For everyone who had projected Marc Gasol as an aloof seven-footer, filler lost in the trade of his older brother, Zach Randolph insists he believed all along in an alliance with Gasol. Between their first season and now, Randolph watched how this physical, skilled frontline duo created palpable fear within opponents – a trepidation shattered when Gasol’s knee injury sidelined him for two months.
Randolph and his teammates had entered a frightened state when Gasol tweaked his knee in late November, the same night Derrick Rose tore a meniscus and Andre Iguodala heard a hamstring pop. Only, an MCL sprain left the Memphis Grizzlies’ organization knocking on wood, left hope in a season, and left Randolph cherishing their sixth season as arguably the NBA’s top frontline partners.
Around the corner of the locker room the other night, Randolph heard praise about forming the league’s best lasting power forward-center combination with Gasol. Seated beside one another, they looked up and smiled and Randolph let out a laugh and response in appreciation.
“We want to keep this going and we want to stay together,” Randolph told RealGM. “Me and Marc, we compliment each other so well. It’s hard to play against us, especially when we’re both going on both ends and we’re both down there.
“My game has matured. I play the right way. I’ve developed. Nothing clicked, I just matured as a player – getting better and helping my teammates.”
Randolph sensed the Grizzlies’ vulnerability in those 23 games without Gasol, and a guarding energy was zapped out of a team dependent on last season’s Defensive Player of the Year. The Western Conference is as ruthless and unforgiving as Randolph has seen, but health will give Memphis the look of a playoff contender based on defensive fortitude and a grueling offense increasingly resembling Lionel Hollins’ past teams.
Slowly, Gasol promises to round into his All-Star form, fabricating the Grizzlies’ rigid style alongside Randolph. He’s still suffering from soreness in his left knee and rust on the court, an unofficial minutes watch and the game coming too fast for him now.
“Big fella’s back and he’s the anchor, man,” Randolph said. “I know he’s trying to get his rhythm back, but he’ll find it. I’ve been there, had injuries before, and I know what it’s like. It was a relief when we knew Marc would be coming back this season, in six weeks. We were happy. We held the fort down and now we need to take off.”
Dave Joerger has gained credibility within the Grizzlies’ locker room and uses self-motivating tactics many of the league’s young successful coaches have mastered. This time, during Gasol’s absence, Joerger urged his players to remain upbeat and challenged their resolve. Jason Levien and the front office, for their part, made a sharp trade acquiring Courtney Lee and absolutely stole James Johnson out of the rubbles of the Development League.
From injury, to players coming and going, Joerger’s D-League background brought ease to the constant movement. For the coach, Randolph’s presence provides calming and policing with which coaching staffs concern themselves.
“No one hangs their head in this locker room,” Joerger said. “They’re playing for each other. They’re caring for each other.”
Over and over, Randolph has made clear his desire to stay with the Grizzlies long-term, and he talked to management regarding comments about the franchise’s loyalty. They adore him in Memphis where he serves as a charitable member off the court. Randolph told RealGM he’s undecided about the player option on his contract for next season, but he nodded knowingly of his wishes come the offseason. “When it’s time,” he said, “we’ll visit those decisions.”
The Grizzlies engaged in discussions surrounding a contract extension for Ed Davis before the season, and the productivity of negotiations gave the 24-year-old confidence that he’s viewed as part of the core. Behind Randolph and Gasol, Davis’ minutes fluctuate sometimes and he admits frustration sets in when time becomes scarce. And even so, he understands his position and has sought Randolph and Gasol for personal advice and provoking support.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a deal done, but it wasn’t a big thing because I’ll be a restricted free agent in the summer,” Davis told RealGM. “Hopefully, we’ll get something done this summer and I’ll be back.”
In many ways, the Grizzlies’ future could be shaped in the offseason, with choices looming on young players and veterans. They envisioned Quincy Pondexter securing the starting small forward spot from Tayshaun Prince, but the fracture in his foot likely leaves him out of their plans this season.
Zach Randolph remembers people questioning Marc Gasol years ago, asking who on Earth was this gangly, mammoth center out of Spain. Did Randolph see all this coming for Gasol? Did he conceive All-Star recognition, a Defensive Player of the Year, the savvy and maturity and toughness? “Hell yeah,” Randolph says, smiling wide.
From the moment he arrived to the Grizzlies, Zach Randolph imagined a cooperation with the Spaniard defying NBA odds. An unorthodox, once ball dominant power forward, and a forgotten Gasol brother. “Always believed in us. Always.”