First Al Jefferson, then Greg Monroe, and now Zach Randolph. The list of high-profile, interior-based big men shifting from a starting to sixth-man role is increasing, almost following on from the tone that Enes Kanter set in Oklahoma City last season with averages of 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per 36 minutes off the bench.
As I wrote when discussing the change for Monroe and the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s a result of the NBA’s evolution. The roles of big men are changing, and the requirements for an ideal starting center aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when slower forces like Patrick Ewing are wanted to dominate the post.
In 2016, someone who can space the floor like Al Horford is ideal. If not, an athletic floor-runner is the other sought-after option; a center who can block shots, switch to defend the perimeter, rebound, run in transition and roll to the rim like DeAndre Jordan.
So, for the non-shot-blocking, zero-elevation Z-Bo, this transition makes a great deal of sense.
Even more so as the Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies era comes to an end, resulting in a shift to more pace and elevated spacing under new coach David Fizdale, Randolph’s physical scoring beating up on second-unit big men will be perfect for their changing offense.
In place of Randolph at starting power forward will be the far more agile, fluid and explosive JaMychal Green. As someone with more defensive versatility on the perimeter and rim-running ability than Randolph, Green adds a dynamic element and a little more space to the starting lineup that should fit in well alongside the traditional play of Marc Gasol at center and new playmaking shooter Chandler Parsons at small forward:
Meanwhile, Randolph can be unleashed to anchor a second unit that really doesn’t have much depth. He even had a taste of it briefly last season by coming off the bench in a 15-game stretch in December and January.
There are shooters like the 39-year-old Vince Carter, the far younger Troy Daniels and exciting rookie point guard Wade Baldwin, but not too much else. The creative antics of Lance Stephenson (who really wasn’t bad at the end of last season) are gone, too. There aren’t exactly many players who can go out and get the Grizz a basket when they need one.
That man, who’s still highly skilled and efficient with a play style that ages well, is Randolph.
When addressing Randolph’s move to the bench after practice this Wednesday, Fizdale didn’t beat around the bush, just as he didn’t when informing Randolph of the change and explaining the pace issue of a Z-Bo-Gasol frontcourt. Michael Wallace of Grind City Media reported Fizdale’s comments on Randolph’s willingness to become a sixth man:
“He’s been incredible about the whole situation,” Fizdale said. “And like I told him, ‘Most likely, no one is going to pay you to be a starter from here on out. So let’s audition you for what you can be for the rest of your career.’ And it really clicked with him. We’re going to go after Sixth Man of the Year. I want to highlight the hell out of him in that second unit.”
When interchanged between different lineups off the bench (Randolph also spent 37 percent of his minutes at center last season), and when he’s surrounded by a few shooters, it doesn’t hurt the team as much if the pace decreases on some possessions to let Z-Bo go to work. That’s because with the scoring he continues to bring in his mid-30s, anchoring the second unit suits Randolph perfectly at this point of his career as the NBA’s fast-paced three-point evolution continues.
Randolph can use his strength and footwork in the low block to work his way past opponents and finish inside. He made 60.4 percent of his field goals within two feet last season, a shade above his career average of 59.3, which isn’t bad for a 35-year-old with a famously lacking vertical.
It’s not in the post where Randolph is at his best, though. An absence of elite speed aside, he’s extremely effective as a face-up threat, utilizing strong drives, smooth touch with running hook shots and a reliable mid-range game when defenders give him enough space:
The dual threat between powering down the lane or shooting from 15-20 feet, depending on what space and angle he gets from his defender, allowed Randolph to deliver yet again with 15.3 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting last season.
Just look at how easily he was able to score in the footage above when working against the far more athletic DeAndre Jordan, either adjusting to create space for a jumper or using one of his most effective moves — jab-stepping or faking right before driving left down the lane and floating in a soft left-handed hook shot on the run. Such moves age well, even though he isn’t the Z-Bo of five years ago.
Against weaker bench competition, Randolph is primed for a great season in this new role. His efficiency may even increase in such scenarios, too. He already shot 51.3 percent on hook shots last season and remained impressive from mid-range, shooting 46.2 percent from 10-15 feet and 41 percent from 16-plus feet. Easier opponents can only help those numbers.
All things considered, why shouldn’t Randolph throw himself in the Sixth Man of the Year discussion?
To make this change even more successful, Randolph has willingly bought into it. Marc Gasol reiterated to Fizdale just how easily Randolph took the news:
“We were done talking about it, and he went straight into the locker room to Marc [Gasol] and said, ‘Hey, I’m coming off the bench. Don’t worry about it. I’ll anchor the bench.’ And Marc came to me and said, ‘What did you say to Zach to make him take it so lightly?’ I was very direct. I spelled out how I’m going to utilize him.”
With the reasonable (and hopefully improving) shooting Green provides, but most importantly his athleticism, floor-running and defensive versatility, the starting lineup can improve in a new era of finesse over power. Bolstering their pace with this change and adding a dangerous three-point threat and underrated passer in Chandler Parsons does just that.
Randolph becoming the new sixth man helps unlock this progress.
The NBA and players we’ve known for years are changing, but it’s for the best. And that includes what’s next for Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies.