Zach Randolph, talking to ESPN’s Marc Stein, reaffirmed his love for Memphis and vaguely suggested that he might be willing to take a pay cut — “make a sacrifice,” as he puts it — to remain with the team until retirement.
I’d like to be here. I’d like to retire here. You never know. If I’ve got to make some sacrifices to be here, I would. I still can play. I can still help a team out. I want to win a championship. I’ve made all the money in the world. I just want to win. I don’t know yet [about opting in or opting out], but Memphis is my home. If they trade me tomorrow, I’m here. I just bought a new house. My daughters go to school [in Memphis]. That’s my home.
Zach has a $16.9 million player option for 2014-15. That is a massive chunk of the team salary, and there are those who argue (rightly, I think), that as beloved as Z-Bo is in Memphis, he has not earned his contract since he signed it — just after vanquishing the Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. An injury to start the (shortened) 2011-12 season accelerated his aging process by at least a year, and while his knee fully recovered, his game never quite did — at least not numerically. Randolph is still a double-double machine, but his role in the offense has gone from primary scoring option to second- or even third-choice, with the ascent of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Zach’s points per game went from 20.1 in 2010-11 to 15.4 in 2012-13, and his field goal percentage and win share percentage dropped accordingly. His limited maneuverability makes it hard for him to make up for it on defense, too.
There are also questions as to how well Zach, with his age and athleticism, will suit Dave Joerger’s new offense. Two double-doubles in the last two games have quieted these concerns for now, but it’s still paradoxical that the highest paid player on a team running a motion offense is the least athletic of the bunch.
By now everyone, including Zach, is familiar with the frugal approach of the new ownership and their lack of sentimentality when it comes to dealing inefficient players (and stubborn coaches). You can be sure they are weighing Randolph’s performance against his cost, and that equation doesn’t end well for Z-Bo. The 2014 free agency class is a monster, and the front office still has work to do if they want to build an efficient, pace-oriented roster for Joerger. With $43.5 million guaranteed already for 2014-15, including $15.8m to Marc Gasol, Zach picking up his player option would handicap the team’s buying power next summer.
All this leads me to believe the comment to Marc Stein was strategic, maybe even a suggestion from Zach’s agent (whereas normally a player softening his negotiation position away from the table is an agent’s worst nightmare). If Z-Bo values staying in Memphis more than money, he may want the team to know that he is willing to consider a reduced contract offer before they try to trade him. (One unconfirmed report from Ron Tillery states that they already have tried, to the New Orleans Pelicans for guard Eric Gordon.) Trade rumors have haunted Zach for the last two years, and his attachment to Memphis would put him in an uncomfortable position if they should come true.
On the other hand, Z-Bo has always been upfront in interviews, if a little vague. Dan Favale at Bleacher Report rightly notes that ambiguity suits Zach at this point, if he’s not sure what he wants to do. And for a kid that grew up so poor he only had one pair of jeans, the temptation to choose a $17 million paycheck in exchange for just a signature — 12% of his total career earnings — must be overwhelming.
It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the Zach Randolph story. A journeyman with a rough reputation and a troubled childhood finds redemption and success in a new town. Memphians, and not just basketball fans, have embraced Zach like a native son. He makes it easy. For Z-Bo to be uprooted one last time at the end of his career, in the name of money, feels wrong — especially to him. Taking a pay cut is unusual, team-oriented, honorable, and necessary: in other words, everything we’ve come to expect from Zach Randolph.