The Evolution of Zach Randolph
Your team trails by 20 points entering the fourth quarter, but you refuse to stop watching. Despite having every reason to turn away, you tune in.
Occasionally, you’re rewarded.
In 2012, Chris Paul led his Los Angeles Clippers to a Game 1 victory despite trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter. That was a treat.
Just a few weeks ago, with the New Orleans Pelicans fighting to avoid an 0-3 hole, Stephen Curry delivered a shot for the ages. It both fully erased a 17-point deficit in the game’s final minutes, as well as any chance the Pelicans had of winning the series. There, the basketball gods smiled upon us.
The moments are amazing to witness, but the slow evolution and maturation of a player with potential? There is no greater pleasure than seeing that progression.
An opportunity to see those moments—to serve as a witness—is why we watch.
And sometimes, in the rarest of instances, we are fortunate enough to see a player reinvent himself.
That’s exactly what Zach Randolph has done in recent seasons, becoming one of the contemporary NBA’s more overlooked contributors.
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Drafted with the 19th overall pick from Michigan State University in 2001, the scouting report on Randolph was that he was a somewhat lazy volume shooter that had a chance to succeed with the right tutelage and leadership. Unfortunately, Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells could not provide that for him.
Over the course of his first six years as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Randolph routinely got into altercations with teammates at practice, failed to win the affections of those around him and even found himself in problems with the law. The Blazers were all too happy when Isiah Thomas came knocking on the night of the 2007 draft, offering to take Randolph and the $60 million that would be due to him over the immediately proceeding four years.
In return for the human double-double, the Blazers received Channing Frye and the expiring contract of Steve Francis. It was the quintessential salary dump.
Randolph put up productive numbers as a member of the Knicks, but only solidified his reputation as a ball-stopping black hole that didn’t pay attention to, much less play, defense. With Donnie Walsh taking over from Thomas, one of the few executives who believed that Randolph could be a force upon whom championship aspirations could be built was ousted.
Hiring Mike D’Antoni was the proverbial nail in Randolph’s coffin. By this point in his career, he had been in the league for seven years and had never been a model player or citizen. He had never made an impact in the playoffs or sniffed an All-Star team and wasn’t viewed as anything more than a player with a low-post presence. It was no wonder that Walsh and D’Antoni secretly conspired to put winning secondary to building an offense around the skills of Randolph. The purpose? To inflate his statistical numbers so that the Knicks could dump him in a trade.
Those informed individuals in New York knew that bringing LeBron James to New York in July 2010 was Plan A. Randolph was a necessary causality in the war for the King’s services.
The Knicks were so desperate to get rid of Randolph that even after it was learned that Cuttino Mobley—one of the principle pieces received in exchange for Randolph from the Clippers—had what amounted to a career-ending heart condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), the Knicks opted to consummate the trade anyway. They were that desperate to rid themselves of the power forward.
In Los Angeles, as a member of the Clippers, Randolph would last all of 39 games before being jettisoned, again, in a salary dump. The Clippers traded Randolph to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Quentin Richardson.
Being traded for spare change broke Randolph’s spirit, but he became better because of it and was determined to turn around his career.
In Memphis, he became a new man and a new player.
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It is 2015 and over the past six years, Randolph has gone from a player that nobody wanted to one that the Grizzlies have re-signed twice.
He has gone from a player that knew nothing more than how to put the ball in the basket to one who knows how to lead, galvanize and, most importantly, win.
Since his arrival in Memphis back in 2009, the Grizzlies have steadily grown into a consistent contender. Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez, Darrell Arthur and Lionel Hollins among others have come and gone. Along the way, we have witnessed the growth of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. We have seen Dave Joerger assume the mantle and behind it all, we have seen the Grizzlies grow into a legitimate contender.
Somewhere along the line, we just forgot to credit Randolph for his contributions toward that.
Smarter, wiser and more selfless, Randolph has evolved as a player and a person in Memphis and as his Grizzlies continue on in their quest to become one of the more improbable NBA champions in league history, he has emerged as the quintessential franchise player.
