Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fortunate Moments For Unfortunate Franchises: The Five People Z-Bo Met in Basketball Heaven.

"I just don't want the day to come, when I pick up the paper, and it says that [Zach] shot someone, or someone shot Zach. Every day that goes by that I don't see that, I feel good."

Zach Randolph's high school coach
March 2006

"This is how I always imagined the playoffs to be when I was sitting at home watching on TV the past three years. So when San Antonio came back and took that lead, I knew the crowd wouldn't let us down, we wouldn't let ourselves down, and, well, we always had Zach."

Zach Randolph's teammate (2009-present)
April 2011

"This city has embraced me. The people here have been great. I feel like I'm from Memphis."

Memphis Grizzlies forward (2009-present)
April 2011


This is a story about a man named Z-Bo and it begins at the end, in 2012, with Z-Bo sitting on the bench in street clothes, recovering from a knee injury. It might seem strange to start a story at an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time. 


For the last six weeks, Z-Bo has, like most of his career, been under scrutiny. He lasted only four games this season, before tearing his mediate cruciate ligament (MCL) in his left knee. Team doctors opted to bypass surgery on the torn ligament, given its location within his knee. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Randolph is on schedule with his rehabilitation, but will not be cleared to play until the team feels his knee "is completely healed at the behest of team owner Michael Heisley." 

Meanwhile, Memphis struggles to find consistency without its most productive player. The Memphis Grizzlies are currently 14-14, after winning two in a row against playoff clubs, but had dropped four in a row before that. The team has rallied around their second best player, small forward Rudy Gay, and though their 14-14 record speaks to their grit and determination, a paltry .500 record will not qualify a team for the playoffs in the intimidating Western Conference.

So Z-Bo sits. And rehabilitates. And gets paid. And while the team marches on, Z-Bo watches the people he has met -- and has made great -- while in basketball heaven. While he spends time in limbo, we can consider the hows and whys of the situation he currently finds himself in, as a highly paid but potentially damaged asset. And perhaps in turn, we can consider the people, who currently occupy basketball heaven -- at least, in Memphis -- and figure out how Z-Bo got them there as well. 


For three men -- a former player-turned-coach, a career NBA executive, and a billionaire in Chicago -- Z-Bo provided the basketball salvation they desperately desired, not just for their egos, and their less than impressive basketball resumes, but also for their previously moribund franchise. It allowed them to turn Memphis into a sort of basketball heaven.

Michael Heisley is one of the men Z-Bo saved. He became an NBA owner in 2000, when he purchased the Vancouver Grizzlies from a group of Vancouver-based businessmen. The Grizzlies, and their East Coast Canadian counterpart, the Toronto Raptors, had arrived in the NBA in the during the 1994-1995 season. At the time the Chicago-based billionaire bought the Grizzlies, they were a failing franchise, losing both games and money. A terrible front office (headed by current NBA executive Stu Jackson), an untalented roster, and a lukewarm fan base had worked together to rack up a 101-359 (.220) record in six seasons of playoff-less play. Many cities were considered in Heisley's search for proper home for the Grizzlies, and after a brief flirtation with St. Louis, Memphis was chosen.

Heisley's run in Memphis was mixed up until Z-Bo's arrival. Jerry West was hired by Heisley to oversee the team, and so Heisley took a backseat for its first few seasons in Memphis. During the team's first two seasons in Memphis, the team ranked near the bottom of the league in both wins and attendance. Their third season -- their last in the ancient Pyramid Forum -- the team won 50 games under Hubie Brown and franchise player Pau Gasol, and went to the playoffs. Though they were swept, it seemed as if Memphis was a team on the rise. Though the team would continue to win in the next two regular seasons, under both Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello, but they were swept in the playoffs. They ceased to be competitive after the 2006 season, after the retirement of Jerry West, and Heisley, who had been unable to find a local owner to purchase the team and put his own people in place, was forced to actually become an NBA owner, and hire a real front office.

That's when Chris Wallace -- the second man Z-Bo saved, and sent to basketball heaven -- entered the picture. Heisley hired Wallace to rebuild the franchise that Jerry West, really, had built, from 2001 to 2006. Prior to that, Wallace had been the man in charge of the Boston Celtics from 1997-2007. While he had brought the team back to respectability for a brief period from 2001 to 2004, the Celtics had been awful for the past three seasons. Wallace had drafted Paul Pierce in his first year on the job, but had also handed out large contracts to players like Walter McCarty, Tony Battie, Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. Those financial moves had left the team uncompetitive, and ultimately cost Wallace his job 

Despite this, Heisley quickly hired him in Memphis, and saddled him with a formidable task: replace Jerry West. Wallace was left with one marketable player (Pau Gasol) and assorted pieces leftover from the teams' three playoff sweeps. They were also short on draft picks. From that mess, he was expected to create a team that would not only compete in the tough Western conference, but also put fans in the seats.

