I'm on record as being opposed to the Grizzlies impending trade for Zach Randolph, and I'm not backing off that: I think his track record makes him too big of a gamble for a young team; I think his black-hole offense makes him a bad fit for a team trying to develop O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay as primary scorers; and I think his stationary defense will present match-up problems against the more mobile fours that are becoming the norm for the position.
Beyond that, a couple of other factors about the deal bother me: I think the Grizzlies gave up too early on a free-agent market that could start looking more and more like a buyer's market as options dwindle. And I hate that the Clippers were able to hold out for a better deal (Quentin Richardson rather than Marko Jaric) for a player they had to get rid of and apparently no one else wanted.
All that said, I don't want my skepticism to be mistaken for the arrogance of certainty. There are reasons to believe this deal might work out for the Grizzlies. Here are six of them:
1. Creeping Maturity?: Last week on The Geoff and Gary Show, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski suggested that Randolph has matured. Could it be? Though Randolph's on- and off-court rap sheet is long and colorful, most of it, including the most serious entries, happened earlier in his career while he was in Portland. True, Randolph's Clipper tenure was marred by both a DUI arrest and a suspension for punching Suns' forward Louis Amundsen. But the frequency and severity of his problems seems to have waned since leaving Portland. Hopefully the trend will continue.
2. The Lone Knucklehead Theory: Randolph may have a checkered history, but it's not like he's been the only questionable character on the teams for whom he's played. The infamous "Jail Blazers" teams in Portland contained perhaps the biggest concentration of sketchy characters in league history (Darius Miles, Ruben Patterson, Bonzi Wells, Rasheed Wallace, Qyntel Woods, Jeff McInnis). The 2007-2008 Knicks weren't plagued by the array of legal problems that afflicted the Jail Blazers, but was in its own way a historic assemblage of dubious on-court personalities (Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Jerome James) led by an equally troubled coach (Isaiah Thomas). Similarly, the 2008-2009 Clippers were a doomed-to-failure collection of underachievers, malcontents, and crazies (Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Ricky Davis, Al Thornton).
An oft-repeated NBA aphorism is that you can get by with one knucklehead on your team, but if you have multiple ones they'll feed off each other. (Witness the combustion that occurred with the Grizzlies paired Jason Williams and Bonzi Wells.) Randolph may be a knucklehead, but he's had the misfortune of playing on the most knucklehead-saturated team in the league probably every season of his career.
The Grizzlies are very young, but this team seems to be a very stable collection of people. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are top-notch. There are questions about Rudy Gay's game, but he's a solid guy. O.J. Mayo has some minor baggage based on his rocky negotiation of the corrupt farce that is college basketball, but has been all business since entering the Association. All the rookies seem like high-character guys. If Randolph really is the follower some claim him to be, then he might be okay with the Griz.
3. Damon Stoudamire: As previously noted, Stoudamire, who is currently a Grizzlies assistant, played with Randolph early in his career at Portland. Presumably, Stoudamire knows him well and is more likely to have his respect than anyone else in the locker room. If he's able to help keep Randolph in line, Stoudamire could play an unusually important role for the Grizzlies this season.
4. The Looming Contract Year: Randolph has two years left on his current max contract. If he plays well in Memphis and the Grizzlies have some success, it will go a long way toward rehabilitating his image and putting him in position to get at least one more major contract. But if Randolph has on or off-court problems in Memphis and the team tanks, who is going to want to sign him when this contract is up? Randolph wouldn't be the first talented, productive player to have his NBA career cut artificially short because teams didn't want to deal with his baggage. It happened to Isaiah Rider and Bonzi Wells, and could be happening to Allen Iverson right now. Randolph could have tens of millions on the line these next couple of seasons.
5. Frontcourt Partners: Randolph demands a lot of shots and doesn't play much defense. Thankfully the Grizzlies will employ a center tandem next season that might fit with Randolph pretty well. If Hasheem Thabeet is what the Grizzlies think he is, he'll be able to cover for a lot of defensive lapses and certainly won't demand many halfcourt touches.
Marc Gasol is not quite the defensive dynamo Thabeet is expected to be, but he's tough, attentive, and is both willing and capable of being a secondary option offensively who can facilitate shots for others. Like Randolph, he can play both on the block and on the perimeter, so the team should be able to use them together effectively.
For a sense of what the right kind of frontcourt partner can do for Randolph, just look at his last two seasons. In New York during the 07-08 season, he was forced into a poor fit alongside fellow beefy low-post scorer Eddy Curry. This resulted in one of the two worst seasons Randolph's had since becoming a starter (18/10, 46% shooting — still pretty good production).
Last season with the Clippers, the idea was to pair Randolph with Marcus Camby, a defensive-oriented center who doesn't need plays run for him on the offensive end. Given that the Clippers finished 19-63, the third-worst record in the league, you might assume this combo was a failure. But really the problem wasn't that Randolph and Camby didn't play well together, it was that they didn't play enough together: Due to injuries the duo played only 16 games in which both got at least 30 minutes.
For the season, Randolph played 39 games for the Clippers. In those games, he averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds and the team went 13-26 (.333 winning percentage). But in the 16 games in which he and Camby got significant minutes together, Randolph averaged 26 and 11. More importantly, the team went 8-8. This suggests that if you can pair Randolph with a frontcourt partner that doesn't demand too many shots and can cover for him defensively, it can be good for Randolph and for the team.
6. The 2010 Draft: Although I certainly think that David Lee, Paul Millsap, and Charlie Villanueva — the power forwards the team could have conceivably acquired in free agency this summer — would all have been better long-term fits for this team than Randolph, you can certainly argue that none of them are perfect fits and none of them seem to really have perennial all-star ability.
Signing them this summer for what would have likely been five-year deals would have locked up the team's power forward slot with good but imperfect and relatively low-upside solutions. Randolph's two-year deal keeps the options open.
Which leads to the 2010 draft, which is expected to be deep, especially at the power forward slot. Draft Express' current 2010 mock has 6-8 power forwards projected in the lottery. NBADraft.net's mock has 6-7 PFs in the lottery. Chad Ford's prospect list for 2010 has 6-7 PFs in the lottery range.
Even if the Grizzlies are picking in the back half of the lottery next summer, they could easily snag their power forward of the future, and would be in good position to trade up for a higher-level prospect. (Perhaps using a potentially expendable Marc Gasol if Thabeet pans out.) In this scenario, the Grizzlies' PFOTF would be able to ease into the league playing behind Randolph for a year before taking over the starting role in his second season.