Over the course of this long season, Gasol’s emergence has dominated the conversation of pro basketball in Memphis. Conley’s ascension into the rank of first-class point guard has been missed by only a few. The midseason acquisition of Jeff Green and the rejuvenation of Beno Udrih were among the other storylines that emerged and effectively shrouded Randolph. For the most part, we have overlooked the fact that he, along with Gasol, has capably helped to man the interior on the both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
He has gone from being a ball stopper to a ball mover and, more impressively than anything else, has truly learned the importance of connecting with the fans, ownership and community around him. That the Grizzlies have decided to ride with Randolph until the wheels fall off is no coincidence: it’s common sense.
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Some players enter the NBA with the know-how, mental fortitude, upbringing and nurturing necessary to step in from day one and lead. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are among them.
A great many others—a list that includes Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce—learn on the job. And while his career accolades and accomplishments pale in comparison to each of those two, make no mistake about it, from a macro level, Randolph’s emergence as the cornerstone for this once lost and floundering franchise has been almost as impactful.
For years, the Grizzlies have quietly existed as one of the best kept secrets in the NBA, so it’s fitting that the burly southpaw, now a ripe 33 years old, remains one of the less talked about leaders in the game. He has come so far and has carried the Grizzlies with him.
Watch them play, see them fight, hear them roar.
It has taken a while, but Randolph has fulfilled the expectations placed upon him back in 2001.
Like Paul’s comeback and Curry’s shot, it’s a pleasure to witness. Watching Randolph battle and compete at the highest level— that wasn’t even fathomable to the Blazers, Knicks or Clippers when they decided to cut bait.
Growing up, second chances, defying odds and emerging as a leader? It’s Zach Randolph’s story, and it’s also why we watch.
Jimmy Butler Wins Most Improved Player
The NBA announced this afternoon that Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler has won the 2014-15 Kia NBA Most Improved Player Award. Butler also earned his first All-Star selection and set career-highs in scoring, rebounding and assists this season, and now he becomes the first player to win the award with the Bulls.
The award is designed to honor an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons. Butler, 25, received 92 of 129 first-place votes and 535 total points from a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada. Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors (11 first-place votes, 200 points) and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz (12 first-place votes, 189 points) finished second and third, respectively. Players were awarded five points for each first-place vote, three points for each second-place vote and one point for each third-place vote.
Butler, in his fourth NBA season, averaged 20 points (15th in the NBA), 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.75 steals (11th in the NBA) in a league-leading 38.7 minutes for a Chicago team that went 50-32 and secured the third seed in the Eastern Conference. He shot 46.2 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three-point range. He also ranked seventh in the league in free throw attempts with 463 and converted a career-high 83.4 percent from the foul line in 65 games.
Last season, Butler averaged the same number of minutes and scored 13.1 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting from the field. His 6.9-point increase from 2013-14 to this season was the highest among all players who appeared in at least 40 games in each season, and his 6.5-percent improvement in field goal accuracy ranked second among players with at least 600 attempts in each season (Golden State’s Harrison Barnes improved by 8.3 percent).
NBA Daily: The Knicks’ Point-Forward-In-Waiting
As the regular season inches closer, Drew Mays makes the case for the New York Knicks to play Julius Randle at point guard.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The New York Knicks struck out in free agency.
New York’s hopes were high again this summer – and again they were let down. Kevin Durant twisted the knife in the wound last week:
“I didn’t really do any deep, full analysis on the Knicks.” Then, even worse, continued and delivered the knockout blow: “It’s like the cool thing right now is not the Knicks.”
Some of the media’s opining that New York could land Durant or Irving or another star wound up as empty speculation — thus, the fanbase and their clamoring for stars will continue.
What made the Knicks’ offseason all the more puzzling wasn’t that they didn’t land a star, it was who they acquired in the aftermath. It’s a strong collection of veterans that don’t inspire any future promises — but they do, in a weird way, give New York a slight chance of relevancy now.
