Zach Randolph is the Memphis Grizzlies’ best player and the biggest star. He was the major propeller for the Grizzlies the previous two seasons, leading them to the Western Conference semifinals last year. Now, after returning from injury, Randolph has mostly played from the bench.
Grizzlies fans expected Randolph to come back and ease back into his starting role after missing 37 games due to a partially torn MCL, suffered against the Chicago Bulls on January 1. However, save three games shortly after he came back, Lionel Hollins has played Randolph off the bench.
Many would wonder why the Grizzlies would have their best player coming off the bench. This seems counterintuitive. The best player on a team starts. Kobe Bryant wouldn’t stand coming off the bench. Dwight Howard wouldn’t be caught dead coming off the bench.
Also, teams are generally thought to get the most out of their best players by starting them. The player may get in the rhythm right away by starting.
Anyway, Hollins recognizes that the Grizzlies needed to have Randolph coming off the bench. Something wasn’t right with the team in the games he started after coming back. The Grizzlies lost three straight on the road, including a 101-85 decision against the Los Angeles Clippers, in Randolph's three starts in his return to the lineup.
Randolph has done quite well in his backup role. He has continued to pull down rebounds at a characteristic rate. He grabs offensive boards at a 11.9 percent rate, which is fairly close to what he did the last two years. He’s pulled down 8.4 rebounds per game as a substitute.
His 3.8 offensive rebounds and 10.9 total rebounds per 36 minutes are very nice.
Also, Randolph is quite capable of scoring effectively off the bench. He frequently scores in double figures off the bench.
Also, he’s had a couple of double-doubles off the bench.
Indeed, Randolph didn’t like having to come off the bench. Per USA Today, he asked Hollins if he’d be able to be in the starting lineup, but Hollins replied by explaining to him in front of the team that the team would be better off with him coming off the bench.
Last week, The Commercial Appeal asked if Randolph would return to the starting lineup, and Hollins didn't indicate that Randolph would.
This will likely continue through the playoffs. Randolph will continue to be the first big man off the bench, sharing minutes mostly with Marreese Speights. Speights has started most of the season and will start in the playoffs.
Speights is most effective playing 20-or-more minutes. He takes some time to get in the rhythm of the game, and he doesn’t shoot as well in fewer minutes. However, he has improved in games where he’s played less since Randolph returned.
Still, for purposes of continuity, Hollins seems to recognize that the Grizzlies need to have Speights starting and Randolph coming off the bench.
While this might seem tacky to say, the Grizzlies rely heavily on chemistry. Randolph and Marc Gasol are very close. Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo work well together, even though they do some of the same things. They’re a tight-knit group that hung together during the lockout.
Speights has found his way into this group, developing chemistry with others in the starting lineup. He understands how to space the floor with Gasol. Also, he knows how to take cues from ball-handlers like Conley and Rudy Gay.
Hollins is very keen with rotating players. He took the first half of the season to set the rotation. For a while, he played Speights for a good amount each game. In a following stretch, he gave Dante Cunningham more minutes than Speights to see how they’d fit best. Later, he went back to using Speights more.
As the stretch run wore on, Hollins settled into a set rotation. Speights the starter was getting more minutes, and Cunningham was the first big man off the bench until Randolph returned. The backcourt rotation had its own evolution, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Randolph still figures to be the primary power forward despite coming off the bench. He plays more minutes than Speights. In 12 of the last 14 games Randolph has played off the bench, he's played more minutes than Speights.
Fans should expect this to continue in the playoffs. Speights will start, but Randolph will get more minutes. Each will be used to his strength. Speight will get rebounds, and Randolph will grab offensive boards, hit jumpers off pick-and-rolls and bang inside shots.
Fortunately, Randolph has handled this well. He hasn’t gone public about it, airing his dirty laundry to the media. Also, Randolph hasn’t caused a disruption in the locker room because of his place on the bench.
For the Grizzlies, this move demonstrates two things. First, Randolph has been mature in his participation with the Grizzlies in his three-plus seasons in Memphis. Second, Hollins is a masterful manager of personnel.