I've been putting off this piece for a while, but now that the season is over, it's time to start talking about what the Grizzlies can do to be better next year. No matter who is going to end up calling the shots for the Grizzlies this offseason, pretty much every decision the team needs to make will be influenced by the outcome of a decision in the hands of someone else: the $16.5 million player option of Zach Randolph.
Said player option was put in place by Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace when Randolph's contract was extended after the 2011 playoffs. At the time, it seemed like it was a million years away—who knew what would happen in the meantime, and it'd be a long time before anyone had to deal with it.
That time has come, and it finds the Grizzlies in the middle of a really weird offseason, one that's seen unprecedented (and also as yet unresolved until a long-term GM is hired) upheaval already and not the roster upheaval some predicted but instead a changing of the decision-making guard.
There are only two possible outcomes to this scenario: Zach Randolph is a member of the Memphis Grizzlies next season, or he isn't. Both possible outcomes have their upsides and downsides.
The bottom line is this: Zach Randolph is coming off a good season, but probably not a great one. He averaged 17.4 points and 10.1 rebounds a game, and a PER of 18.3, continued to play at a high level all around, appeared to have improved his interior passing, and (along with Mike Conley) carried the team through a tough stretch without Marc Gasol.
The good things that Z-Bo accomplished last season may have masked some signs of a decline—a drop in FG% at the rim, passable defense turning into, well, non-passable, and even a drop in his offensive rebounding rate. The most worrisome of the three has to be the defense; his numbers dropped on offense but they're still Zach Randolph numbers. On the other side of the ball, Randolph repeatedly got torched by players he used to do a decent job of defending, and teams are getting smarter and smarter about abusing Z-Bo's bad (and getting worse) pick-and-roll defense.
It's a mixed bag: he's still good, but he's not worth $16.5 million, and if he opts in and stays at that price, the Grizzlies will be very hamstrung trying to improve the roster next year (especially if they're going to also re-sign Mike Miller to some sort of deal). If he opts out and re-signs to a longer term deal, that may be good too, but what if other teams drive that value up over the $10 million a year range that he's probably worth? Will the Grizzlies overpay to keep him around? By how much? For how long?
The worst case scenario, to me, is that Randolph opts out and a bidding war erupts between the Grizzlies and another suitor—a team like the Mavericks or somebody—that pushes Randolph's contract into the $13mil/yr range for three years. Even if Randolph performs up to that standard next year, I don't see how he will during the 2016-17 season—and keeping him around that long could potentially stunt the growth of any prospect (whether that's Ed Davis, Jon Leuer, or somebody else) who could be getting valuable development time on the floor.
A Z-Bo who is significantly worse than "Peak Z-Bo" (which was the 2011 Playoffs edition, and I think that's pretty much indisputable) is not going to be the best guy to start at the 4 alongside Marc Gasol and Mike Conley while those two guys are in the primes of their careers. This year, due to injuries, we saw a style of play out of the Grizzlies that we haven't seen before—the faster-paced, pick and roll based game I took to calling JoergerBall™—and that style looks for all intents and purposes to be where the team is headed. If Z-Bo sticks around that long, the pace of play is not going to be going up any time soon.
Speaking of cap issues, you know who else is a free agent next summer? That's right: Marc Gasol. Overpaying Zach Randolph this summer won't make it impossible to keep Gasol next summer, but it will make it harder to keep Gasol and continue to improve the roster by bringing in good free agents around him. If the Grizzlies are committed to winning a championship with the Conley/Gasol duo, they need to be committed to doing it with those two, not necessarily with the Conley/Gasol/Allen/Randolph foursome.
Obviously, if Randolph ends up staying in Memphis for too much money, that'd be detrimental to the Grizzlies. But what about the other possibility? What if Zach Randolph opts out of his contract and signs with another team for more than the Grizzlies are willing to pay him?
The first obvious downside would be the rioting in the streets.
That's mostly a joke, but it's undeniable that Zach Randolph has been arguably the most popular player on the most popular team in Grizzlies history. Memphis identifies with Randolph in a way it never has with a pro basketball player before: "a blue collar player in a blue collar town." Even before Randolph took to the mic and said "Ain't nothing been given easy to me, and ain't nothing been given easy to this town. So it's a fit," Memphis recognized Randolph as one of us in a way, a representative of the underdog aspect of our city, a guy no one liked who was able to come here and make something different. For him to leave, rather than retire in Beale Street Blue, would be tough to take, even for those who think his best days as a player may be behind him. Given the uproar over the Rudy Gay trade, the still-ongoing public outcry over the Lionel Hollins situation, the continual bashing of (now-former) CEO Jason Levien and controlling owner Robert Pera, it's unlikely that any outcome that sees Randolph heading somewhere else would go over well with the mass of Grizzlies fans in Memphis, rightly or wrongly.
Besides that, though, who replaces him? If Randolph goes, who's going to be around to keep Tony Allen in check, yelling at him for taking too many jumpshots? It's no secret that Randolph is the only guy on the Griz team who has the power to tell Tony Allen what to do. If Randolph goes and Allen stays, who's going to rein in the crazy when it needs to be reined in?
It's not like Ed Davis or Jon Leuer are proven commodities at this point, either. Both are very good players (yes, I'm still on the Ed Davis bandwagon at this point) but neither has proven that he can be the starting power forward on a contending NBA team. There's not a "ready to go" guy who was chomping at the bit for the starting spot last season. Either Davis or Leuer would have to make a big leap and prove himself, or the team would have to make some moves to bring in some sort of power forward—whether that's more of a stretch 4 or a shooting 4 or whatever.
There's also the issue that Z-Bo is a big part of this team's chemistry. He and Marc Gasol are very good friends, and while he's clearly "the guy" most of the time, he's a leader on the team, in the locker room, and everywhere else. Most of the Grizzlies are "nice guys." Z-Bo is vocal. If he's gone, some of the guys who are used to being a little more passive are going to have to assume an active leadership role, and that's always a tough transition.
I think Zach Randolph is worth a three year, $10 million a year contract. If bidding from another team pushes that number much higher than that, I think the Grizzlies should let him take that deal. I also think if he opts in, the Grizzlies are going to have a hard time getting better next year, and they'll just waste another year of Conley, Allen, Gasol, and Randolph without being able to significantly improve. The team is definitely in "tweak" mode, rather than "rebuild" mode, so even if Randolph isn't on the roster next year I don't think that means they should blow up what they've got and start over. I don't think losing Randolph would be the end of this Grizzlies run. But I do think hanging on to him for too long, for too much money, would be.
It's a precarious situation. For one, we don't know who's really going to be calling these shots (but my money is on Robert Pera doing what he wants). We don't know how the rest of the team would react to Randolph not being on the team next year. We also don't know exactly how much more Randolph has in the tank, and if he's signed to a three year deal and suffers a massive drop-off next season, it's going to be a long time before he's tradeable again (see also Prince, Tayshaun).
The best way for Randolph to get paid, either way, would be for him to opt out. Someone is going to give him a contract for more years and more money than he's guaranteed if he picks up his option. The only question is who that will be, and whether the Grizzlies will be willing to mortgage their short-term future in order to keep him around. One hopes they'll be smart enough to know when to walk away from the poker table.