While the NBA zigs to small ball, the Knicks zagged, albeit not in a way that raises hope, like the moves in Philadelphia.
But for the first time in a handful of years, New York has something here, that’s for sure. And the way to best maximize whatever this new-look squad has is to play Julius Randle at point guard.
The point guard battle in New York is currently comprised of three players: Elfrid Payton, the non-frontcourt addition to the New York roster, Dennis Smith Jr., the still-intriguing 21-year-old, and Frank Ntilikina, the much-criticized 21-year-old.
Payton is a middling player who has been more placeholder than foundation over the last few seasons. His inability to shoot — a career 30 percent three-point shooter on 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes — is a large part of that; however, he’s maintained a steady 8.0 assists per 36 minutes over his career. That’s impressive, especially considering the teams of which he’s been part.
Smith and Ntilikina are uber-talented, but equally as inconsistent. The former was sent to the Knicks after overstaying his welcome in Dallas, while the latter may be overstaying his welcome in New York, an encouraging FIBA performance notwithstanding.
Playing Randle at point mitigates many of these issues. Payton’s lack of jumper inhibits his game; Randle, a 250-pound bowling ball, doesn’t need a jump shot to be a capable scorer. Defenses can’t sag off of him as they can Payton – standing off only gives him a running start. Randle going downhill can spin into layups and bully into half-hooks and scoop shots. He’s even flashed Draymond Green’s four-on-three playmaking ability in spurts. Better, his floater is too good for defenders to wait for his arrival.
More importantly, Randle as a playmaker lowers pressure on both Smith and Ntilikina. Point guard is the most competitive and toughest position to learn in the NBA — that in itself is a reason for Smith and Ntilikina’s struggles. With Randle shouldering more ballhandling responsibility, the two have less to worry about. Before the Porzingis trade, the fit of Smith next to Doncic in Dallas was intriguing because it allowed Smith to use his athleticism and aggressiveness off the ball. Randle as a ballhandler reaches the same goals.
Ntilikina now ideally owns an improved jumper – his looks will be easier and the up-and-comer can be more prepared for them when he isn’t worried about actually playing point guard.
Both of these positives also hold true for The Great New York Hope, R.J. Barrett. Barrett is a skilled offensive player, a scorer who played point guard out of necessity at times for Duke last year. Extremely talented, he struggled with turnovers, forcing plays that weren’t there and shooting when he should’ve passed.
What helps all of those things? That’s right: Offloading playmaking responsibility onto Randle. Barrett can then develop his passing ability as he maintains his one-track scoring mentality without torpedoing the offense. As the Knicks’ most significant perimeter threat, he’s likely to have a huge role with the ball anyway — so why not make it easier on him?
Perhaps the two most commanding reasons for inserting Randle at the point are that he’s New York’s best player and they have nothing to lose.
Ideally, if you’re striving for wins and not ping-pong balls, your best player should spend the most time with the ball. Randle is the Knicks’ best player and the only surefire guy that would log minutes on a competitive team. Every bit of usage that head coach David Fizdale gets out of Randle over Ignas Brazdeikis is a good thing.
It would also cause matchup problems for opposing defenses, without having to alter expected rotations – all three of the guards in the point guard battle will get minutes, so Randle doesn’t even have to play the position full-time. Randle and Payton in the backcourt would force opposing teams to contemplate matching size; Randle with Ntilikina would give the Knicks a chance defensively, whereas Randle and Smith could be surrounded with whatever the best shooting lineup ends up being to mask inequities.
Really, the 2019-20 version of the Knicks may be best served by playing a throwback style. Marcus Morris was suspended after one preseason game for hitting Washington’s Justin Anderson in the head with the basketball. The bully-ball approach Morris advocates would muck up the game and give the less-talented Knicks more chances to win. Of course, these methods are also more apt to succeed with bigger lineups — obviously, bigger lineups will naturally surface if Randle is playing the point.
Over 311 career games, Randle has averaged 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. But per Cleaning the Glass, his assist percentage has been in the 85th percentile or better over three of his four seasons. Those assist numbers were affected by playing with the Kobe farewell tour, D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Lonzo Ball in Los Angeles and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans.
