Last night's big (by Griz standards) Grizzlies win over the Portland Trail Blazers happened pretty late, so I didn't outline a full game-recap-type post to go along with it. Once it was clear that the Blazers weren't going to break 80 points—and clear that Zach Randolph was going to have a 20/10 game coming off the bench against his former team—you could already see how everyone's recap was going to go: a throwback game, depended on Grit & Grind to Get It Done In Portland, rumors of Z-Bo's demise are greatly exaggerated, etc.
All of those things are true. The Grizzlies' offense was mostly horrible for a large portion of the game, except for a huge scoring outburst in the third quarter that took place when the injured Mike Conley and struggling Marc Gasol were sitting on the bench, and so that left Randolph to pick up the scoring slack, and that's exactly what he did against Portland's frontline. Randolph shot 61% from the floor (11 of 18), scored 26 points, grabbed 18 rebounds (12 of which were offensive rebounds), made all four of his free throws after struggling to hit them the last couple of games, and generally had A Zach Randolph Game.
If I'm honest, I wasn't sure we were going to get many more Zach Randolph Games, where "oh just iso Z-Bo on the block" is actually a valid strategy for winning an entire game, where everything that bounces off the rim ends up in his hands, when he's licking his fingertips after every rainbow jumper, jab step, and turnaround. It was pretty glorious.
With all of the talk in December about needing to trade Z-Bo for the good of "the future", I decided to look at the year Randolph is having in historical context. I did a search on Basketball Reference for players age 34 and up for whom the following things are true:
The full list is here, but you can see for yourself that it's a short one, populated by names like David Robinson, Moses Malone, Shaq, and Charles Barkley. (Maybe Hollinger's MACHINE can explain the Kevin Willis Anomaly.) At any rate, that list should make one thing very clear: there's not a player you can trade Z-Bo for who would be an incremental improvement to this team. There are no players who do what Randolph does who would be traded for him—they're guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, and Greg Monroe. At his age, no one is doing what Randolph is doing right now. Which means this: these Z-Bo games are even more special than Grizzlies fans already think they are.
So. What wasn't glorious? The Grizzlies' team offense. And no, "hey Z-Bo go make smaller men afraid of you" isn't actually the Grizzlies offensive scheme (anymore). An example of how bad it got from Peter Edmiston:
Hard to imagine, but the Grizzlies are only up 2 despite not committing a single TO, holding the Blazers to 31% FG and forcing 6 TOs.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 5, 2016
Gasol ended up with 7 points on 3-12 shooting and Conley had 9 on 3-13, but for most of the game they'd both made exactly 1 field goal. Conley had been questionable to play with a back injury, and Brevin Knight was quick to point out on the broadcast that it looked like his ankle was bothering him, as well. As for Gasol, I'm not sure what was wrong with him, but... it wasn't good. Gasol's been struggling on and off (mostly on) for large portions of the season, outside of a few stretches where he simply takes over games because he has to (as in his triple-double game, the win at New Orleans, the OT win over the Heat). And really, he hasn't been the same since last year's All Star Break, when apparently broke something in his brain, and now he's not the same player, the same constantly-effective offensive weapon.
Gasol's on the first year of a five-year max deal, of course. And Mike Conley is a free agent after this season but seems destined to re-sign with the Grizzlies for a lot of money. The way they've both played this season, you wouldn't know it. Both of them have got to be better if the team is going to go anywhere, especially after this year.
That's not to say it's all their fault, of course. The overall team concept of the Grizzlies this season is muddled, almost beyond recognition. They're a defense-oriented team that starts a small lineup (and a "power forward" in Jeff Green) that isn't great defensively. They're a slow-it-down, play-through-the-post team that tries to play everything through Conley/Gasol high pick-and-roll and a spaced-out small starting unit.
They're trying to be two things right now: the Core Four Grizzlies dependent on the play of Randolph and Tony Allen, with Conley and Gasol filling in the gaps (which is what they've been for years, to great success), and also the New Small Grizzlies building a new core around Conley/Gasol and a new, younger wing rotation (a rotation that doesn't exist, mind you, because Jordan Adams is hurt and all the other young guys are bigs save the dearly departed Russ Smith).
Games like the one the Grizzlies won last night emphasize that this is a transition year between those two identities, and you have to feel like that's part of what's wrong with the Grizzlies' two best players: they know they're supposed to be The Guys now, but they don't know what to do with it. Last night, they played defense and let Z-Bo do the dirty work, but that's not really a valid way forward anymore.
There were lots of other things that happened last night, but that was what I went to bed thinking about: the Grizzlies' offense is a disaster, the defense is finally starting to come along, and even now, in January, they still don't know who they are, how they play, or what their real goals are for this season. I'm not sure when that changes, barring unforeseen roster moves I'm sure they're taking phone calls about right this second. But for now, right now, in this season where they change every two weeks into something else, they're still right where we left them: holding opponents under 80 points, barely able to score 80 themselves, reliant on the post for offensive production, deeply flawed, and beautifully violent.