Nothing about Zach Randolph screams franchise cornerstone. From the soft frame to the grinding game, Randolph seems borne of a different basketball generation altogether.
Indeed, at 32 years old and with nearly 14 seasons beneath his belt, Z-Bo’s best NBA days are likely behind him.
And yet, whether or not the Memphis Grizzlies can successfully sign the burly power forward to a contract extension may be the biggest key to cementing the future of Grit and Grind.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, talks between Randolph and Memphis management regarding a possible multiyear extension have stalled:
Randolph's agent, Raymond Brothers, has been in steady talks with general manager Chris Wallace and Grizzlies ownership for several weeks, but the sides have dug in recently and have been unable to find common ground – specifically on the length and money of the deal, sources said.
Randolph, 32, has until June 30 to trigger a $16.5 million player option on the final season of his contract. If he opts out, he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
If Randolph were to opt in for the 2014-15 season, the Grizzlies would have close to $64 million in committed salaries. For a small-market franchise traditionally loathe to tread into luxury-tax territory, that doesn’t afford much in the way of roster flexibility—not next season, at least.
But securing Randolph for the long term was never supposed to be about next season.
Randolph may not be Memphis’ most important player. Or even its best player. That honor most certainly belongs to Marc Gasol.
But Randolph does give the Grizzlies the best chance of retaining the 7'1'" Spaniard, slated to hit the free-agent market next summer.
As this terrific 2013 piece from CBS Sports’ Matt Moore illustrates, to say the two have struck a rapport in their five seasons together would be an understatement. In it, Randolph detailed how the two block-bound bullies forged a friendship in spite of disparate backgrounds:
"We'd just interact together. He grew up playing AAU with a lot of guys from south Memphis and north Memphis that I know. He'd been in Memphis. He'd been around Memphis most of his life. He went to school at my daughter's school. We just hit it off."
Seldom does sentimentality trump economics, of course. But if the Grizzlies have any hope of building off the template they’ve cultivated—a defensive juggernaut in a league leaning more and more to the other end—Gasol and Randolph must remain the franchise focal points.
How big is the impasse between Randolph and the Grizzlies? It’s impossible to say. What we do know, however, is how much flexibility Memphis stands to have starting in 2015-16.
If Randolph were to opt out and walk away, the Grizzlies would have just $23 million in committed salaries next summer. That’s more than enough to sign two max or near-max players. But which players?
With LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony already off the table, the 2015 free-agent class is dwindling by the minute. Memphis knows this, of course. But it also knows it's likely never going to rival New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago as big-time destinations.
Where Memphis can do the most damage—and, more importantly, bolster one of the league’s most woeful offenses—is in targeting the league’s value-laden middle class.
Players like Arron Afflalo, Thaddeus Young, Gerald Green, Wesley Matthews and Danny Green, just to name a few. And those are just the unrestricted or player-option candidates.
Re-signing Randolph might not guarantee Gasol’s return. A player that talented and multifaceted is bound to have plenty of suitors. Without Randolph, however, Gasol may be good as gone, leaving the Grizzlies with a tattered husk of a roster and no clear path out of the woods.
Obviously, having even one of Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin or Quincy Pondexter round out into a reliable rotation player would help Memphis’ cause immensely. Short of that, however, interim general manager Chris Wallace and the rest of the Grizzlies brass will be left to fend for themselves on the free-agent fringes, in the hopes they can reel in the next Tony Allen or—a better example still—Randolph.
Given Randolph’s age—not to mention his well-documented fondness for Memphis—it’s hard to believe he’d be looking for an extension starting at his most recent salary ($16 million).
However, if Memphis is going hard in the other direction (say for something on the order of three years, $36 million), Randolph’s reluctance would certainly be understandable. He may be slightly past his prime, but Randolph's ground-bound game would seem to bode well as far as league longevity is concerned. (Tim Duncan, anyone?)
|A fine wine?|
If there’s a middle ground to be struck, it may lie in the length of the resulting deal. If, for instance, he agreed to four-year extension for $50 million, that could give both parties what they’re looking for: long-term security for Randolph, and some semblance of near-term financial flexibility for the Grizzlies.
Giving Randolph $13 million for 2014-15 would put Memphis’ salary obligations at around $60 million (assuming it keeps only one of Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos)—not enough to make any big additions, but enough to make good use of its mid-level and mini-mid-level exceptions, which total over $6.5 million.
A year from now, the Grizzlies could have close to $30 million in cap room, enough to re-sign Gasol at a new, near-max deal with enough spare change to add a handful of free agents.
There’s no such thing as a sure thing in today’s NBA. Not unless you employ James or Kevin Durant. But maintaining roster consistency—of style as well as substance—can often be the next best option. Just ask the San Antonio Spurs.
For the Grizzlies to truly assert themselves as a league elite, finding common ground with half of their franchise foundation is a crucial first step.