Z-Bo doesn't enter our story until 2009, and it would be tedious to chronicle three years of ineptitude. Wallace made many moves that scratched heads, but only two truly relate to his future salvation. The first was the 2008 trade that many called "the worst trade of all time" -- Pau Gasol, Memphis' best player, and a second round draft pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittendon, and a 2008 and 2010 first round draft pick Memphis was left, ostensibly, with next to nothing, and the team lost most of their games for the rest of the season. And the brand new Fed Ex forum? Empty.

Meanwhile Gasol teamed up with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson to appear in the finals for three straight years, and win in 2009 and 2010. He was a champion; considered by many to be the best power forward in basketball. Indeed, the fallout discredited Heisley, which in turn, caused uncertainty and tension in the Memphis front office. Heads rolled. Among them was coach Marc Iavaroni, a stalwart out of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix program, who was expected to turn the team around. After completing the season under an interim, Wallace hired a man who was no stranger to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Lionel Hollins -- our third man who Z-Bo met in Basketball Heaven -- was hired with neither fanfare nor credibility. Hollins, a former lottery pick who won a championship with the Portland Trailblazers had been the head coach of the Grizzlies before. Twice, in fact. Hollins had coached the team for 60 games during the 1999-2000 season, after Brian Hill was fired, and again in 2004-2005, in between the firing of Hubie Brown, and hiring of Mike Fratello (who removed him as an assistant). Wallace offered Lionel Hollins the Memphis job in 2009, which at the time was hearalding the signing of rapidly declining former superstar Allen Iverson. He was given the task of convincing Iverson to take a bench role for an unknown lottery team. Things seemed doomed in Memphis.

That is, until Z-Bo saved them. 


This isn't to say Z-Bo wasn't in need of some salvation himself.

Z-Bo had been a professional for nine years when he arrived in Memphis via trade from the Los Angeles Clippers, and many of those years were mired in controversy. He had spent his first seven seasons in Portland. He began his career as a pleasant mid-round surprise; a 20-and-10 guy by his third season after getting drafted 19th by Portland. But the production came with off-court distractions. He punched teammates, got arrested for driving without a license and with a blunt, and also got cited for a draconian underage drinking charge. In 2007, Portland shipped him, and his 6 year, $86 million contract to the Knicks, where he would continue to put up numbers, but fail to win games. Shortly into the Mike D'Antoni era, he was shipped to the Clippers, who needed production at the power forward spot after their number one overall pick Blake Griffin was sidelined for the season with microfracture knee surgery.

As in his previous stops in Portland and New York, Randolph produced. But the Clippers, playing out the dreadful last days of the Mike Dunleavy era, was not the organization that was going to bring out the best in Z-Bo. And bring out the best, they did not. In a memorable March 2009 column from Bill Simmons, the author chronicles how a Z-Bo led Clippers team blows a twenty point lead to LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center. Simmons' description of the last six seconds of the game, where the Clippers have a chance to win the game, are worth quoting at length, as they show how little confidence everyone had in a career 20-10 power forward, and how clueless that forward was, at that point in his career:

"So, Gordon is inbounding the ball from the left hashmark near midcourt. Thornton, Novak and Randolph are stacked at the top of the key. Baron is under the basket. Thornton cuts through to the left corner. One Mississippi. Obviously, he's not getting the ball. Baron starts moving up toward the top of the key, only the Cavs know he's getting the ball -- (two Mississippi) -- so they block his way. Everything is congested. The fans start panicking. Three Mississippi. Baron accelerates past the 3-point line, only LeBron sees him and jumps in the way so he can't get the ball. This is an awesome play. Four Mississippi. Gordon finally passes to Randolph who takes two dribbles and...
(Oh no.)
Picks up his dribble and...
Launches a 28-foot 3-pointer with a hand in his face. His third air-balled 3 of the night. Actually, it was more than an air ball -- it almost killed the ball boy.
Cavs ball, 1.8 seconds left.
The fans are in disbelief. Randolph's teammates are in disbelief. Dunleavy is making a face that my friend Sal later describes as "A face I have never seen a human being make before." What ensued in the next 20 seconds could best be described like this: Imagine being dropped in one of those big hospital elevators with eight other people. One of them pulls down and just starts going to the bathroom -- not No. 1 but No. 2. At that specific moment, the doors open for the next floor. How fast would everyone else in the elevator flee for the door? Lightning-fast, right? Like, Usain Bolt-level fast, right? That was the entire stadium after Z-Bo's air ball. He basically took a dump on the 3-point line."
That Clippers team finished 19-63, and the team was already cleaning house before the season had concluded. Team president and coach Mike Dunleavy was let go in favor of Neil Olshey, who replaced interim-coach Kim Hughes with Vinny Del Negro. Blake Griffin was officially cleared to play, and everyone was ready to turn a new page (except perhaps the owner, Donald Sterling). Playing the two together was out of the question. Z-Bo was very available.

