Containing Zach Randolph

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DeJuan Blair admires Zach Randolph.  So far as great players are concerned, Zach Randolph deserves more admirers.

Statistically speaking, Randolph is a nightly double-double. 20 and 12 every night.  And when he has a mind to make a basket, he’s more likely to score than to miss. He shot .503 from the floor this season.  Randolph is always in the basket-making frame of mind, but his true talent is on the offensive glass.zach-randolph-san-antonio-spurs

Randolph is an offensive rebounding terror. He season average of 4.3 per game was good for second best in the league, neatly wedged between the work of Kevin Love and Dwight Howard.  And, oh, did he hurt the Spurs this season. Against the Randolph this season, the Spurs’ rebounding percentage dropped a whopping 45% when Z-Bo was on the court. In fact, nearly all the Spurs averages dip dramatically when Randolph is on the court.

Randolph’s peculiar talents account for much of this. But there is something else going on here. The Randolph factor introduces one the most important Gregg Popovich vs. Lionel Hollins X/O story lines of the series.

Philosophically, Gregg Popovich’s is committed to playing elite transition defense. When the Spurs fail to get back on defense, Popovich morphs into a red hot mess. Timeouts are called. Players find a place on the bench, near the end. Colorful language is deployed.

Practically speaking this means the Spurs never post gaudy offensive rebounding numbers. They are always near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounding averages. One can’t have it both ways. The Spurs intentionally abandon the offense glass in favor of preventing transition buckets. And who can argue with Popovich? He’s helmed some of the greatest defensive teams in NBA history. But against the Grizzlies, focus on preventing the Grizzlies comes off a little like leaving a compulsive gambler alone in Vegas—with your wallet.

Making matters worse, the strategy of countering Randolph with Randolph-lite, DeJuan Blair, hasn’t worked for the Spurs this season.  When Blair is on the court at the same time as Randolph, DB’s per 36 minute rebound average drops from 11.7 to 7.2. Take Randolph off the court, suddenly Blair’s average jumps to 15.4. His averages are light gate in a heavy wind. Zach Randolph is the heavy wind. This probably explains why Blair and Randolph were only counter-parts for 55 minutes this season. Gregg Popovich is more stat-geeky than he lets on.

If those numbers sound outrageous to you, you’re not alone. Nevertheless, they’re correct. In his season series against the Spurs, Randolph grabbed 29 offensive rebounds. In two of the four games, Randolph plucked 10 offensive boards out of the arena air. Imagine the ball as a butterfly and Randolph as a large, wide-eyed child darting around with a net. “Daddy, Daddy, check out the colors on this one!”

The only Spurs player that doesn’t seem to stimulate Randolph’s rebounding numbers is Matt Bonner, which must sound odd to you. On the block, body against body, Randolph wins the possession every time, right? But that isn’t really how it works.

There is a clue here. Smart spacing is the best way to control Randolph’s rebounding.  When a missed shot bounces into orbit in the space which surrounds the rim, the Spurs should do what they can to place Randolph in a distant galaxy. I suspect this means a tight front court rotation of Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner.  And an uptick in small-ball.

  • andy

    oh tim, now you’re just soaking logs in gas and gleefully cackling as they light.

    i happen to agree with you though, and pop’s experience and experiments with spacing have probably convinced him so as well. hopefully they lead to an easy, successful series.