With 28 points and 13 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers Wednesday night, Zach Randolph has capped arguably the finest month by a single player in Grizzlies history — 24 points and 14 rebounds a game on 52-percent shooting while the team has gone 9-4 after a 6-12 start.
Along the way, Randolph has become an instant fan favorite and helped obscure the poor returns on the team's two other major off-season moves — drafting Hasheem Thabeet and signing Allen Iverson.
Why has Randolph been so productive — individually and in a team context — and how different has his play been from his established career norms? Let's investigate.
Not the Same Zach Randolph
Randolph's performance for the Grizzlies this season seems to fit his reputation and career numbers — Zach Randolph, scoring and rebounding machine, Mr. 20/10.
Just look at his per-game scoring and rebounding averages since becoming a full-time player in the 2003-2004 season:
Randolph's rebound average after his astounding past week or so is the highest of his career (and likely to taper off as the season progresses), but otherwise, Randolph's game averages this season are in line with his career norms. Fans can be forgiven for thinking that the Randolph who's donned Beale Street Blue is the same player he's always been.
But let's dig a little deeper, starting with Randolph's year-by-year shooting percentages:
Despite being a strong, wide-bodied power forward with an incredibly soft touch, this season is the first time Randolph has been above 50% shooting as a starter. Shooting in the 44-47 range, where Randolph's been for much of his career, is an underachievement for someone with his skills. Clearly, a player who scores 20 points a game on 51% shooting is more efficient than one who gets it on 46% shooting. But why has Randolph been a higher-percentage shooter this season?
Let's track Randolph's shooting percentages on perimeter shots (using effective field-goal percentage, which takes three-point shooting into account) year-by-year:
(These numbers and most of the other statistics cited in this section were taken from the invaluable 82Games.com)
So it isn't that Randolph's shooting the ball from the perimeter any better than he always has. Then he must be converting inside baskets better this season, right?
Let's look at his interior shooting percentages:
There's considerably more variation here, and Randolph's inside percentages have trended up the past few seasons, but he's actually been less efficient on converting interior shots this season than last. So, if Randolph isn't shooting the ball better from the perimeter or in the paint, then how has he produced the best shooting percentage of his career?
A simple answer: Shot selection.
Now let's look at Randolph's ratio of perimeter shots to interior shots year-by-year:
And there it is. After being a consistent 58-60 percent jump shooter throughout his career, Randolph, at age 28 and in his 9th pro season has dramatically altered his approach, focusing much more on his inside game than he has since very early in his career as a bench player for Portland.
Let's add a little more detail to this shift. First, three-point attempts per-game:
Next, offensive-rebounding percentages:
Finally, the percentage of attempts that have been tip-ins (because Z-Bo doesn't dunk):
Put it all together: This season, Randolph has reversed the upward trend in three-point attempts and reduced his reliance on perimeter shots generally. By staying closer to the basket and hitting the offensive boards with unprecedented intensity, Randolph has increased his interior attempts and dramatically increased the tip-ins and putbacks that are his trademark. Essentially, he's exchanged a couple of low-percentage jumpers every game for high-percentage lay-ups and tip-ins. This has made Randolph's standard 20-point scoring far more efficient.
Further, by dialing back his perimeter attempts, he's promoted better floor balance, hasn't infringed too much on the territory of more talented outside scorers (i.e. Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo), and has incorporated his game into a team context arguably better than ever in his career.
This season, Zach Randolph has been a different kind of rebounding and scoring machine. This improved offensive rebounding and shot selection is the heart of the new, improved Z-Bo, but the changes don't end there.
Frontcourt Chemistry, Passing, and Defense
Though I opposed the Randolph acquisition this summer (more on this to come), I also took a hard look at some of the reasons to be optimistic about the Randolph fit with a lengthy post this summer. And one of the most persuasive elements I cited was the potential frontcourt fit alongside either Marc Gasol or Hasheem Thabeet.
From that piece:
Randolph demands a lot of shots and doesn't play much defense. Thankfully the Grizzlies will employ a center tandem next season that might fit with Randolph pretty well. If Hasheem Thabeet is what the Grizzlies think he is, he'll be able to cover for a lot of defensive lapses and certainly won't demand many halfcourt touches.