Until now, he’s never had the chance to make plays on a consistent, full-time basis. The opportunity is there now.
On a randomly-constructed and weirdly-passable Knicks team, why not see what he can do?
The Curious Case Of Andrew Wiggins
The path to becoming a superstar took a wrong turn two years ago for top pick Andrew Wiggins. With stability and a new regime in Minnesota, it will be up to him to get the train back on the tracks this season. Chad Smith writes.
Being a number one overall draft pick in the NBA instantly puts a target on your back. Expectations come with that as well, fair or not. Andrew Wiggins has had a roller coaster ride since being taken with the top pick in the 2014 draft. After three years of promise, he has tapered off in each of the last two seasons. The make or break cliché is used too often, but this will definitely be a defining season for the Canadian.
Wiggins has played exactly 400 games in his NBA career. He has played all of them with the Timberwolves, who traded the face of their franchise to acquire the promising young talent. Wiggins has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. Through his first four seasons, he only missed one game. Last year he played 73 for Minnesota, who failed to reach the playoffs after a disastrous season that included trading Jimmy Butler.
Butler left a lot of money on the table to leave Minnesota – largely due to the lack of improvement from Wiggins.
For all of his physical tools and salivating upside, Wiggins has failed to significantly improve as a player. His scoring averages did improve in his first three seasons, going from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 points per game. The following year it dipped to 17.7 and 18.1 per contest. His per-game averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all plateaued.
From the foul line, Wiggins shot 76 percent in each of his first three seasons, but dropped to 64.3 and 69.9 percent in the last two years. His shooting efficiency numbers across the board have been declining as well. The progression clearly has not been there, and you don’t even need the actual numbers to see it.
If you do need the numbers, they are not flattering. His 0.6 win shares last season ranked him 350th among 530 eligible players. Per 48 numbers were even worse as his 0.005 win shares were the third-worst in the league (minimum 2,000 minutes played). The Wolves finished 11th in the conference last season. Improving upon that will prove to be difficult given the stiff competition in the Western Conference.
The five-year, $147 million maximum extension that Wiggins signed two years ago was questionable at the time and appears even more detrimental now. Gersson Rosas is the new president of basketball operations in Minnesota, and it is not clear what his intentions with Wiggins are. Trading the former Rookie of the Year is one option, but it will not be an easy one. If he can show some true progression in his game, Wiggins could fit nicely alongside superstar Karl-Anthony Towns.
Under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves appeared to underutilize the services of Towns. He also tended to play his starters heavy minutes. Wiggins averaged nearly 37 minutes per game under his system. Those numbers came down dramatically towards the tail end of last season under new head coach Ryan Saunders. His career average still sits at 36 minutes per contest. The only other active players with a higher minute per game average are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.
During Media Day, Andrew said that he felt as though he was on the rise three years into his career, before “some changes were made” that seemed to derail his trajectory. Wiggins went on to talk about Thib’s coaching style, and how the yelling didn’t change anything for him. He stated that he prefers a player’s coach that is “real” with him, like Saunders, the youngest coach in the league.
With Saunders cemented in place, the Wolves could find new and better ways to get the most out of Towns and Wiggins. Using more screening action, it could allow smaller defenders to switch onto Karl, or get a bigger defender on Andrew, allowing him to drive to the basket. That could open up opportunities on the wing for their solid group of role players.
A healthy Robert Covington and Josh Okogie will provide Minnesota with hope from the outside, an area where they have struggled heavily. New additions such as Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh should fit right in as well. All eyes will be on rookie Jarrett Culver, whom the Wolves gave up assets (Dario Saric and the 11th pick) to acquire with the sixth pick in the draft.
Saunders will likely want to push the pace and score in transition this season. Minnesota was 14th in pace last season and had the 13th-ranked scoring offense. They have the players needed for that style of play and will now be able to play both small-ball and match up against bigger lineups.
Versatility will be a strength for them this season, but they must improve on their biggest weakness – defense.
