By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — There’s more to Memphis than dry-rub ribs. For 260-pound Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph, there’s stability, familiarity and comfortability.
All of which runs counter to the chaos and upheaval within the franchise that started a year ago when the first-year front office team swept out coach Lionel Hollins following a Western Conference finals appearance in favor of his younger assistant Dave Joerger. Just last month, Joerger nearly walked to Minnesota after Grizzlies owner Robert Pera dismissed the front office team that had promoted him.
The re-insertion, at least temporarily, of general manager Chris Wallace, the man who traded for Randolph in 2009 and awarded him with a whopping extension, has again bolstered Randolph’s stock within the franchise. If it’s signing either an extension before free agency starts or negotiating a new, long-term contract (if Randolph opts out of his final year at $16.9 million by June 30), Z-Bo keeps making known his commitment to the Grizzlies.
And Memphis is eager to return the favor — Randolph’s five-year run has coincided with the franchise’s best-ever five-year period — by bringing him back on a multiyear deal. This mutual admiration society is a feel-good story, particularly in today’s NBA where players covet their freedom to choose.
“It’s going forward,” Grizzlies interim general manager Chris Wallace told the Memphis Commercial Appeal last week of an extension for Randolph. “We’re very excited about what Zach’s done in the past and hope to have him here in the future. This has really been a terrific boon for both sides. He’s obviously meant a great deal to us on and off the court. And Memphis has worked for him. This has been, by far, the best stop for him since he’s been in the NBA. So we’re working towards that goal.”
But it can also be risky business.
Z-Bo, who fans identify, along with Tony Allen, as the backbone of these modern-day, blue-collar Grizzlies, turns 33 on July 16, and locking big money into a player on the backside of his career can become counterproductive. His value could drop off precipitously in a couple years, and the committed dollars can handcuff a front office’s ability to spend during the offseason on needed roster reinforcements.
For instance, the Grizzlies, unlikely to ever spend into the luxury tax, are in dire need of perimeter shooters. Randolph’s decision to either sign an extension, which would kick in after the coming season and keep his 2014-15 salary at $16.9 million, or to opt out and agree to a lower annual dollar (debatably $10-$12 million) figure over a longer period beginning this season, will play a significant role in Memphis’ free-agent spending ability.
A year ago after losing to the Spurs in the West finals, Randolph was moved to tears when talking about his love for the team and the city. At the time, he was uncertain if the franchise might prefer to try to move the more than $30 million he had remaining on the final two years of his deal.
With point guard Mike Conley creeping ever closer to All-Star status with each season, and center Marc Gasol entering the final year of his contract, the Grizzlies, by committing to Randolph, are committing to their grit-n-grind identity, and to their slow-down, double-post offense while refusing to give into the rest of the speed-infused, drive-and-kick West.
Joerger tried to pick up the pace at the start of last season, but it was quickly dumped after it was determined by the players that they were built to play a certain way.
Randolph completed a fine season, averaging 17.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and a career-best 2.5 assists, up from 1.4 the previous season, although his defense and offensive rebounding continued to trend downward. During the first round of the playoffs against Oklahoma City, Randolph’s 18.3, 8.7 and 2.3 averages helped push the Thunder to a seventh game. Only he wouldn’t play in it, suspended for throwing a punch to the neck of OKC rookie center Steven Adams in Game 6, and Memphis couldn’t recover.
“I think he’s had one of the better [seasons] of his career,” Conley told NBA.com in March. “He’s not just doing his thing with double-doubles and all the things he’s accustomed to doing, but he’s sacrificed a lot for other players, he’s been unselfish. He’s making plays for other people, doing things he’s grown into and realizes that if he does the little things we’re going to be that much better of a team.”
Randolph, headed for his 14th season and became a two-time All-Star in Memphis, has been traded three times. Now that he finally has the power to explore other opportunities, he expresses his desire to only play in the small market on the banks of the Mississippi.
Whether Randolph’s new deal will ultimately be as mutually beneficial as the last one is a question that will have to wait for the answer.