Much has been said and written about Zach Randolph lately, and for good reason. He is arguably the best player on a team that disposed of the top-seeded Spurs and then split the first two games against Oklahoma City, on the road, while looking nothing like an eighth seed. Take the images of Dikembe Mutombo on the ground clutching the ball or Baron Davis walking into the arena wearing a bullet fedora then dunking on Andrei Kirilenko, and spread those over a few exhilarating weeks and you have Z-Bo, 2.0.
He has become the face of this unlikely winner – and a smiling, lovable one, at that – an image so unexpected for most NBA fans that it begs the question, what’s changed? The guy has been kicked aside by three teams in his career, for reasons ranging from legal problems to a reputation for selfish play, a collection of factors that painted him as a malcontent with a contract he couldn’t live up to, no matter how many times he put up 20 and 10. Conventional wisdom would suggest that it has to be something.
First things first: the legal issues are very real. Some of them never amounted to punishment and a few could be chalked up to immaturity (underage drinking a few months short of his 21st birthday is something we can probably look past), but the rap sheet started before he was a McDonalds All-American and continued to grow throughout his NBA career. Even people who others love to be around can make enough bad decisions and associate with enough bad people to be branded “bad news,” and for the majority of his time, Randolph qualified as that. That his talent on the court made him one of the highest-paid players in the league only complicated matters.
He has always been a scoring and rebounding dynamo. Since he became a regular in 2003-04 with Portland, he has averaged at least 17.6 points and eight rebounds every year, usually finishing among the league’s best power forwards in both categories. But there is a thinking in basketball that producing on teams that don’t win means less, and for the bulk of his career, wins were scarce. After coming into the league as the 19th overall pick in 2001 — a draft position due in large part to his checkered past and unorthodox style of play (read: crafty lefty without NBA athleticism) — he earned his first max contract as the anchor of a team that had some success early on but never managed to outgrow it’s “Jail Blazers” moniker.
By 2007, two years into a six-year, $84 million deal and coming off a season in which he averaged nearly 24 points and 10 rebounds, it became clear just how powerful perception can be, when the Blazers shipped him off to New York for Steve Francis’ horrendous contract and Channing Frye. He had fit in all too well with a group that included troublemakers Rasheed Wallace, Qyntel Woods, Darius Miles, and Ruben Patterson, but failed to assimilate when the organization began to move forward with young stars, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. As Henry Abbott noted in his excellent piece a couple days ago, the Blazers were ready for a new image, and couldn’t have been happier to have a player in Roy who not only matched Randolph’s production on the court, but wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right in the locker room.
Randolph had burned his bridge with the team that drafted him, but very rarely in sports are players held accountable for their actions if they produce. Barring the most extreme offenses — and even crimes against others like DUI’s and assault cases frequently get excused in this alternative reality — teams tend to value their investments far more than we might hope at times. Putting aside “off court” issues for a moment, what we saw with Randolph in Portland was a situation in which a player was, in fact, producing at an elite level, but even that came into question amidst the losing. The culture of the team and the city played a role in the decision to dump him, but from a purely basketball perspective, many believed that his game was, somehow, inherently suited to bringing teams down.
His 80 games with the Knicks served to further this belief. Randolph may have had an opportunity to make right with the up-and-coming Blazers, but the little more than a season he spent with New York was tailor-made to torpedo his reputation as a player. Most of his teammates were either one-dimensional (that dimension being volume shooting) or flat-out bad, the second best player (David Lee) played the same position as Z-Bo and did so in a far more fan-friendly way, and the man in charge of things was Isiah Thomas. Zach Randolph got paid more than $13 million in 2007-08 to score a career-low 17.8 points and grab 10 rebounds a game for a team that won 23 games. At 26 years old, the age at which players are presumed to be in their athletic primes, Zach had turned in a relatively typical performance by his standards, but the situation was so toxic that it became difficult for many to differentiate him from Eddy Curry.
By the time he got traded to the Clippers 11 games into the 2008-09 season, his value was at an all-time low. Although Mike Dunleavy knew that he was getting a good player, the fact that he only had to give up Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley (who would never play another NBA game) spoke volumes. Not to mention, there is (or was, hopefully) no better place for an athlete to go to cement himself as a player who can’t win than with the Los Angeles Clippers. For those of us who watched him play those 39 games, it was clear that, at the very least, he could still play. New York was the low point for him on the court, and his brief stint with the Clippers represented the small first step back. You wouldn’t have noticed it from afar, because the Clippers were busy losing 63 games, but you could stay up to watch the late games and see Z-Bo putting up numbers on par with the franchise power forward who had bolted the summer before, Elton Brand. He was surrounded by a disgruntled Baron Davis, a rookie Eric Gordon, and a sometimes-healthy Marcus Camby, but he did what he does: get buckets.
