Essay: Zach Randolph Takes On All Comers
After a thorough Game 1 beat down, the sport’s most prolific scorer humbly referred to him as the best power forward in basketball. Apart from the likelihood that these words were used to motivate his own beefier teammates, the statement by Kevin Durant on Zach Randolph still sent minor shockwaves throughout the league. Zach Randolph? The defensively inefficient, often overlooked, weed dealing, gun toting guy who doesn’t know how many minutes make up an NBA game? In his 10th season playing for his fourth team, how is this possible?
We all saw Randolph destroy Tim Duncan, and for the time being a double dose of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s a very, very interesting statement considering who else plays the position. Is Randolph better than Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, and Carlos Boozer? (Undoubtedly yes to those last two.) Is he benefitting from favorable matchups or is he really this dominant? This isn’t to say that Portland GM Rich Cho would, say, swap Aldridge for Randolph at the drop of a hat, but nevertheless it’s extremely interesting that a late bloomer with such intense baggage who kept his imposing game hidden from the public can allow, even for a second, the thought to cross Cho’s mind. Randolph is a trickster in that he lulled the masses to sleep before pouncing on San Antonio at the playoff’s opening gate. Not that his game was completely misjudged, but at the All-Star break, more television pundits whined about an Aldridge/Lamar Odom snub (not to mention the initial spurn of Kevin Love) over Randolph as a suitable Western Conference reserve. Right now it’s tough to argue who’s more valuable to his team. At any position.
“When he landed, defenders seemed to shed off of him, leaving him clear for the easy bucket…His huge mass and the force his personality sent out a sonic blast that left him free. It didn’t matter if he was surrounded; if [blank] had the ball close to the hoop, he was going to score.” Somewhere buried in FreeDarko’s “The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History” this commentary is used to describe Charles Barkley, a rigid Randolph supporter. I deleted “Charles” from the quote and inserted “blank” to showcase just how close Zach Randolph resides with one of the game’s all time greats. Apart from the line about his personality, can’t you replace Charles with Zach and call it a day? The description is that spot on, isn’t it? Using NBA.com’s Statscube—a form of cooked crack for basketball statisticians—let’s go through a few of these individual matchups one by one. All stats unless otherwise noted are of the per 36 minute variety.
Randolph and Aldridge shared the court for just 62 minutes this season, but their head to head stats are somewhat revealing despite the small sampling. Aldridge, an emerging franchise player, shot below his normal averages from every spot on the court while grabbing just 5.8 rebounds. LaMarcus is listed at 6’11″, and while he should still become a better rebounder as his young career progresses forward, he still managed to snag at least 10 boards in 36 games this season. In three games against Memphis he had four, six, and 11 rebounds—that last performance coming with Randolph on the sidelines. Zach had 34 to Aldridge’s 10 in the two games they faced off, which is kinda (sorta) complete domination. If Aldridge is his team’s late inning lefty specialist from the bullpen, Randolph batted .450 on him this year. Elsewhere, LaMarcus’ free-throw attempts were lower than average, as were his field goal percentage, points, and assists. Interestingly enough, his fouls more than doubled. And last but not least, Aldridge was a -10.5 against Randolph in the ever ambiguous world of +/- . Telling.
The unanimous 2011 Rookie of the Year, Blake Griffin, played 3110 intimidation filled rim-rattling minutes this season. He averaged 21.4 points on 51 percent shooting while attempting eight free-throws, and with his youthful, imposing frame, pulled down 11.4 rebounds. 91 of those minutes came opposite Zach Randolph, and like Aldridge, there’s somewhat of a significant drop. His points and field goal percentage took a bit of a tumble, falling to 13.8 and 43%, respectively. (Against Memphis with Randolph on the bench, Griffin shot 59% in 60 minutes of action.) The most dramatic plunge came in free-throw attempts, as Griffin went from eight to 2.8. Personal fouls went up to four and in the +/- game, Randolph walks away with a +7.9 advantage. Zach also shot above average from everywhere on the court.
This is probably the greatest case of Durant inserting a foot in his mouth during that Game 1 press conference. With all the variety and majesty in Dirk’s offensive game, he isn’t looked at as a prototypical power forward but make no mistake, he’s still the best. In the 62 minutes Dirk spent on the court with Randolph this season, he shot a subpar (for him) 46% from the field with only 2.3 free-throw attempts. On the boards Nowitzki was better than his average and Randolph was below his, which is surprising—despite Dirk being a true seven-footer and Randolph’s listing of 6’9″. Randolph’s known to be tenacious on the boards while Dirk, somewhat unfairly, has a reputation of holding back his assertive aggression when the ball isn’t in his grasp. Stylistically the two players are quite a contrast: Randolph existing as a down low banger (he attempts over 10 shots a game from nine feet and in) and Dirk relying on one of the game’s great jumpers (he attempts just over 12 shots a game from 10 feet and out). Nowitzki’s game is commonly referred to as a thing of gangly contorted beauty while Randolph is a lumpy assortment of ugly means able to justify the end. (For the official record, Memphis went 3-1 against Dallas this year.)
Love had a great year this season—albeit for the league’s worst team—but for whatever reason it’s still difficult for me to include him among the league’s best power forwards. He displayed a single season of dominance on the glass, but before he’s granted discussion among the elite, prolonged excellence is needed. I’m not entirely positive how Love and Blake Griffin differ in this sense, but for whatever reason Love needs to show he can do what he just did again and again and again. (With Griffin it’s assumed, barring injury, that he’ll be a franchise’s foundation.) Kevin Love is included here because his game mirrors Randolph’s in the sense that both are pure, old school power forwards. Love and Randolph played against one another for 62 minutes this season and Randolph looks to have dominated all of them. Love’s points fall by nine, his shooting percentage by 12%, and his rebounds by three. To be fair, Zach’s boards went down by two, and in his 41 minutes facing the Timberwolves with Love on the bench, his scoring skyrocketed to 27.2 from a 19.9 average. This is due credit to the Most Improved Player’s improving defensive ability, but not enough to give him an advantage.
Probably not a real power forward but neither is Tim Duncan, and look what Randolph did to him. In their 89 minutes of shared court time this season, the results weren’t as favorable compared to that first round series against Timmy. Randolph was held to just 10.9 points on 31% shooting with rebounding numbers that dropped from 12 to eight. Normally an extremely effective force in the restricted area, against L.A. Randolph was held to a low 38%. Certainly not his best matchup. Gasol on the other hand saw slight dips in scoring, but a minor bump in rebounds. He’s a two-time champion who, one can make the argument, saved basketball in Los Angeles. He’s no certified future Hall of Famer like Nowitzki, but the lanky Gasol definitely holds the upper hand here.
The point of this little exercise was to comb through the numbers in an effort to either prove or disprove Kevin Durant’s bold claim. What I found was both surprising and expected. No, Randolph isn’t the best power forward in the league, and it wouldn’t be right to claim so as a knee jerk reaction from a single dominant playoff series. Looking at the numbers which are admittedly taken from a small sample, Randolph has firmly entrenched himself as somebody other power forwards don’t like seeing. With his unpredictable repertoire he’s extremely tough to defend around the basket, and his ability to draw fouls (Carlos Boozer, who I didn’t go into too much detail with, averaged 6.9 fouls in his time handling Randolph) makes him a nightmare. Whether you look at the sum of Randolph as an overrated waste of talent who just so happens to be excelling alongside a gifted center, or a load of a man who’s defying odds by coming into his own at such a late stage in his career, there’s one thing Kevin Durant said during his press conference that isn’t disputable: Zach Randolph is an animal.