Just two weeks ago, the Memphis Grizzlies were the darlings of the NBA and the favorites to win the Western Conference. They'd taken out the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to extend a Cinderellish run that began with the best regular season in franchise history and continued through a stunning comeback from an 0-2 series deficit opposite the Los Angeles Clippers.
Now, after suffering a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, the Grizzlies look like a club being pulled apart by the countervailing forces of basketball and business.
With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, together forming Memphis' dynamic duo, anchoring an end opposite the other.
2012-13 by the Numbers
As a tandem, Gasol and Z-Bo have been at the center of the finest stretch in the Grizzlies' tortured history. In their last three campaigns together, Gasol and Randolph have led Memphis to a regular-season record of 143-87 (.622 winning percentage), capped off by a franchise-best 56-26 showing in 2012-13.
Each of those three seasons has ended in the postseason, marking only the second such stretch the Grizz have ever enjoyed. The first came between 2003 and 2006, when Pau Gasol (i.e. Marc's older brother) served as the centerpiece of three squads that were summarily swept out of the first round.
This latest four-game flop against San Antonio was Memphis' first playoff series without so much as a single victory since then. Gasol and Z-Bo led the Grizz to their first-ever postseason wins and series triumph in 2011, when they smacked around the top-seeded Spurs in six games. Despite this year's Spurs-induced setback, Memphis can still look back fondly on this season's run as the closest the organization has ever come to so much as sniffing the elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Thanks in no small part to Gasol and Z-Bo. They shouldered a massive load for Memphis throughout the regular season, particularly on the glass, wherein they combined to average 19 rebounds per game. No two teammates who both qualified for the rebounding title ripped down more rebounds on a nightly basis than did Gasol and Randolph.
Both of the Grizzlies' bigs played phenomenally well while carrying the team's offense through the first two rounds of the 2013 playoffs. During Memphis' two series victories, Gasol and Randolph combined to pile up 38 points, 16.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor.
However, things took a bad turn once the Spurs showed up to spoil the party. Marc and Zach's tandem scoring tanked to 25.3 points on 35.1 percent shooting amid San Antonio's smothering, collapsing defense.
It's no wonder, then, that the Grizzlies failed to pull out a single win against their old nemeses, despite twice taking the Spurs to overtime.
What They're Saying
Per ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz, after Memphis' series-ending loss to the Spurs, Marc Gasol spoke fondly of his team's organically cultivated grit-and-grind persona:
“No doubt, that’s who we are. That comes [about] for a reason. We scratch, we claw, we fight. It doesn’t always have to be pretty, but we always get it done -- well, not always. Of course not always, but we always try as hard as we can.”
Per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com), he also was optimistic about the experience his team gained from competing against an opponent like San Antonio:
"We're going to be better because we played against, to me, one of the greatest teams there's been in the past 15 years."
Whether Zach Randolph is around to help the Grizzlies put that new seasoning into action will be matter of some debate over the summer, though he certainly sounded as though he wants to stick around, per Kevin Arnovitz:
“I would like to retire a Grizzly and be here,” Randolph said. Asked if he could imagine playing elsewhere, Randolph laughed.
“Nah! Not really!” he said. “I’ll take my fan base with me from Memphis, though!”
Neither player has yet taken to Twitter since the Grizzlies' season came to an end.
Gasol and Randolph are both close to the top of the proverbial player curve in the NBA, albeit on opposite ends of their respective peaks.
Marc is fresh off a banner season in which he earned his first All-NBA and All-Defensive selections (second team in both cases) while taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors. He's regarded by many as the best all-around center in basketball, with a refined skill set that includes passing, shooting, posting up, rebounding, setting jarring screens and anchoring one of the league's elite defenses.
Of course, Gasol isn't particularly athletic, but his inability to leap over a phone book has yet to stop him from controlling the flow of most games in which he's featured. He'll always be tall (7'1") and strong (265 pounds), and he's thus far proven to be among the most durable bigs in basketball. Moreover, he doesn't turn 29 until early 2014 and, with just five NBA seasons under his belt, isn't quite as worn down as are some of his similarly aged peers.
All told, Marc can claim to be the best Gasol around, at the very least, and should rank among the top 10 to 15 players in the NBA for the next handful of years, barring injury. He's the sort of player around whom the Grizzlies can hope to build a competitive club for the foreseeable future.
The same can't quite be said of Zach Randolph. On the one hand, he's fresh off his second All-Star appearance during a season in which he finished fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game (11.2). His offensive game, like Marc's, has long been predicated on his own peculiar combination of size and skill, with leaping ability all but absent from the equation. Randolph can still shoot out to the mid-range and finish among the trees inside with his soft hands and a wide array of nifty flip shots.
