The Memphis Grizzlies have never been better. The team continued to grind through opponents in the West last year, despite trading top scorer and highest-paid player Rudy Gay at midseason. The Grizzlies rode all the way to the conference finals before conceding, taking out the glamorous Lob City Clippers and defending West champs Oklahoma City to get there. But Memphis hopes that wasn't the culmination of the Z-Bo Era. The expectation is that there's a higher summit to reach: the NBA Finals, and a championship.
But whether Zach Randolph, the eponymous leader of Memphis's current movement, can offer much more is a serious question.
Consider this: over the past two seasons, Z-Bo's numbers in Memphis have been shockingly similar to the numbers he put up in a disastrous season with the New York Knicks in 2007-08. That season was the nadir of Z-Bo, an embarrassing but high-priced valley in an otherwise productive if confusing career. Under Isiah Thomas, that team was perhaps the most embarrassing production New York would host until Spider-Man hit Broadway. The quintessential Bad Z-Bo moment happened in New York. His value was so low (especially given his max contract) that the Knicks would trade him for Cuttino Mobley (who would immediately retire due to a heart issue) and Tim Thomas, who a year later got moved for Larry Hughes, who is probably the reason LeBron James left Cleveland.
But Z-Bo eventually landed in Memphis, which needed production after a memorably awful stretch bridging the Pau and Marc Gasol eras. Under the hand of Lionel Hollins, a sturdy and reliable lineup featuring Z-Bo, Marc, Gay, Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo thrived. Z-Bo's numbers -- particularly his efficiency -- boomed. And though the team was shaken up in some aspects (adding Tony Allen at the expense of Mayo, for instance), it continued to thrive and Z-Bo continued to thrive.
Then he injured his knee early in the 2011-12 lockout season, and his efficiency tanked. He's now -- over the past two seasons -- actually less efficient a scorer than he was in New York. He's currently floating just above a .500 True Shooting percentage; league average is .534, and Z-Bo finished with the sixth-lowest TS% of all 54 players who averaged at least 15 points per game last season. (The bottom five, for some perspective: Glen Davis, Monta Ellis, Gay, Jrue Holiday and Josh Smith.)
To be sure, Z-Bo is still good: he's one of the league's best offensive rebounders and a pretty good defensive rebounder, too; he can score on any defender (though, again, not too efficiently); and he is in many ways the spirit animal of his own team.
Yet, he's now 32 years old and due $34 million over the next two seasons. The sand is running precariously fast through Z-Bo's hourglass, and it might be time for Memphis's brain trust to begin testing out its options for the post-Randolph era.
Specifically, that might mean giving Ed Davis some space on the court. The Grizzlies replaced Hollins with Dave Joerger, so it'll be interesting to see how the rotation meets a balance between winning and developing highly needed prospects like Davis. Perhaps just doing that -- giving Randolph more rest and Davis more court time -- will work to preserve the time Z-Bo has left as an above-average NBA player and will allow Memphis to meet its short- and long-term goals simultaneously. Or, perhaps in the go-for-broke effort to hoist a trophy in Tennessee, the Grizzlies will run out the clock on the team's greatest generation and fall just short.
I think all NBA fans (except those who ride with the Thunder or Clippers) would consent if we could freeze time on this incarnation of the Grizzlies and savor the grit, grind and heart it's given of us. But time stands still for no man, no matter how scary it may be to deny him his objective. Though if there were a man frightening enough to stop time in its track, it might just be Zach Randolph.