And Chris Wallace snatched him up. And then, over the course of 18 months, Z-Bo saved them.


It didn't start auspiciously, but it finished magnificently.

The 2009-2010 Grizzlies began their season in turmoil. They publicly wondered about the effect Z-Bo would have on the team, questioned if Lionel Hollins would have what it took to coach the team, and worried that Allen Iverson would never, ever accept a bench role.

The Iverson matter resolved itself quickly. Iverson never accepted a bench role, and feuded openly with Hollins. An incident on a team bus ended Iverson's tenure with the team. He lasted three games with Memphis, before both sides agreed to a buyout of his 1-year, $3 million contract. His career ended surprisingly, but fittingly, in Philadelphia, later on that season. Sadly, we have heard little from him since.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies pushed on. They started the season 1-8, losing seven in a row. Things looked terrible. Yet, a work ethic developed, and the team began to win. They relied heavily upon their starters, especially Z-Bo. Z-Bo had a typical Z-Bo season, averaging 20.8 and 11.7 rebounds per game. Marc Gasol averaging 14.6 and 9.3, providing Chris Wallace some vindication (even though the elder Gasol, and former Grizzlies franchise player, won a championship that season with a different team). They finished 40-42, missing out on the playoffs in the competitive West, but clearly on the rise. And Z-Bo? Quiet. Out of the news. Things were changing.

The 2010-2011 season was a season at the pearly gates, a step away from basketball heaven. The team easily re-established the work ethic they had set the season prior, and worked all the way to 48 wins. The team was tested along the way, losing star forward Rudy Gay for the season in February, and adjusting to offseason addition Tony Allen (more on him later) and midseason addition Shane Battier. Yet, the team succeeded, mostly because of Z-Bo. He continued his statistical brilliance, and raised it once Gay went down. He averaged 20.1 and 12.2 in 75 games, and was rewarded with an All-Star appearance. But more importantly, 48 wins allowed Memphis access to the playoffs as an eighth seed, where they would face the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

The playoffs for the Grizzlies, but especially Z-Bo, were Basketball Heaven. The team faced a wounded Spurs team, with both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili nursing injuries, but also athletically inferior to the driven Grizzlies. After the Grizzlies beat the Spurs in Game One of the series -- the franchise's first ever playoff win -- the Grizzlies announced that Z-Bo had been signed to a four-year, $81 million extension. The Grizzlies would go on to defeat the Spurs in six games Z-Bo averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds in the series, and the maintained those numbers in a 7-game defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Grizzlies were on the map, and Z-Bo was the star. He had done his time in the community, built bridges, established connections. He had turned Memphis into basketball heaven.

The pinnacle moment of the playoff run was undoubtedly Game 3 of the first round series against the Spurs. With 40 seconds left to play, and Memphis clinging to a two point lead, Z-Bo found himself with the ball on the right side of the court, above the arc. With the shot clock going down, and no other options available, Z-Bo lined up a three, and put the Spurs to sleep. Former Memphis forward Shane Battier, who passed the ball to Randolph in the first place recalled to USA Today that "there was a collective holding of the breath at the Forum when that shot was in the air and it went through. It was one of those moments where it's like: "No, no, no, no, no, yes. Yes." Compare Battier's sentiments to those of Simmons as he recounted Z-Bo's three pointer while as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. That attempt -- Z-Bo's third of the game -- was likenened to a "dump on the 3-point line." This attempt -- Z-Bo's only of the game -- was reluctantly fired, and met with a chant: Z-Bo, Z-Bo, Z-Bo.

Z-Bo's post-game presser said it all: "This city has embraced me. The people here have been great. I feel like I'm from Memphis."


Over time, Z-Bo didn't just save billionaires, coaches and general managers. Z-Bo saved players, too.

Many players found their maker in Z-Bo's magnificent production. The stories of Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol, two all-stars (though Gay has yet to be named to an All-Star team), have been told. But two lesser known players also were saved by Z-Bo, and continue to reap the benefits, even as Z-Bo sits on the sideline, dressed to the nines, wondering if his knee is healing correctly.