On the other hand, Z-Bo is clearly on the decline—and has been for two years. He bounced back well from a disappointing and injury-riddled 2011-12 campaign, but still shot under 50 percent from the field in 2012-13. In fact, Randolph might've been the only Grizzly who was adversely affected by the Rudy Gay trade. Check out the split in Z-Bo's stats from before and after the Rudy deal during the regular season:
- Before (42 games): 15.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, .486 from the field, 35.1 minutes
- After (33 games): 14.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, .433 from the field, 33.3 minutes
Granted, an ankle injury hindered Randolph toward the end of the regular season, but he seemed to rediscover his stride during the first two rounds of the playoffs, before being exposed to a dangerous degree by the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
San Antonio took advantage of Z-Bo's attachment to gravity by swarming him with tall, long defenders who challenged his every shot and made it difficult for him to operate. On the other end, the Spurs ran Randolph through pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, thereby tiring him out while taking advantage of his slow-footed defense.
And it's not as though Z-Bo's going to move any quicker or jump any higher in the years to come. He turns 32 in July and already appears to be well past his 20-10 days.
What's worse, the Grizzlies still owe Z-Bo quite a bit of cash. He'll bring in $17.8 million next season and $16.5 million the year after that. Gasol will take hom some hefty sums himself: $14.9 in 2013-14, $15.8 in 2014-15.
Those two alone will constitute the majority of Memphis' payroll next year...which is problematic, because the Grizzlies are already slated to be over the salary cap, with several crucial spots and needs left to fill. Tony Allen will be an unrestricted free agent, and Jerryd Bayless, who has a player option for 2013-14, may well join him on the open market.
Only one of those two (Bayless) could realistically provide the Grizzlies with any of the perimeter scoring and shooting that they so sorely lacked against the Spurs. Still, as much of a negative as Allen was in this regard, he's still an elite defender and played a crucial role in defining Memphis' grit-and-grind identity.
All of which is to say, the Grizzlies are due to be cap-strapped, but will clearly need to retool to some degree if continued improvement is on the organization's agenda. Otherwise, Memphis won't have the financial flexibility to maintain a consistent contender with Gasol and Mike Conley at the core.
You can bet, then, that the team's front office, with former ESPN stat guru John Hollinger in the mix, is already kicking around the idea of moving Z-Bo. The Grizzlies allegedly considered doing so prior to the trade deadline, though they ultimately thought better of it after clearing a cacophony of cap-clogging elements in January, per Steve Kyler of Hoopsworld.
Of course, unloading Randolph's contract (or that of Tayshaun Prince, for that matter) is a task that's much easier said than done and would likely require the Grizzlies to toss in draft picks and/or young players to entice potential trade partners.
But, if Memphis can find any takers who could offer cap relief and some quality pieces in return, the team's brain trust certainly should consider it. They already have another young post player, in Ed Davis, who flashed some intriguing ability when he was granted playing time with the Toronto Raptors.
And, if the Grizzlies' conference finals shortfall is any indication, building around two lead-footed post players may not be a viable strategy for true championship contention.
Projected 2013-14 Stat Lines
- Gasol: 15.3 PPG / 8.5 RPG / 3.8 APG / 1.6 BPG
- Randolph: 15.1 PPG / 9.9 RPG / 1.5 APG
Should the Grizzlies decide to keep their frontcourt intact, look for Marc to challenge Zach in the scoring department. Gasol owned Z-Bo in that regard in 2011-12, when Randolph was hobbled by a knee injury, and nearly went tit-for-tat in terms of productivity after the Rudy Gay trade.
Considering their dueling trajectories (i.e. Marc's on the rise, Zach's on the decline), it only figures that these two would meet in the middle at some point, with Gasol absorbing more and more of Randolph's production.
And if Z-Bo goes, expect the breadth of Gasol's responsibilities to expand even further.
The Crystal Ball Says...
Z-Bo stays. His connection to this team and the supporting community is well-documented, per Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, and as poorly as Randolph performed in the conference finals, he may well have played significantly better with some tactical adjustments relating to the Grizzlies' outside shooting.
Also, Memphis' front office will be hard-pressed to find a way to offload Randolph's contract without setting in motion a drastic rebuilding effort.
If the Grizzlies can address their deficiencies on the perimeter during the offseason without sacrificing too much of their identity as an inside-out, defensively dominant squad, they may well find themselves back on the brink of the NBA Finals, with Gasol and Z-Bo once again serving as the foundation.