Last season, a two-time All-Star was asked to come off the bench in a contract year by a rookie head coach for a playoff-caliber team. It didn’t end well for Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls.
Noah averaged career-lows in minutes and points per game, as well as field goal percentage and free throw percentage, while Chicago missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Will history repeat itself in Memphis? The Grizzlies hired rookie head coach David Fizdale, who wanted to make an immediate change to the starting lineup. He decided that two-time All-Star Zach Randolph will come off the bench for the foreseeable future.
“He just told me the whys,” Randolph told Basketball Insiders. “He explained to me what he wanted to do and have more fire power coming off the bench. He needed me to play that role so I said, ‘Okay.’ I took it with a grain of salt, kept it moving, whatever you want me to do. I’m a professional and I’m going to go out there and work my [butt] off. That’s all I can do.”
Despite being penciled in as the starting power forward for the past seven seasons, which included six postseason trips, Coach Fizdale notified Randolph of his move to the bench in a private conversation.
“I didn’t beat around the bush,” Fizdale said of his discussion with Randolph. “I was just very up front with him and gave him the reasons why that it’s better for him and our team. I did it in a respectful way, the way you should treat a two-time All-Star. But at the same time, he knew my agenda is the team – to get the most out of him and benefit our team the best. I thought that was the way to go and he really responded.”
Randolph’s minutes are down, but he’s playing more efficiently. Randolph’s scoring (18 points per game) is the highest it’s been in six seasons and he’s currently shooting a career-best 52 percent from the field through the first three games. Is it a small sample size? Yes. However, as the leader of the second unit, Randolph will continue to be the focal point of the offense when he’s in the game. In addition, by curtailing his minutes, his legs should be fresher to make his patented mid-range jab-step jumpers down the home stretch.
“It’s a lot different,” Randolph said. “I’ve been starting now for the last 11-12 years so it’s definitely different. Like I said, though, if this is what’s going to be best for the team then I’m all about it.”
Randolph is attempting to become only the third forward to win the Sixth Man of the Year award since 2000. Previously, Lamar Odom (2011), Antawn Jamison (2004) and Corliss Williamson (2002) came away with the hardware.
“He’s lived up to everything I’ve always known about him,” Fizdale said. “Zach and I had a relationship before this. He’s a great guy and he wants to win and he wants to do what’s best for the team. No, it’s not easy and like I tell my players, and I told him when we announced it, sacrifice is always easy until it’s you. Everybody’s always yelling out that word and throwing that word around. ‘Sacrifice for the team!’ Well, it’s always easy when it’s not you and he stepped up and he did it with dignity. He embraced it and now he’s doing it well. He’s starring in that role for us. I can always go back to that and point that out to his teammates if they’re being fussy about having to make some sacrifices. I can always say, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got a two-time All-Star here who’s giving up a starting role.’ He can start for us. I’ve never said he wasn’t good enough to start. I just don’t think it’s good enough to win the title. I can use that as ways to show our team what sacrifice looks like.”
When was the last time you heard of a potential double-double guy willing to come off the bench? Randolph could become the first player to average a double-double and win Sixth Man of the Year since Roy Tarpley in 1988 with the Dallas Mavericks.
“I want to win a championship,” Randolph said. “If [winning Sixth Man of the Year] happens, fine. But I’m going to go out there and just play my game and take whatever comes with it.”
Al Jefferson, whose prime is behind him, is transitioning nicely into a $10 million low-post scoring bench player for the Indiana Pacers and as a mentor to Myles Turner. Earlier this week, Turner praised the addition of Jefferson and spoke highly of the veteran’s tutelage in my previous Basketball Insiders story.
Coach Fizdale has raved about Randolph and how he has accepted his new role. Randolph’s ability to score on the block and rebound has never been in question. The only difference now is Randolph will be producing off the bench in shorter spurts. The veteran forward never relied on athleticism to score on the low block or box out opponents, which suggests he will age gracefully over the next few years.
The only question is whether Randolph will be producing for the Grizzlies or another team after this season. Randolph is in the final year of his contract (earning $10,361,445), meaning he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July.
“I haven’t thought about it right now,” Randolph said when asked about his future. “Right now, I’m just focused on a championship and winning. Everything else will take care of its place.”
With the salary cap expected to rise again this summer and similar players such as Jefferson earning an average of $10 million per season, Randolph should remain an eight-figure salary player going forward – regardless of whether he’s starting.
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