Tonight in Memphis, Tennessee, there is going to be quite the celebration.
One of the city’s greatest adopted sons is coming home.
Zach Randolph, who left Memphis and their Grizzlies in free agency this past summer, will be back on the hardwood of FedExForum. Many fans have been looking forward to this opportunity to thank Zach for all he’s done for the Grizzlies, and the city of Memphis at large, since he signed his 2-year, $24 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. His contributions to building both a winning culture on the court and a better community off of it are worthy of adulation, and the love that will be shown to Z-Bo upon his return this evening will be well deserved.
But there is a certain amount of longing in the emotions of the moment. Some among the fan base look to this game and point out that Zach has had several standout performances for the Kings, games that surely would have been better suited to have occurred in Beale Street Blue, not the royal purple of Sacramento. “Zach can still play,” they say. “We should have paid him” is a common refrain.
"Where I'm from bullies get bullied. In my hood bullies get bullied."— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 9, 2017
Zach Randolph (35 PTS / 13 REBS) to DeMarcus Cousins (38 PTS / 11 REBS) after a heated exchange.
Full highlights of Z-Bo vs Boogie: https://t.co/O3mcUmOoOh pic.twitter.com/asJ0LUTnAv
Fans see JaMychal Green (after an ankle injury derailed his season early on) struggling, and believe Zach should’ve been made a priority. They see Randolph as the player above, the bully on the block who can tame even the mightiest of mouths, if only for a moment. They hate the fact that their beloved Z-Bo is no longer here and look for reasons that he should still be in Memphis, despite the fact that Zach’s contract is far more than Memphis should ever have paid him.
For those in this situation, it’s the memory that remains. But the reality is that the Grizzlies and Zach both made the best decision for themselves.
Randolph? He would have been crazy to turn down that contract. He owed the Grizzlies organization nothing. He had already taken less money on a previous deal to stay in Memphis and help the team compete for free agent signings like Chandler Parsons. It is not Zach’s fault that money was (with the benefit of hindsight) spent poorly. He gave of his time, his talent, and his fortune to make the Grizzlies and Memphis as a whole better. The city and the man were both changed for good as a result, as I wrote about last summer.
For every game where Z-Bo bullies Boogie, though, there are 3-10 and 2-12 shooting performances in Sacramento. For every highlight reel of Randolph dominating in the post and mid-range, executing the fabled jab-step jumper to perfection, there is the fact that Zach is posting his worst net rating (-7) since 2007-2008 when he was with the New York Knicks and his worst defensive rating (111) since 2005-2006, when he was a Portland Trail Blazer. Not every number is bad- his PER of 19.0 is the highest it has been since 2015, and his true shooting percentage (54.1%) is the best it has been since he first came to Memphis in the 2009-2010 season.
What was true of Zach last year is still true now. He struggles defensively and is abused in pick and roll situations. The reasons Memphis decided they could not pay Randolph still stand, and are becoming even more pronounced as time goes on.
The Grizzlies would have been cash strapped if they had signed Zach Randolph to a deal similar to what Sacramento offered. Acquiring a player like Tyreke Evans (bad) or Ben McLemore (good) would have been more complicated if they had retained Zach’s services. Seeing the development of a Deyonta Davis, or the move to select Ivan Rabb, may not have occurred if Randolph had stayed in the plans of Memphis. Is there truth to the idea that having Zach around would make a season like the one the Grizzlies are currently enduring better? Of course.
The key thing that fans forget, where their memory conveniently fails them, is that this team did not plan on being this bad.
JaMychal Green played well last year. Better than Zach, by almost every metric imaginable and by simply using your eyes. Green is nine years younger than Randolph. The decision to sign Green, for ultimately less than what Zach got, and be able to go get players like Evans and McLemore (a bad call so far) was supposed to make the Grizzlies better. In one way Memphis succeeded and in another they failed- they misused a tool in the mid-level exception with McLemore, but hit a home run with the bi-annual exception on Tyreke Evans. With a little more health, and a little better use of the MLE (Justin Holiday, C.J. Miles, P.J. Tucker), this team could be in a very different place thanks to not bringing back Zach.
That’s all a daydream, though. We are where we are. Mike Conley isn’t healthy. Neither is Chandler Parsons. JaMychal Green has struggled to get back to that level of play where he was last season after his ankle injury. Because of all this, and other circumstances, the Grizzlies are now back among those, like the Kings, in search of lottery wishes and young star dreams. That was not the plan of this organization. It is its current truth, though, and that will only strengthen the views of some that letting Zach Randolph go was a mistake.
So when Grit and Grind rises from the ashes and dust of our subconscious and the tribute videos play and fade to black, and the standing ovations shake FedExForum, undoubtedly there will be calls for the heads of Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace and everyone who played a role in the departure of Zach. Make no mistake, it was Wallace and the others in that front office who make the decisions like Joe Abadi and Ed Stefanski who, with the knowledge of Robert Pera of course, moved on from Z-Bo, and Vince Carter (who also returns tonight), and Tony Allen. David Fizdale gets a lot of the public heat for the change of scheme and moving on, but Fizdale did not have that kind of pull, and his firing and the reason for it show that.
It was an organizational decision.
And it was the right one.
It was the decision of Zach Randolph to not take another pay cut, or pursue an avenue to stay in Memphis that was well below his value on the open market.
And it was the right one.
Memphis and their blue collar player made great memories together. Those moments will always be remembered, and deserve to be honored tonight. The memory of Randolph’s Grizzlies tenure, and the aftermath of what has become a lost season for Memphis, should not skew the real world that both sides lived in last summer. The Grizzlies and Randolph both did what was in their own best interest. They parted amicably. In an NBA where pettiness currently seems to rule, that should be commended.
Things going wrong for Memphis doesn’t make the decision to move on from Zach wrong. Appreciate what the Grizzlies and Randolph had, and what the city and their hero continue to share.
Don’t dilute it with ill-conceived notions of what might have been.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com