The Wolves ranked 23rd in scoring defense last year, and 24th in overall defensive rating. Having Covington back will help in that area, but it needs to start with Towns and Wiggins. As leaders, both must show improvement on that end of the floor in order for the other guys to buy-in.
With a year of continuity and a more stable environment, Minnesota should still be an improved team from last season. Whether or not they are able to challenge for a playoff spot will likely be determined by the play of Wiggins. Andrew has the skillset to become a very good player, even if his ceiling is not as high as Karl’s. That being said, Andrew will turn 25 in February. The time is now for him to show improvement.
Aside from Jeff Teague’s 10 years of experience, only Covington and Gorgui Dieng have more experience than Wiggins. They each have just one more year than he does. So where exactly does he need to improve his game?
Shot selection and defense should be at the top of the list. Despite the decent scoring average, the more minutes he plays, the more shots he misses. In theory that makes sense, but there are a number of players (even his own teammates) that played more minutes and missed fewer shots. In all five seasons, Wiggins has ranked inside the top 20 in the league in missed field goals.
The defense is fairly straight forward. He has the ability to defend on the perimeter and even inside, but his desire and effort are not always there. Playing passing lanes more aggressively and being able to anticipate what comes next on a given play are two key areas to focus on.
Rebounding is another area that would really benefit the team if he is able to improve. His size and athleticism afford him great opportunities to crash the boards, especially when Towns is not on the floor. Obviously, everyone can improve their shooting, and while his three-point shot isn’t horrid, there is no excuse for him to shoot below 70 percent from the foul line. These are things that should have progressed much better entering your sixth year in the league.
Rosas has stated publicly that continuity and playing style under Saunders should make Wiggins one of the biggest beneficiaries this season.
For their sake and his own, here is to hoping he is right.
NBA Daily: Mavericks Reacclimating Kristaps Porzingis From The Outside In
Kristaps Porzingis has been away from the game for nearly two years. In his first exhibition games with his new team, the Mavericks are reacclimating him from the outside in. Jack Winter writes.
Any doubt surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ blockbuster trade for Kristaps Porzingis had nothing to do with his play.
The No. 4 overall pick in 2015 proved draft-night boos foolish during an eye-popping rookie season that seemed to establish him as the New York Knicks’ long-awaited, homegrown franchise player. Porzingis made subtle strides as a sophomore, adjusting his shot chart to include more three-pointers and attempts at the rim, before accelerating his developmental timeline and suddenly living up to his All-NBA potential over the first half of the 2017-18 season. He couldn’t sustain a blistering start that was so good it prompted early-season MVP talk, but averages of 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game nevertheless made it clear Porzingis was bound for true stardom – if he wasn’t there already.
All that progress came to a crushing halt on Feb. 6, 2018, when Porzingis cut backdoor for a powerful dunk on a trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo that caused him to land awkwardly and clutch his left knee as he writhed in pain on the Madison Square Garden floor. The worst fears of the Knicks and their success-starved fan base were confirmed shortly thereafter, when it was announced that Porzingis had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season and putting his future in jeopardy.
Porzingis’ injury would have been considered a blip for almost any young player. A torn ACL isn’t anything close to the career-threatening injury it was even just a decade ago. Most players return to the floor well within a year of suffering the injury, and all are expected to eventually regain their initial level of athleticism.
Porzingis was the exception to those updated rules. Especially tall players have a long history of reacting poorly to serious lower-body injuries, and Porzingis is a physical anomaly at 7-foot-3 with rare mobility and overall coordination. If his all-around athleticism was even marginally affected by invasive knee surgery, just how good could Porzingis be?
The height of Porzingis’ readjusted ceiling remains a question mark two exhibition games into his playing career with the Mavericks. He’s struggled to shoot the ball from deep after 20 months removed from the NBA game, and it stands to reason he’s more likely to re-injure his knee after going under the knife. But concerns that Porzingis has lost explosiveness as a result of his torn ACL are almost long gone, and more importantly, those about his ability to hold up physically have been lessened by how Dallas has used him.
