With a 30-something Silicon Valley owner, a former agent as CEO, a stat geek as VP of basketball operations and a first-time head coach, the Memphis Grizzlies are very much the new model for NBA franchises. Not surprisingly, they hoped to play more of a trendy style as well.
Only that’s not happening any time soon. At least not as long as Zach Randolph is their best player.
The Grizzlies started this season attempting to play at a faster pace and run more of a flex offense, according to several league scouts, which resulted in a 3-5 record and poundings at home by such lightweights as the Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Several league sources, meanwhile, said that first-year coach Dave Joerger is getting considerable direction from the top of the team masthead, including everyone from owner Robert Pera to VP John Hollinger. “They’re suggesting lineups,” said one league source. “Aggressively.”
One scout said, “It looked as if Joerger was trying to put his stamp on them and the players resisted. They were like, ‘The other way worked, so why change?’ I know they wanted to play faster, but they don’t have that kind of team. They grind.”
Why abandon a style that won 56 games last season? One scout attributed it to the fact that analytics suggest more possessions—i.e., playing faster—and more drive-and-kick opportunities produce more efficient offensive numbers. There’s also the matter of having dumped veteran coach Lionel Hollins for the neophyte Joerger, in part because Hollins wasn’t enthralled with having front-office numbers-crunchers telling him what offensive sets he should use.
Randolph, without outright saying so, apparently felt the same way. He’s as easygoing a superstar as you will meet, but he clearly enjoys all that comes with being a superstar. That includes traveling with four phones, including three smart phones, and having the ringtone on one as the ding-ding-ding of a winning slot machine. That also includes letting it be known, by deed more than word, what sort of offense best suits him.
After the slow start, the Grizzlies returned to the high-low sets that operate primarily off the center at the high left post, with Randolph on the right block—and suddenly Randolph became a force, not only on offense but on defense as well. Through the first eight games, Randolph only led all scorers once and all rebounders twice. In the six games since—in which Memphis went 4-2—Z-Bo led all scorers four times and finished as the top rebounder twice.
“Early in the year we were playing a little faster, and he wasn’t as aggressive,” said veteran swingman Tayshaun Prince. “Z-Bo is our money man. In the first half, we still run some of our new stuff, but at crunch time, we’re running our old plays again.”
Case in point: the Grizzlies’ 88-81 overtime road win against the Warriors on Nov. 20. Randolph, stationed away from the basket in the first half, settled for jumpers and went into the locker room with four points and two rebounds, while Warriors power forward David Lee had twice that in both categories. When the Grizzlies went back to their Hollins-style offense, Randolph came alive, tallying 17 second-half points and 10 rebounds while holding Lee to 10 points and four rebounds.
“We just got back to what we do best,” Randolph said.
Don’t look for anything to change with center Marc Gasol expected to miss the next month or two because of a sprained knee. The Grizzlies may not run as much high-low with Kosta Koufos at center, because he’s not the passer that Gasol is, but Z-Bo has made it clear that if they want his best, putting him on the block—and waiting until he gets there—is the only way to get it.
• Distinctions between Tim Duncan taking a smaller contract to provide the Spurs more cap room and Kobe Bryant re-upping essentially at the same level:
1. Duncan did so to allow San Antonio to retain talent it already had, while Bryant would’ve been taking less to provide flexibility for players as of yet unidentified.
2. The NBA is in prime position to make a killing on a TV contract, both regionally and nationally, because live programming has become gold. On the national front, both the NFL and MLB are locked up for the foreseeable future. If Fox or NBC wants to expand its Big Three programming, the NBA, beginning with the 2016-17 season, is the lone option. In the meantime, regional TV deals are going through the roof as well.
All of which means the Lakers should have plenty of room and resources to rebuild, and while Bryant may no longer be a maximum-contract player on the court, he remains one at the box office for the Lakers.
3. If they want to land a mega-star with their cap room, it’s good advertising to show they’re willing to take care of their current one, despite his compromised state. Trust me, superstars pay attention to how a team treats their predecessors.
• In my column about bullying in the NBA, I noted that the Warriors filled then-rookie Kent Bazemore’s Audi with popcorn and removed the tires from fellow rookie Festus Ezeli’s car and placed them in his locker. Veteran forward David Lee clarified that both pranks were motivated by the rookies not following team rules.
Bazemore violated the shower code, which is that if all the showers are occupied when a veteran enters, he must give his up regardless of where he is in his hygiene routine. (Apparently Stephen Curry entered and Bazemore said something to the effect of, “Just give me a minute.”) Ezeli’s indiscretion was helping himself to a plate of food on the team plane ahead of the veterans. “We didn’t do it just because they were rookies,” Lee said. “There was cause and effect.”
• Paying attention to the scouting report can pay huge dividends against the Lakers. Entering the weekend, Jodie Meeks had the league’s fifth-best field-goal percentage in the restricted area, while teammates Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry were among the worst in the paint. Similarly, Steve Blake was third overall in wing three-point percentage (55.2), while fellow Lakers guard Nick Young had the league’s fourth-worst rate from there (16.7).
• The league understandably frowns upon skirmishes on the court that involve punches and shoves, but don’t be surprised if the Portland Trail Blazers’ fracas against the Warriors last Saturday night serves as a springboard for a team that already had the look of a playoff squad. “I like the way we responded,” said head coach Terry Stotts. “I like the way we stood up for each other.”
The dispute began with Andrew Bogut and Joel Freeland battling for position under the boards and escalated with Mo Williams going after Bogut and Wes Matthews supporting him. Both Williams and Matthews were ejected. The loss of Matthews appeared particularly costly since he had 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting when the teams squared off with several minutes left in the third quarter. Led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers roared back from an eight-point deficit at the time of the ejections and outscored the Warriors 42-22 down the stretch.
Matthews and Williams, showered and dressed, greeted Lillard and Aldridge, and it wasn’t clear who had more admiration for whom: Matthews and Williams for Lillard and Aldridge for the comeback, or the latter for the former for giving the team an emotional spark. “I’m going to have to pay for this win,” Williams said, referring to the fine for being tossed, “but it’s worth it.” Said Aldridge: “(The fight) woke us up. This is the most cohesive, unselfish team I’ve been on. I wanted to win this for Wes because he stepped up for us as teammates.”
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.