The first player -- and fourth person -- that Z-Bo sent to basketball heaven was point guard Mike Conley, the former 2008 #4 overall pick in the draft. Conley, the second of three players taken in the 2007 draft out of the Ohio State University (Greg Oden and Daequan Cook were the others), spent most of his first season fighting off the "bust" label. Conley was expected to become an immediate contributor once he was drafted, but found himself on a terrible team loaded with young, unproven point guards. He averaged roughly 9 points and 4 assists, but underperformed next to other 2007 draft picks like Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Joakim Noah and Spencer Hawes. The next season went even worse for Conley, who took a step backwards, averaging about the same number of points in roughly ten more minutes per game (as well as ten additional starts). The team decided to go with Conley, however, and traded away Kyle Lowry to the Houston Rockets, and then Javaris Crittendon to the Lakers in the Pau Gasol trade. After the trade, Conley played better (about 14 points and 6 assists per game), but the team was awful, and Conley looked like anything but a franchise point guard.

Tony Allen was the second player, and the final person Z-Bo certifiably saved. Allen arrived in Memphis as one of the NBA's most polarizing role players. At his best, he was an essential contributor on a contender. His defense and scoring off the bench was essential for the 2010 Celtics, especially during their second round series defeat of LeBron's Cavs. However, at his worst, he was a reckless, oft-injured seventh man. His most infamous moment came in 2007, when he tore both his ACL and MCL after landing awkwardly after an uncontested dunk after a whistle. In any case, his aforementioned performance in the 2010 playoffs netted him a 3-year, $10 million contract with the Grizzlies, where he would back up talented forward Rudy Gay. Little was expected of him, besides for consistent perimeter defense off the bench.

Z-Bo's presence changed both players' fortunes. In the case of Conley, Z-Bo (and Marc Gasol) provided a consistent low post presence to anchor a half-court offense around. Conley, who flourished at Ohio State with Greg Oden, has similarly succeeded in a system built around two dominant low post presences. He raised his assists in each of his two seasons with Z-Bo, and in 2010-2011, his scoring topped out at nearly 15 points per game. Z-Bo's consistency, and ability to draw double teams, has allowed Conley to hit open jumpers, and manage Hollins' offenses. And, like Z-Bo, Conley was rewarded with an extension for 5-years, $40 million. Z-Bo made life good for a former lottery bust.

And Tony Allen? Well, Z-Bo didn't have everything to do with his rise. Rudy Gay's season-ending shoulder injury gave Tony Allen far more court time than anyone expected, and he used Z-Bo's consistency to make the most of it. With Z-Bo (and Gasol) demanding double teams, Tony Allen improved his jump shot, and concentrated solely on perimeter defense. He quickly became a folk hero in Memphis as the Grizzlies became more and more successful, and looks to have a home for the long term in Tennessee.

Thanks, Z-Bo.


We end with a beginning, which makes sense, given our story.

Z-Bo's out. But things are good in Memphis.

Owner Michael Heisley's team is currently ranked 18th in terms of attendance, but are known to have some of the most passionate fans in the league. He's still open to selling to a local owner, but is content owning the successful team. General Manager Chris Wallace's much-maligned trade from 2008 is looking great now that Marc Gasol is an All-Star (and Pau Gasol is not). And Lionel Hollins is the closest thing that the NBA has to Jerry Sloan now that Jerry Sloan is out of the league -- a small-market coach with the full confidence of the owner and the front office, who has the freedom to suggest roster changes, and the respect of his players.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are 14-14, even without Z-Bo. Mike Conley's scoring numbers are down, but he's averaging a career-high 7 assists a game. Tony Allen now splits time with O.J. Mayo at the two and the three, and is averaging career highs in points and minutes. Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol have more than stepped up in Z-Bo's absence, and the team has welcomed the continued development of Sam Young, and Marreese Speights, who was acquired from Philadelphia to fill in for Z-Bo, looks like a great sixth or seventh man for a playoff team. And the playoffs? Still in reach. At 14-14, the Grizzlies are only two games out of eighth seed. And they're succeeding without Z-Bo.

The 2012 NBA season features no great teams. Good teams, but not great. Chicago and Miami look great on paper, but both teams are banged up. The Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas and San Antonio are playing down this season. Lob City and Indiana look nice, but probably aren't finals material yet. The Oklahoma City is a formidable foe, but Memphis took them to the brink of defeat last season. If there was ever a chance for Memphis, this season is it.

And if they reach the promised land, and win the championship, Z-Bo will undoubtedly be the team's, and the series' most valuable player. If he can win a championship, he will do what Karl Malone, Chris Webber, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett were unable to do: put a city on their back, and carry them all the way to the championship. Z-Bo would be more than saved. Z-Bo would be immortalized.

And that? That would really, truly, be basketball heaven.