Marc Gasol is not quite the defensive dynamo Thabeet is expected to be, but he's tough, attentive, and is both willing and capable of being a secondary option offensively who can facilitate shots for others. Like Randolph, he can play both on the block and on the perimeter, so the team should be able to use them together effectively.
For a sense of what the right kind of frontcourt partner can do for Randolph, just look at his last two seasons. In New York, during the 07-08 season, he was forced into a poor fit alongside fellow beefy low-post scorer Eddy Curry. This resulted in one of the two worst seasons Randolph's had since becoming a starter (18/10, 46% shooting — still pretty good production).
Last season with the Clippers, the idea was to pair Randolph with Marcus Camby, a defensive-oriented center who doesn't need plays run for him on the offensive end. Given that the Clippers finished 19-63, the third-worst record in the league, you might assume this combo was a failure. But really the problem wasn't that Randolph and Camby didn't play well together, it was that they didn't play enough together: Due to injuries the duo played only 16 games in which both got at least 30 minutes.
For the season, Randolph played 39 games for the Clippers. In those games, he averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds and the team went 13-26 (.333 winning percentage). But in the 16 games in which he and Camby got significant minutes together, Randolph averaged 26 and 11. More importantly, the team went 8-8. This suggests that if you can pair Randolph with a frontcourt partner that doesn't demand too many shots and can cover for him defensively, it can be good for Randolph and for the team.
Randolph and Gasol have, of course, proven to be a splendid frontcourt combination, the story of this team and one of the still-underreported stories league-wide.
Let's start on the offensive end, where Gasol's ability and willingness to defer to Randolph and still thrive as a secondary option (as opposed to someone like Curry in New York) has indeed been a big help. But more striking is the how well Gasol and Randolph play together: Both can score on the block, both can hit from mid-range, and they developed almost an immediate chemistry for setting each other up. Watching this interchangeable high-low dynamic bloom has been one of the great pleasures of watching Grizzlies games this season. And if it feels like Randolph-to-Gasol and Gasol-to-Randolph feeds have been a nearly nightly feature of the team's play, it's because they have. Take a look at the assist breakdowns for both Gasol and Randolph, charting the most frequent recipients of each player's assists:
Zach Randolph: 18
Rudy Gay: 17
O.J. Mayo: 17
Mike Conley: 7
Marc Gasol: 22
O.J. Mayo: 15
Mike Conley: 7
Rudy Gay: 6
Gasol spreads the wealth among the top three scorers, but the fact that he has as many assists to Randolph (most of them interior passes) as to Gay and Mayo (most of them kickouts for open shots or passes off cuts, both presumably more common plays) is meaningful.
And look at Randolph's numbers: Never a particularly prolific or productive passer, his knack for setting up Gasol is an eye-popping outlier. There's something about that relationship that has brought out a new facet in Randolph's game.
On the defensive end, the presence of Gasol (and, to a lesser extent so far, Thabeet) has clearly helped Randolph. One underrated factor for the Grizzlies this season is how Gasol's slimmed-down physique and improved conditioning has allowed him to do a passable job of defending power forwards. This has not only allowed the team to play Gasol and Thabeet together, but it has also allowed the team to move Gasol onto forwards when Randolph is struggling. (I'm thinking specifically of the Boston game, when Randolph couldn't handle Rasheed Wallace.)
But Randolph also deserves some credit for stepping up his defensive game. Lacking great height, leaping ability, and lateral quickness, Randolph simply isn't equipped to be a good defender, but observationally he seems to be putting in better defensive effort this season than previously in his career, and the numbers seem to bear that out. Let's look at Randolph's year-by-year stats in a couple of defensive areas:
"Stocks" (Combined steals + blocks per game):
On-court/Off-court defense (difference in points allowed when on the court versus when off):
Randolph's steals and blocks are at a career high, if still pretty low for his position, and his defensive +/- is the best of his career discounting the fluky 04-05 number. (Take out that year and Randolph's defensive +/- has been on a clear upward trend.)
Off the Court
Randolph's off-the-court track record has been among the league's worst (though, as Randolph made sure to point out to Chris Vernon, that record contains "no felonies"), but as I referenced in that summer piece, there was reason to think he might not be a problem:
Creeping Maturity?: Last week on The Geoff and Gary Show, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski suggested that Randolph has matured. Could it be? Though Randolph's on- and off-court rap sheet is long and colorful, most of it, including the most serious entries, happened earlier in his career while he was in Portland. True, Randolph's Clipper tenure was marred by both a DUI arrest and a suspension for punching Suns' forward Louis Amundsen. But the frequency and severity of his problems seems to have waned since leaving Portland. Hopefully the trend will continue.
