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All that was missing from the eulogies about the supposed death of the “Grit and Grind” was the whine. When the Memphis Grizzlies benched Zach Randolph – the lefty, hefty, headband-rocking embodiment of power ball – in December, it was easy to view the move as the latest example of the league's small-ball infatuation.
Even members of the Grizzlies accepted the change as something the team had to make to avoid getting dusted by the Golden State Warriors and all of their copycats – until coach Dave Joerger realized he couldn't fully pull the plug on what defined Memphis and brought back to life the familiar style that best fit his personnel. Through the unexpected changes, an admittedly stunned Randolph never complained publicly nor griped privately.
"I didn't. I feel if you gonna cry, what the baby gonna do?" Randolph told The Vertical recently. "I'm a grown man. I’m not going to pout because I wouldn’t do my teammates like that. I’m going to play hard, if he plays me 15 minutes or if he plays me 30 minutes, because I’m playing for the guys. I’m doing it for my guys. That’s the way I approach it."
Randolph, a veteran former All-Star, had earned the right to voice some displeasure over his demotion, given all of his contributions to the franchise during the past seven years. But in addition to being known for not bluffing, Randolph has now earned some respect for not being disruptive. By taking the high road when the Grizzlies moved away from him, Randolph has helped put the team back on track – and it's probably not a coincidence that it dove-tailed with Joerger going back to Randolph.
“Bench or start, I’m fine with it,” Randolph told The Vertical. “I know I’m a starter and I know what I can do. I know I can play 30-something minutes a game and be productive. As a player knowing that, I’m a team-first professional guy, so if that’s what the coach thinks is the best thing, I’m going to stick with the script.”
The Grizzlies were at a crossroads earlier this season, when it seemed the rest of the league was quickly turning old-school, smashmouth bully ball into a relic. Joerger's repeated comments about being "slow" and "old" hinted that change was necessary to keep up with space-and-pace foes.
Needing to maximize the playmaking talents of their two best players – the recently re-signed Marc Gasol and free-agent-to-be Mike Conley – the Grizzlies tried to spread the floor with Jeff Green and Matt Barnes instead of Randolph and defensive stalwart Tony Allen. But eight games into the switch, Memphis was 16-16 on Dec. 26, resisting its actual identity and struggling to find a new one. Given the limitations of a roster short on shooters, Joerger put Randolph back in the starting lineup Jan. 14, and the Grizzlies have reeled off wins in eight of their past nine games to put the possibility of a fourth straight 50-win season back in play.
“It's been working a long time,” Randolph said of his frontcourt pairing with Gasol. “The league is going into a different style of play, you know. But it works. And we’re doing what we’re doing and playing, man. I’m on board with what’s going on.”
Randolph didn't know if the cycle of the season would work itself back in his favor. And he is fully prepared in case Joerger decides to take another small-ball swing. But Randolph certainly won’t abandon the only way he has known how to play the past 15 years – by being physical and relying on guile and crafty footwork to muscle inside despite being somewhat undersized.
“Sticking to the script, you know,” Randolph told The Vertical. “Nowadays, a lot of guys are more athletic, but the skill set has gone down, like it used to be. It’s a lot of athleticism, running fast and jumping high, but you still need skill. This game is hot on skill and is played on skills. Having that touch, I can score around them. I ain’t fast but I got a little foot speed. I get under ’em, jab ’em. That’s the reason I think I can play a couple of more years and be productive.”
The familiar inside-out game with Gasol and Randolph might not officially be over but those days are fading. Memphis plans to retain Conley and will have the financial flexibility to restructure the next incarnation of the team around Conley and Gasol with only seven players – including Randolph – signed beyond this season. The Grizzlies will eventually have to move on from the 34-year-old Randolph – and his $10 million expiring contract for 2016-17 could be an attractive trade chip next summer – but he has no plans of leaving the game any time soon.
“I got a lot left,” Randolph said. “I got a lot left and I can still play.”
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