Marc Gasol is the man in Memphis. There is, by now, no question about that. The Grizzlies’ offense starts with the slimmed-down center, and it is running more effectively than it ever has. Stationed at the elbow or at the block, Gasol ball-fakes and shoulder-shimmies, parcels out bounce passes, directs cuts, hands off, lets go of set shots and hooks and up-and-unders. Memphis' defense, too, sends everything to him; Mike Conley swipes and Tony Allen careens because Gasol waits in the lane, ready to snuff shots and snatch passes and pick rebounds off the rim.
Conley is Gasol’s chief lieutenant, his most common pick-and-roll partner, the provider of his entry passes and recipient of his nifty dishes. He is the team’s second-leading scorer and the outlet when a double-team gets a little too rough. Everything else orbits the goings-on of these two. Courtney Lee waits at the opposite wing, readying his catch-and-shoot motion. Allen times up his eventual cut down the lane. And Zach Randolph, once the unquestioned leader of the Grit-and-Grind Grizz and the team's designated post-up soloist, now spends an increasing portion of his time mucking around empty-handed, working the rough geometrics of shoulder and ass in preparation for an offensive rebound that may or may not come.
If this is a demotion, it is one of the happier demotions in the NBA. The Grizzlies own the league’s fifth-best record, 22-8 (it was even better—21-4—before a Randolph knee injury that has kept him from the lineup for a few games), and Randolph remains an essential contributor. He leads the team in rebounding, averaging three more a game than Gasol, and chips in 16 points per game, just below his rate during the past few seasons.
He feasts on thin modern front lines that sic their sole rim-protectors on his frontcourt-mate. His adaptation to his new role is a twin triumph: of his anachronistic but uninterruptible style—tightrope-walker’s feet, marionettist’s hands, bouncer’s belly—and of his once-maligned attitude. Z-Bo, problem child turned civic icon, is in the midst of the second transformation of his career. He has become the baddest-ass third option in basketball.
On Wednesday, December 17, the Grizzlies completed maybe the most impressive pair of back-to-back wins by any team this year, going to San Antonio and edging past the Spurs in triple overtime the night after beating the league-best Golden State Warriors at home. Both games featured the hallmarks of the team’s successful young season: sturdy defense, egalitarian offense, full-spectrum brilliance from Gasol. The center went for 24 and seven on Tuesday and 26 and nine against the Spurs, including a banked-in three-pointer to force the first overtime.
The Grizzlies held both normally hot-shooting opponents to a combined 41 percent from the field, Mike Conley worked in easy tempo, Vince Carter made his most effective cameos of the year, and backups Beno Udrih and Kosta Koufos did their best impression of the Conley-Gasol elbow work while the starters caught their breath. Memphis' screens were strong-shouldered; entry passes seemed to come off an assembly line. This was contemporary Grizzball at its apex.
Fewer of those entry passes found Randolph than they used to, but no matter. Against Draymond Green that Tuesday and Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw that Wednesday—Festus Ezeli and Tim Duncan were occupied with Gasol—Randolph went to work. He snatched rebounds and deposited layups. He tossed in the odd hook. He made the charge/block semicircle his fiefdom.
And in the waning, dog-tired minutes of Wednesday’s third overtime, with Memphis holding onto a two-point lead, Randolph resurrected his old role, facing up on Diaw, showing him that molasses jab step, and tossing in the fadeaway that for a few years was the best weapon the Grizzlies’ offense could muster. Randolph’s lines read 17 and 10 on Tuesday and 21 and 21 on Wednesday; they were his fifteenth and sixteenth double-doubles this year.
It was Gasol, though, who received the Memphis crowd’s MVP chants, and who deserved them. This season, he has been one of the best players in the league, coupling his characteristic craftiness with new ambition, upping his shot attempts by two per game and his scoring average by six. He seems lab-built to devastate in this era of diverse front lines. Against brutes in the Kendrick Perkins mold, Gasol feints and swivels; against beanpoles, he backs down. His mid-career renovation, as he nears his thirtieth birthday, has keyed the Grizzlies’ fast start.
Only slightly less important, though—and maybe more rare—is Randolph’s happy acquiescence to this ascent. After building a reputation for sulkiness at various stops during his first eight years in the league, Randolph became a cult hero when he arrived in Memphis. He poured in 31 points in the clincher to eliminate the one-seed Spurs in the first round of the 2011 Playoffs, and then delivered in a postgame interview the sermon that explicated both the new house style and his place in it. “It’s a blue collar town,” he said to ESPN’s Doris Burke over the peals of an ecstatic Grindhouse, “and I’m a blue collar player.”
Now, Randolph acknowledges that the team follows Gasol’s lead, not his. He chugs happily from end to end and throws his weight around, unbothered if the ball doesn’t find him for four or five possessions in a row. He praises Gasol, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, in interviews and campaigns for him to return to Memphis. He does and says all that could be asked of him.
As his power forward colleagues sharpen their jumpers and migrate to the corners, Randolph maintains those skills that have gone out of vogue—the highly physical, nebulously legal box-outs; the strings of three or four tips of a rebound against the glass—and puts them to use in his off-ball role. And when the Grizzlies need him to do it, as they did late into the night against the Spurs, he can still do his old thing. Zach Randolph is less visible than he has been in years, but he is still Zach Randolph. He hasn't gone anywhere.