If you want to make Zach Randolph laugh, there's a particular prhase that should do the trick. The Memphis Grizzlies forward let out a deep chuckle when he heard "the evolution of the power forward position" come out of my mouth.
Randolph wasn't trying to condescend to me with his laughter; it's just that he's heard the phrase before, and because in this evolutionary analogy he's the caveman. The NBA has apparently evolved past the "traditional power forward," which is to say, past players like Z-Bo. Or that's the conventional wisdom, anyway. Like much conventional wisdom, it isn't necessarily accurate. Randolph, unsurprisingly, begs to differ. "If you look around the league, you still got your bigs and you still got your smalls," he told VICE Sports. "That's my opinion."
Claiming that the power forward position is evolving in some sort of scientific and inevitable way is both true enough and not quite an answer. Dirk Nowitzki's shooting undoubtedly changed the way people understood what the power forward position could be, but in 18 years no one has been able to replicate what he does, and building around a less effective version of Nowitzki is usually going to result in a less effective team than the Dallas Mavericks. The same goes for Golden State forward Draymond Green's ball handling and versatility. There are power forwards who can do things power forwards have traditionally not been able to do, but their value has a lot to do with their scarcity.
Randolph, for his part, is suited to play just one position; that itself might be the most antiquated thing about him. A general manager's job is simpler when key players can play multiple positions, but Randolph can do multiple things from one position, and that also makes things easier for his coach and teammates. All of which is to say that while Randolph isn't a stretch- or point-four, he's not a traditional power forward, either, if only because he does so much more than traditional power forwards can do. "I think I got a high skillset," Randolph said "I can shoot the ball, post up, face up, dribble."
Randolph's reputation comes from the notion that playing against him today means being sore tomorrow. But few players as physical as Z-Bo have ever had as soft a shooting touch up to 18 feet, and his footwork in isolation situations are veritable dancing lessons. This effectively makes up for the fact that he might not be able to jump over a speed bump.
With Marc Gasol and Mike Conley out with injuries, the Grizzlies will bring less talent into the postseason than any team in either conference; they're not expected to stay there any longer than five games. Zach Randolph might put a wrench in that plan, and if/when he does, people will rush to understand what it means for the NBA, its trends, and the position Randolph plays.
"At the end of the day basketball is basketball." Randolph told me at Grizzlies shootaround a few hours before Memphis faced Dallas. "You still have to play it the way it's played. It's a skillful game."
This is a very precise answer disguised as a clichéd one. Given the nature of their current roster, the Grizzlies game plan can't be much different than when you play a pickup game with a skilled, unselfish big man—if you want to win, you'll make sure that big man touches the ball every time down court. Everyone else just needs to spot up, cut to the basket, and set screens for each other. These are basic responsibilities—basketball is basketball, after all—and even the depleted Grizz are stocked with NBA players; they can hit shots, they can set screens, and they can cut to the basket. And if they do all that right, they can compete.
The Grizzlies will play slow. They'll minimize the number of possessions in the game. They'll play defense and try to intimidate and frustrate their opponents. It might be the final chapter of Grit N' Grind, but these striped-down Grizzlies might be the grittiest, grind-iest iteration yet. Between their default facial expressions and personal reputations, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Chris Andersen, PJ Hairston, and Lance Stephenson are all people you might prefer not to have a misunderstanding with.
With Gasol and Conley down, Randolph has seen a noticeable increase in touches, which is a trend that should only increase in the postseason. "He gives our team confidence knowing that he's a go-to guy when he's on the court," Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. "He also gives them confidence knowing that he's a guy that can close out a game."
And so, because he's good and because they're short on alternatives, Memphis will utilize Randolph in the way a team might play through someone like LeBron James. That sounds odd considering speed and athleticism weren't exactly Z-Bo's best qualities 10 years ago, let alone at 34. But Randolph, like James, can do so many things with the ball in his hands that, possession by possession, he can wreak hell on his defender. He'll hit open shots or face up a slow defender, but he will also play extremely physical in the post and on the boards against a team that tries to go small. He'll steal offensive rebounds and pass willingly, because he knows the ball will come back to him if his teammates don't have open looks.
Even with Randolph at his best, Memphis' margin for error is tiny. Turnovers or poorly missed shots early could quickly collapse into them getting run out of a game. And sometimes it just won't work, as it didn't during the team's recent six-game losing streak. The Grizzlies snapped that streak when Randolph took over a matchup against Chicago, dropping 27 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. It was a reminder of what he can still do, and how effective it can be.
Randolph has been around too long to think of any of this as pressure or to be intimidated by legacy-building teams like Golden State or San Antonio. He'll suit up and play with whoever puts on the same jersey as him. "With your two cornerstones and franchise players going down you kind of have to lift [everyone else] up and still step up and be a leader," he said. He has done it before.
The Grizzlies, too, will look to do what they've always done. The tempo and the score might be ugly, but what Randolph does on the court won't be. Z-Bo's going to face the evolution of basketball and do his best to push it around. He might make people temporarily reconsider NBA trends, or maybe just reconsider the idea of Zach Randolph as a throwback from another era. That last bit is well overdue. Players that can do what Zach Randolph does at the four aren't rare because the game is changing; they're rare because there weren't many like him in the first place.