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In Defense of Zach Randolph

What is it about the Clippers?  Quick - name an active NBA player who has averaged 20 or more points per game in three separate seasons but never been named to an All Star team.  There are three that I can find:

  • Jason Richardson
  • Corey Maggette
  • Zach Randolph

It's axiomatic to say that anyone can score 20 points per game if they shoot enough - and while it's true, it's also not true at all.  Or rather, what is true is that 20 point per game scorers are invariably exalted within the NBA, even if their skills are in fact rather limited outside of putting the ball in the basket.  So Allen Iverson is a ten time all star and Rashard Lewis is a two time selection, and I'm not real clear on what those guys ever did beyond scoring 20 points per game.

At any rate, the Clippers have had at least one of these guys on their roster forever now...  so it's going to be a little weird not to have some guy labeled 'low basketball IQ' or 'black hole' on the team next season.

Of course, the single biggest reason that these guys don't make All Star teams is that they have pretty much always played on bad teams.  And in a conveniently circular argument, this is of course the ultimate proof to the detractors of players like Maggette and Randolph - they clearly aren't any good, since they've never played for a winning team.

Of course, it goes without saying that a player can neither win nor lose games single-handedly, so holding any player solely responsible for his team's win-loss record is ridiculous.  Not to mention that there are countless NBA players who lost a lot of games when they were on bad teams - and then won a lot of games when they went to a good team.

For Clipper fans, consider the case of Ron Harper.  During his career with the Clippers, he was a high flyer and big time scorer - but he never won a playoff series, and therefor he was a 'loser' and his stats were considered 'empty'.  But he finished his career by winning five championships in six seasons - as a role player with the Bulls and Lakers.  Suddenly he's one of the biggest 'winners' in NBA history.  Or more recently, how about Pau Gasol?  He had never won a single playoff game before last season.  Now, he's got back to back Western Conference Championships and an NBA title.  Is he a better player in LA than he was in Memphis?  Of course not.  But suddenly he's making the All NBA team, which certainly never happened in Memphis. 

I'm not suggesting that Zach Randolph is as good as Pau Gasol, who is a truly special NBA player - and was so even as he toiled in anonymity in Tennessee.  I AM suggesting that if Pau Gasol had been traded to the Thunder, instead of the Lakers, he might very well have been labeled a 'loser' who puts up 'empty stats.'  After all, isn't one of the common indictments against Randolph that he has been traded for 'nothing'?  Well, Pau Gasol was traded for nothing pretty recently as well.  He just happened to go to a really good team.

In all likelihood Zach Randolph's reputation as a 'loser' will continue to be burnished with the hapless Grizzlies - even though there probably aren't five players in the entire league who you could put on the roster to make them into winners.  What would happen if you added Pau Gasol to the Memphis roster?  Oh wait, we already know the answer.

Look at the teams Zach has been on:  the Blazers decided to rebuild while he was there.  Pippen retired, Sabonis retired, Wallace was traded.  Eventually, the new Blazer's management leveled a scathing critique at the old Blazer's management by trading away Randolph and his bloated contract for nothing.  Did Brandon Roy want him gone?  Evidently, although I'm not really sure one should accept that as proof positive that Zach was a terrible teammate - let's see, the rookie second leading scorer on the team wants the veteran leading scorer on the team traded?  Couldn't possibly be an ulterior motive there, right? 

At any rate, next stop is the Knicks - Isiah Thomas' Knicks, no less.  So yes, by all means, let's blame Randolph and Randolph alone for the fact that New York won 23 games that season.  Marbury, Curry, Jerome James and of course Isiah himself - those guys had nothing to do with it.

So it's off to LA - a team that was 2-12 when he joined them.  Did he make them immediately better?  Well, yes, as a matter of fact he did.  But in the end, the season was already lost, and it certainly didn't help that Zach himself got hurt and missed 30 games. 

I'm not being willfully naive here.  I realize that Zach Randolph has significant short comings as a basketball player and as a teammate.  He is a terrible and often disinterested defender, and I must assume that there is some fire amid all the smoke of off-court incidents.  But in the end, his biggest liability in the NBA is his contract, and it's certainly not his fault that Portland rewarded him with a maximum deal knowing full well that he didn't play defense.  Suddenly, a player who would be a godsend at a reasonable salary is an anchor.  So it was clearly the right thing for the Clippers to trade him away in order to get out from under his mammoth contract - but make no mistake, the talent level of the team took a hit in the short run.

I hope that Zach has a good season in Memphis.  I especially hope that he stays out of trouble.  And for his sake, I hope that in two seasons, when he's a 29 year old free agent, that he signs a reasonable contract so that people can see past the fact that he's overpaid, and maybe look at what he does on the court.