It was the first time in my life I began to consider just how thin the line is between a ball hog and a go-to scorer. He had been labeled a black hole, but I couldn’t count the times I thought to myself, all you have to do is give him the ball anywhere inside the three-point line and he’ll score — hell, he even shot 34% from behind the arc. What he did during that short time, shooting 49% and providing those moments that only Clipper fans can truly appreciate, made me appreciate just how special his game is. Dunleavy knew it when he traded for him and his “untradeable” contract, and though his rigid approach may have been a primary reason for his firing, he steadfastly believed that you win by assembling the most talent. Sometimes, that came at the expense of fit.
And that brings us to Memphis. Despite his individual success, Z-Bo had no chance of staying with the Clippers for two reasons: yet another legal misstep (a DUI) and the presence of Blake Griffin. Dunleavy unloaded him, again for nothing (Quentin Richardson never actually made his much-anticipated return to the Clips), to a Grizzlies team with its own history of losing and questionable personnel moves. From Hasheem Thabeet to O.J. Mayo to Mike Conley, they had muffed draft picks and compiled a group that looked like it could reach .500 if things fell right, but appeared to lack any real upside. And in Year One in Memphis, you could argue that’s exactly what happened.
But that’s the funny thing about basketball. You started to hear whispers about how, at $16 million, Z-Bo might not be just a chucker with a terrible contract (not that he ever really was). The team won 40 games. They continued to build. All of these pieces began to come together into a group that really fit. Conley might not have deserved the extension he got, it turns out Rudy Gay and his contract weren’t so necessary this season, and Mayo may have been a better fit coming off the bench. Guys like Sam Young, Tony Allen, Greivis Vasquez and Darrell Arthur weren’t the norm when Zach was in Portland or LA, to say nothing of his ideal post partner, Marc Gasol.
What does it all mean? Mostly, that context is everything in basketball. It’s easy to say now, but as a basketball player, Zach Randolph has been strikingly consistent over the course of his NBA career. As Moe Smedley, Zach’s high school coach, told Henry Araton in his New York Times profile:
“Let me tell you something, I don’t want to knock these N.B.A. coaches because that’s none of my business,” said Smedley, a 33-year veteran of the Indiana high school wars, “but what you’re seeing is that Zach is finally playing for a team that has accepted him for who he is: a big man who can’t jump and takes funny-looking shots. But if you give him the chance, he’ll figure out a way to win.”
As Abbott noted, the legal troubles are not only significant, but also not entirely behind him. Even recently, he has been associated with a couple of situations that simply do not reflect well upon someone who is driving a narrative about redemption and growth. If those recur, then none of this really matters, because they are the types of people and activities that can and deserve to derail a career in professional sports. But those are off the court, and there is certainly a chance that his new found commitment to his family life and his daughter allow him to separate himself from his past. What’s most fascinating, to me, is the question not only of what has changed for him as a player, but if, indeed, there has been a significant change at all.
Depending on who you ask, there are some sound answers to those questions. Abbott cites ESPN analytics guru, Dean Oliver, as pointing to his decreased reliance on ill-advised, long jumpers. Oliver says, “Just by cutting down his mid-range jumpers to five per 48 minutes and maintaining or slightly increasing the number of layups he takes, he is getting better shots. He is now taking only about 25 percent of the team’s shots and those are much higher quality shots. He cut out the fat.” This makes perfect sense. It also, however, speaks as much to his teammates and the system in which Z-Bo operates as it does about his game as an individual.
I watched more of his games in New York and LA than any fan should be subjected to, and it’s hard for me to remember many cutters or opportunities to get easier shots within the “flow” of the offense. That is what happens when you play with ball-stoppers like Jamal Crawford, Al Harrington, and Baron Davis, among others — Crawford himself is an example of what can happen when you get put into a more favorable team situation that allows you to play to your strengths. Z-Bo looks better on defense and appears a more wiling passer, but those are also largely team-dependent. His assist rate is actually down in his two years in Memphis from his career, but that probably speaks more to our inability to accurately quantify passing ability, because he is clearly making good decisions about when to move the ball.
After his 34 point, 10 rebound performance in Game 1 against the Thunder, Kevin Durant called him the best power forward in the league. He isn’t, because Blake Griffin is. But he’s up there, and he probably has been for a while. It’s just taken the right situation for him to show it, and for us to get the chance to see it.
Charlie Widdoes contributes to ClipperBlog and the RFH Collective, as well as Stacheketball. Follow him on twitter: @charliewiddoes.