Site Manager’s Note - Welcome new GBB writer Eric Monroe. Eric is currently a basketball player at Yale University. Give him a follow on Twitter @emonroe32
The city of Memphis lost one of its most beloved figures on Independence Day, just a week ago. There cannot be enough said about Zach Randolph’s contributions on and off the court for Memphis. He embodied the culture of the city perfectly with his tenacious, blue-collar style of play. He turned the Grizzlies from a lottery team to a serious contender, whilst giving back to the community with the most sincere brand of generosity.
However, all of those claims are well known by Grizzly fans, and have been reiterated over the course of the last few days following Z-Bo’s departure. And while he’ll be sorely missed, it is time to find the silver lining of Randolph’s decision to join the Sacramento Kings.
Let me be clear, the positives that may come from Zach Randolph leaving the Grizzlies are purely on the court. The community work, identity, and professionalism that Z-Bo brought to the organization will most likely never be matched. Randolph was an irreplaceable member of the Grizzly frontcourt during his time in Memphis, striking the fear of God into whatever opposing power forward he would face night in and night out (just ask Blake Griffin).
But with the glory that came with Z-Bo, there were imperfections that limited the Grizzlies’ on-court product at times.
Let me explain. Before Zach landed in Memphis from the Clippers, he had a reputation of being a “black hole” on the offensive end of the floor, meaning once you give it to him in the post, it's not coming back out. Having a player like this on your team is usually fine, as long as they’re really good and efficient, which Randolph was. In fact, we could probably all point to a handful of very important games that the Grizzlies won because Z-Bo would relentlessly pound his way into the key, pump faking and jump hooking his way to a rugged double-double.
Despite the past success, it has gotten to the point where the Grizzlies simply can’t rely on this style of play anymore. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is obvious: Randolph’s age. It’s no secret that Randolph’s numbers have slowly declined over the last 3 seasons, and though he still remains a fairly efficient and productive scorer, it’s fair to assume that his numbers would have continued to drop over the next couple of years if he were to have stayed in Memphis. Like I said earlier, one-on-one specialists like Z-Bo are useful only if they are talented and effective, and as time ticks on, Randolph will become less of each of those.
The biggest reason for parting ways with Randolph is David Fizdale’s basketball philosophy. Fizdale made it very clear during his first season in Memphis that he was going to speed the Grizzlies’ offense up. For the first time in the Grit ‘n’ Grind era, the offense looked like a (somewhat) modern NBA offense. The offense that Fizdale implemented required the power forward to stretch the floor regularly and get up and down the floor, which are not Randolph’s strong suits.
It was very obvious that the offense was designed around allowing Conley to create for himself or others off the dribble, and getting the ball to Gasol at the pinch post or beyond to create. In all of the actions, floor spacing from the 4 man is key, and quick ball reversals and knockdown shooters are necessary as well. Whether you agree with him or not, Fizdale doesn’t see throwing the ball into the post with limited off-ball action as an effective way to create good offense in the modern NBA.
It could be argued that with Zach Randolph in the second unit last year, he was the only player who could create offense given the lack of depth that the Grizzlies suffered from. That is mostly correct. However, if the rest of the second unit is not playing within the system that the first unit is, they won’t be ready to contribute when they are called upon to play with the starters. As we saw, the reserves weren’t very comfortable with the actions they were expected to execute come crunch time in the playoffs.
It’s not that Zach’s one-on-one game is objectively worse than another style of play; it’s just that it doesn’t fit within Fizdale’s offensive schemes. When a team is expected to play one way, and one of the players is not well suited to play that way, it affects the overall cohesion and rhythm of the game.
For example, three years ago, the Grizzlies were all on the same page offensively. If Conley came down the court and threw the ball into the post to let Z-Bo size his man up for half of the possession, no Grizzly player on the floor would feel out of rhythm. There was no conflict of interest; it was their bread and butter. Doing that now, however, is kind of like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
You can disagree with the Grizzlies moving past the days of a slow, methodical offense, but the current officiating rules do not reward that style of play anymore. If a guard barely gets hand checked, they get the call. If a post player gets body contact while going up for a jump hook, there’s a good chance that it’s not going to get called. That’s the unbalanced reality of officiating in the NBA at this time, and you can hardly knock Fizdale for moving towards a more perimeter-oriented offense.
The offensive identity of the Grizzlies was not distinct last year. With his first year under his belt, David Fizdale will feel much more comfortable putting the ball in Conley and Gasol’s hands this year, trusting that the whole team will be on the same page on the offensive end of the floor.
As we move on from Zach Randolph’s playing years in Memphis, we can look forward to the Grizzlies solidifying their new offensive identity, while not forgetting the man who put this franchise on the map.
Mike Conley said it best.