If you know anything about basketball, you can understand the glamour of being a starter. Starters are usually the best players on the team - they set the tone of the game, and almost always get more minutes than any other players on the roster. Zach Randolph was a starter, so he understands all of those things.
But now he’s not.
Based on the roster the team had pieced together, the change in style of play, and the addition of younger, faster players, it made sense to bring Randolph in as a reserve. But wait, coach! We’re talking about Zach Randolph, the 15-year veteran who’s spent most of his career bullying starters down low. Listen Fizdale, if you do this, you’re going to lose respect from not only him, but the city of Memphis. (Even our own Brandon C couldn’t decide which position was better for the team.)
But Fizdale went through with it. And Zach Randolph is thriving. The team is playing well, winning against the toughest opponents the NBA has to offer. Randolph’s minutes are down, and so are his scoring average and rebounding totals. But he’s playing the role the team needs him to play. And he’s doing it well enough to be considered for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
This award is given to the player that a bunch of important people (invisible NBA gurus) vote as the best player to come off the bench in the NBA. The only qualification: come off the bench more games that you start. Zach Randolph will come off the bench this season more times than he ever has in career.
Father Time wins every battle eventually, but the Grizzlies (encouraged mostly by Coach Fizdale) are trying to preserve Randolph’s playing ability as long as possible. He is able to stay healthy and mobile because he isn’t logging as many minutes. He’s also playing against lesser competition by battling opposing teams’ second squads.
Moving him to the bench has also given players like JaMychal Green time to improve their game as their careers mature. New additions like Troy Daniels and James Ennis III have benefited from playing with Randolph as well. His bully-ball style around the rim causes defenses to collapse on him, in turn leaving open threes for shooters on the wing.
There are other players in the league that make their case for Sixth Man of the Year as well. The strongest case moved from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Houston Rockets just before the trade deadline this year. Lou Williams, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year, has made a career coming off the bench and is thriving there again this year. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 3.1 assists, and 2.2 rebounds per game. Those are strong numbers for a starter on any team, but Williams makes the most of his 20+ minutes each game.
Compare that to Randolph’s numbers: 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 0.2 blocks per game. They play different positions on teams with extremely different styles of play. Randolph and Williams are a tough comparison; each person’s opinion will depend on what they value more statistically.
I haven’t studied the Rockets (or Lakers) enough to make a case for Williams’s value to that team, but I do know that the Grizzlies would not be where they are without Randolph. More often than not, Randolph is in the top 3 scorers on the team, and provides the veteran leadership the second team needs.
Add another player with an equally legitimate chance to win the award, Eric Gordon. Interestingly enough, he also plays for the Houston Rockets. So what does that mean? Their bench is scary good.
Gordon is arguably having his best year yet off the Rockets bench, averaging 17.1 points, 2.7 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game. He’s second in the league in 3-pointers made (tied with his teammate James Harden), and shooting 38% from deep. Oh, and he won the Three Point Contest during All-Star Weekend this year. Of the top 10 players in 3-pointers made this season, Gordon is the only one to come off the bench consistently.
Zach Randolph shoots threes this year. He has made 16 of 66 on the season. That’s 177 short of Gordon’s 193 for those keeping count at home. So obviously Randolph and Gordon are different players. When comparing these three top candidates, you have to be future oriented.
Williams and Gordon play on the same team. Their numbers will most likely decrease as the season progresses further. They’ve only played three games together, and already Gordon’s shooting percentage and points per game have dropped. That’s not to say they won’t play together well, but there are only so many points, assists, and rebounds to be had in one game. It will be tough for them both to maintain their hot seasons playing with one another.
Randolph’s place is cemented to the bench this year. Coach Fizdale will still rotate him in with Gasol and Conley, especially against guard-dominant teams. But he’s played well in his role on the bench, and the Grizzlies are learning the routine that Fizdale imagined by having Randolph come off the bench.
Zach Randolph is consistent - he’ll inevitably throw a prayer left hook into the basket and grab 10 rebounds without getting 10 inches off the ground. He may even throw a dunk in there (he has four this season, three versus the Suns).
He has made his case for Sixth Man of the Year based on statistics, but what isn’t measured is his professionalism. He made a huge sacrifice in minutes and glamour by coming off the bench, and doing it with success. Perhaps some of those voters that we will never hear from will notice the immeasurable intangibles that the man known lovingly among Grizzlies fans as Z-Bo has in spades.