And it has. I think part of it is environmental — most of Randolph's previous teams would have been dysfunctional even without him. But I chalk most of it up to maturity. Early in his career, Randolph was single and hanging with an entourage that became notorious in Portland. This season, there's been no sign of Randolph's so-called Hoop Family. Instead, there's been his real family at every game, including an infant daughter. He seems to be a different person at 28 than he was at 24.
Can He Keep it Up?
The big question: When a player has altered his game for the better this late into his career, can he keep it up? Can Randolph maintain this level of discipline (shot selection) and intensity (offense rebounding) throughout the season?
One caveat is that Randolph really enjoys taking three-pointers. When I talked to him early this season about what was clearly a different approach in the preseason, Randolph acknowledged that he'd made a decision to dial back his three-point attempts this season, but he was also quick to point out that he can make threes and practices them. More recently, Randolph made similar comments in an on-air interview with Eli Savoie and Greg Gaston of Sports56 WHBQ.
Randolph's outside ability can be useful, of course, especially at the end of the shot clock or the end of quarters, but it's not where he's best or helps the team most. And Randolph's offensive rebounding this season is so far above his already good career norms that it's hard to believe he can maintain the same pace.
Not a Mea Culpa
I was not in favor of the Randolph acquisition this summer, and though it has in fact worked out extremely well, I feel no need to apologize for that. A few points:
1. I don't mind being wrong. I analyze the available information as best I can, but am willing to let opinions evolve as new evidence emerges. And as someone who wants the Grizzlies to succeed as a civic entity and who desperately wanted to cover good basketball again after three dreadful years, I'm happy to have my more pessimistic predictions about the team not pan out.
2. Beyond some of the factors I cited in the "reasons to believe" piece, it wasn't realistic to think Randolph would significantly alter his game — which I think I've established has happened. All of the cautionary flags others and I threw up regarding the Randolph signing were rooted in reality and couldn't be reasonably dismissed. Fans who wanted the signing to work were dealing more in faith. And so far their faith has been richly rewarded.
3. Just because Randolph has made a huge positive impact on the team doesn't mean other potential options wouldn't have also been successful additions.
By the time the Grizzlies got through the draft and into the free-agency/trade period, there were two realistic power-forward options I preferred over Randolph for the Grizzlies — Carlos Boozer and David Lee.
Let's look at what those players are doing this season compared to Randolph:
Zach Randolph: 20.0/11.4/2.0 — 51% shooting — 22.2 PER — 18.1 Rebound Rate
Carlos Boozer: 19.5/10.7/3.5 — 54% shooting — 21.2 PER — 18.3 Rebound Rate
David Lee: 18.8/10.8/2.7 — 58% shooting — 21.6 PER — 17.3 Rebound Rate
These three players — none of them defensive dynamos — are having comparable seasons. Factor in that Boozer (slightly) and Lee (by two years) are both younger than Randolph and have less-checkered track records, and I would argue that each of them (depending on Lee's contract) would have been good acquisitions for the Grizzlies last summer — Lee available as a restricted free-agent and Boozer via trade from a Jazz team looking for the immediate cap/tax savings the Grizzlies could have provided.
Would either of them have had quite as big of an on-court impact for the team as Randolph has had so far? Boozer, maybe — he and Randolph are very similar. Lee, probably not. But he would have been a presumably cheaper and longer-term investment. Skeptics halfway acquainted with the influence of pace factors on per-game stats like to imply that Lee's number's are inflated by Mike D'Antoni's system. That's partly true. But look at the shooting percentage, PER, and rebound rate, pace-neutral stats that have been consistently good even before Lee played for D'Antoni. Lee is a legit high-level finisher and rebounder, but is certainly not as good as the best-case-scenario Zach Randolph the Grizzlies have had this season.
Would local fans have embraced either Boozer or Lee as an instant cult hero and feel-good story like they have Randolph? No way.
If Randolph keeps this up — and if the Grizzlies can sign him to a reasonable contract extension after next season — then the team clearly made the right decision last summer. But that doesn't mean the other options wouldn’t have worked out as well.