Grizzlies, and that’s really all that matters.
Regardless of whether Randolph starts or comes off the bench, he’s still an integral part of the team’s success, and while he’ll eventually cede his starting spot to one of the Grizzlies’ younger players full time, it’s not quite time for Z-Bo to butt-slap off into the sunset just yet.