It’s not even surprising that Zach Randolph is an all-star at this point.
It’s a weird realization to have, but it’s true. This is only Z-Bo’s second all-star appearance (personally, I keep forgetting that he didn’t make it in 2011), and only the fourth year of his Memphis tenure (before which coaches wouldn’t even go near him for the all-star game), and yet, it feels as if Z-Bo just belongs and that’s that.
There was, perhaps, some discomfort that the “token Grizzlies spot”, if such a thing exists, went to him over Marc Gasol this year. However, such discomfort only survived so long before it was washed away by just how natural a part of today’s NBA it is to see Randolph in the all-star game. Just four years removed from the trade that brought him from Los Angeles to Memphis – an outright salary dump for which the Clippers were commended and the Grizzlies ridiculed – Zach Randolph’s transformation from malcontent to all-star is not just complete, it is so ingrained that we almost forget it ever happened.
Instead, the focus with Z-Bo is on that next level. Watching his rainbow jumper splash again and again on the Spurs and Thunder in the 2011 playoffs, it’s almost impossible not to view Randolph through a superstar prism. For that one spring, Randolph was a rare glimpse of brilliance, a surefire bucket in times of need and an offensive centerpiece rivaled only by an eventual Finals MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. It stands out against his career norms, but since Randolph’s entire time in Memphis stands out against his career norms anyway, expecting him to overachieve is almost part of the game. We were treated to the best, and we expect it back. Whether this is even remotely fair is irrelevant.
The Grizzlies depended on that Randolph to distressing degrees in 2011, asking him to carry an offense just high enough for the defense to get the knockout, and they promise to depend on another transcendent Randolph postseason just as much in a post-Rudy Gay world. As balanced and defensively brilliant as this Memphis team may be, the offense was always over-dependent on the individual abilities of either Randolph or Gay to create. This is partially by design – a confusing, deservedly criticized design – but it is a design that has worked for the Grizzlies in the aggregate, one that could, if subjected to any further tweaks, potentially proving disastrous to a delicate locker room situation.
Is Randolph even capable of replicating such heights? It’s a fair question. We’ve only seldom seen 2011 Randolph ever since those playoffs. This contest stands out as the best example, but it came against your Phoenix Suns, hardly the Thunder or Spurs. That player may no longer exist.
One can easily make the case that even 2010 Randolph is long gone – the past two seasons have seen Z-Bo post career lows in usage rate and points per minute. Randolph’s game is built around phenomenal hands and a low center of gravity, not so much elite athleticism, but Father Time works in mysterious ways, and Father Time dictates that Randolph is 31 years old and had serious knee issues in the past. It’s possible that this is the last year an all-star selection for Randolph is met by a collective nod of approval.
But Randolph was so good in those playoffs, just two years ago, that he has some leeway with us. This, too, would be unimaginable just a few years ago – Zach Randolph! Leeway! Imagine the odds! – but that just goes to show how deep his transformation has gone. For now, we’ll accept him with open arms, an all-star berth that was basically a coin toss between him and his teammate, and hopes that he can be a short-term superstar once again.