In an ongoing effort to better understand Zach Randolph's game and exorcise my Z-Bo skepticism, I've been looking for answers to questions I'd previously thought pretty conclusive. For example, I'd always accepted as an article of faith that Randolph was an atrocious defender and, more specifically, uniquely awful as a help defender.
Looking back on Randolph's time with the Clippers during the 2008-09 season, I feel as though I can count on one hand the number of instances I can recall Randolph sliding over from his perch on the weakside block to contest penetration or a shot attempt. Whereas Marcus Camby loves nothing more than to scamper from wherever he's set up on the floor to challenge shots at the rim, Randolph was like a shut-in -- he seemed to stake out a single spot beneath the basket and never, ever left home.David Sherman/Getty
If Zach Randolph looks slow to offer defensive help, it might be because he's busy wrestling with a guy like Kevin Love for position underneath.
What accounted for Randolph's inability or unwillingness to move on the defensive end of the floor? Was it conditioning, inattentiveness or a lack of effort? Is it even possible that Randolph was incapable of reading defenses, some kind of Steve Blass disorder for help defenders?
When I put these questions to someone who knows Randolph really well, I got an interesting response. The insider told me that my impression of Randolph's reluctance to move away from his roost beneath the weakside glass wasn't incorrect -- but not for any of the reasons I listed.
Randolph isn't lazy, spacey, sluggish or anything like that. Just the opposite.
According to my Z-Bologist, the primary factor behind Randolph's reluctance to lend help beyond his sphere of influence underneath is that, more often than not in the half court, Randolph has spent the entire possession scrapping, wrestling and bullying for position underneath. That effort is one of the primary reasons his 20.1 rebounding rate ranked fifth among qualified players in the NBA who logged more than 20 minutes per game.
Watch some Grizzlies game tape, I was told. In fact, don't even watch the ball, but focus underneath where, from the very outset of a defensive possession, Randolph is engaged in a battle with his counterpart for rebounding positioning. Watch Randolph's consternation when he realizes he might have throw away all that hard work in order to meet an opposing player on the far side of the lane as Memphis' last line of defense.
I called up a game between Memphis and Minnesota, which features Kevin Love, one of the only players in the league with a better rebounding rate than Randolph.
Sure enough, there on the game's very first possession, Randolph is put in the predicament of having to leave Love underneath to challenge a diving Darko Milicic. Even as Milicic catches the ball on the move through the lane, Randolph manages to keep his right forearm on Love beneath the rim, while trying to challenge Milicic. And as much as you might admire Randolph's attempt at multitasking, this isn't an effective formula for keeping a 7-foot big man from finishing, as Milicic scoops the ball up and in.
The suggestion to keep my eyes on the Randolph-Love battle underneath, even at the expense of missing the action on the ball, was stellar and certainly more entertaining than the macro Grizzlies-Timberwolves. Randolph and Love are like two sumo wrestlers on every trip downcourt when Minnesota has the ball. They hook each other with their forearms and leverage their weight like a couple of linemen in the trenches.
And my tipster was correct:
Randolph's willingness to help defensively on a given possession is inversely proportional to the likelihood that helping will result in forfeiting position beneath the glass. For instance, when Luke Ridnour beats Mike Conley off the dribble, Randolph meets Ridnour in the paint. Why is Randolph so willing? Because he has Love sealed off and has the opportunity to contest Ridnour's shot and still collect a potential miss for a rebound (and does).
But when Michael Beasley works his way into the lane past the Grizzlies' perimeter defenders, Randolph again tries to split the difference, keeping his body on Love underneath while offering a slight strain of resistance to Beasley's drive.
Whether it's Wes Johnson slashing from the wing, Milicic flashing to the middle or Beasley on a dribble-drive at close range, Randolph is a reluctant helper. But it would be completely unfair to characterize Randolph's defense as half-hearted or lazy. Nobody on the floor is working harder than Randolph during these possessions, with the possible exception of Love -- and only because Randolph is forcing him to do so.
Randolph is merely the careful party planner who has 10 beautifully appointed table settings for a dinner -- only to be ambushed by an 11th guest who forgot to RSVP.
Undoing all that hard work and preparation makes him squeamish, because he's a rebounding power forward with O.C.D.
Those predispositions aside, Randolph has become a more willing help defender, according to the Z-Bologist. While we won't mistake him for Kevin Garnett or Marcus Camby, Randolph has learned that certain possessions call for improvisation, even if that means the tide of the game washes away your sand castle.