It would be remiss to submit that Porzingis is all the way back athletically, even though he insisted on Media Day he’s “110 percent.” The Mavericks are planning to load manage Porzingis in 2019-20, perhaps sitting him for either end of all back-to-backs, for a reason.
Still, it’s wildly encouraging to see Porzingis, in his exhibition debut against the Detroit Pistons, throwing down the type of from-nowhere tip dunk he made seem routine during his ill-fated time in New York. A few minutes later, he withstood a reckless shove to finish a lob from Luka Doncic, even landing hard on his left leg no worse for wear.
But just because Porzingis avoided re-injury on that dangerous play hardly means Dallas should be more comfortable putting him at risk. In fact, it provides further justification for Rick Carlisle’s apparent plan of easing him back into NBA action from the outside in.
Comparing young players to all-time greats is an exercise in disappointment. Porzingis isn’t Dirk Nowitzki, and never will be. The Mavericks would be absolutely thrilled if he enjoyed half the extent of individual success that propelled Nowitzki to 12 All-NBA selections and 14 All-Star Games. But just because Porzingis isn’t Nowitzki hardly means Carlisle won’t use him in much the same way he did the greatest player in team history.
For now, that means taking advantage of Porzingis’ deep shooting range from the frontcourt by spacing the floor across four and sometimes five positions. Porzingis has spent most of his time beyond the arc through his first two exhibition games, running high and side ball screens with Doncic, popping back on off-ball screens he sets for catch-and-shoot chances and lagging behind in transition for trail threes.
The numbers, as could be expected from a player who last played competitive NBA basketball nearly two years ago, aren’t great. In 43 total minutes so far, Porzingis has scored only 29 points on 31 shots, including 4-of-16 shooting from deep. But the result doesn’t matter nearly as much as the process for Porzingis, a reality that should extend into the regular season, and there’s ample reason to believe he’ll thrive offensively once he re-acclimates to basketball being played at its highest level.
It’s not Porzingis’ physical tools nor package of offensive skills that makes him special, but the layered scoring opportunities that blend of attributes presents. Leave him free, and Porzingis is the type of shooter who can get hot from three in a hurry. Close-out too aggressively, and he’ll put the ball on the floor to create a cleaner look.
Porzingis started at center on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, and opened next to Maxi Kleber up front two days earlier versus the Pistons. Regardless of what position he’s played, Dallas has mostly used Porzingis as a screener and weak-side spacer, letting him finish plays rather than start them.
Putting a player like Porzingis in a box, though, ignores the versatility that led Kevin Durant to famously dub him “Unicorn.” When he’s been on the floor with another big, the Mavericks have occasionally treated Porzingis like a wing or guard, running him off screens away from the ball.
Purists need not worry: Porzingis hasn’t completely abandoned the post. His touches on the block have been few and far between through his first two exhibition games, and have shrewdly come after he sets screens on the perimeter, allowing him to roll into post position instead of fighting hard to establish it. Porzingis’ right-shoulder turnaround jumper is nearly as unblockable as Nowitzki’s iconic one-footed fadeaway. It’s not going anywhere.
But Dallas clearly plans to utilize Porzingis from the perimeter first and foremost, a development that doesn’t just mitigate the physical toll he’s bound to take, but also leverages his unique abilities as a shooter and driver to make the game easier for Doncic and his teammates. No team in the league will benefit more from pitch-perfect spacing this season than the Mavericks. Porzingis, obviously, is much more than a floor-stretcher, but he can get his own playing mostly from the outside while teammates – including likely starter Dwight Powell, one of the best roll men in basketball – reap the rewards of him being on the court.
In time, Dallas will ask more of Porzingis offensively. He’s too gifted an individual scorer for that not to happen. But as he gets his feet under him in the season’s early going and perhaps for its duration, Porzingis will offer more than enough by his presence alone to make the Mavericks dangerous. And if he grows comfortable quickly, don’t be surprised if Carlisle affords Porzingis more responsibility, perhaps lifting his team to legitimate playoff contention in the process.