Meet the new Zach, same as the old Zach.
Zach Randolph and I have a troubled history together. I first became aware of him when I caught a bit of the 2000 McDonald’s All-America Game on TV. I remember thinking as I watched him dominate the paint (he went on to win MVP), “This guy is big, yet relatively nimble. He looks like he could be good someday.” The next thing I knew, his one year at Michigan State had whizzed by, and he was suddenly a member of my beloved Portland Trail Blazers.
After two unremarkable campaigns, Z-Bo (the nonsensical nickname Zach has had since youth) exploded for a 20-10 season – something the vast majority of big men never achieve in their entire careers – at an age when he could still have been a college senior. Tantalizing thoughts entered the mind: once that baby fat turns to muscle, we could have one of the Association’s dominant post presences on our hands. We could build around this guy. This guy could lead us to a cham– wait, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Cut to five years later: the baby fat has turned to adult fat. Z-Bo became the face of the new, fan-unfriendly Blazers after being spotted at a Portland strip club while supposedly on bereavement leave back in his home state of Indiana. He was shipped to the Knicks. He has continued to put up solid, and occasionally spectacular, offensive numbers, and has in fact improved on his career high in rebounds by a staggering two a game so far this year, but team success has not followed.
So now Zach, at all of 27 years old, is on the Clippers, my adopted hometown team. After a season plus of blissfully ignoring the Blazers’ prodigy-turned-cancer while he plied his trade in the Eastern time zone, I’m now forced to watch and – gasp! – even root for him again. Let’s let bygones be bygones, I say. I’m going to back Z-Bo the Clip with all my heart, I told myself as I walked through the doors of Staples Center earlier tonight.
The first anticlimax of the game came when acting Clippers head coach Kim Hughes got Mardy Collins onto the court before Z-Bo. When Z-Bo finally did get off the bench, it took him all of five seconds to throw up an ill-advised jumper. After that, though, it was hard to tell he was out there at all, much of the time. I don’t know if Z-Bo was deferring or just not getting the ball in his spots, but he was nearly invisible for several minutes. In the second half, Z-Bo started chucking up shots from wherever he was getting the ball, and, although he shot a low percentage, he still didn’t seem to have all that detrimental an effect on the Clippers’ fortunes.
In the last four minutes of the game, though, we got to see what could be a microcosm for the Zach Randolph era in Clipperdom. At the 3:42 mark, Z-Bo hit a critical 16-footer in Kenyon Martin’s face. This was followed 15 seconds later by a defensive board and a nifty, no-hesitation pass upcourt to Eric Gordon for a breakaway dunk.
With just under two minutes left, Z-Bo pulled down a huge defensive rebound. At the other end, Baron ultimately found Eric for his fourth three, completing an 8-0 run to tie the game. After Carmelo hit a jumper and Baron missed a layup, Z-Bo fouled Kenyon Martin. K-Mart had gotten a head of steam, but the play exposed Z-Bo’s defensive issues. His only options when the opposing player attacks the rim are to let the guy go by or foul him – Zach has neither the athleticism nor the desire to really contest the effort. Luckily K-Mart missed one free throw, and at the Clippers’ end, Z-Bo slipped free under the basket for a layup. We were only down one with 35 seconds to go. Thanks in part to Z-Bo’s skill and activity in the final flurry, we had a shot for the win with three seconds left.
But it didn’t go in. (Granted, an unnecessary three-ball by Marcus Camby isn’t exactly what you want when you have plenty of time to run a play, and I must admit I don’t see as how that’s Z-Bo’s fault.) The million-dollar question is, how much does Z-Bo really have to do with the losses his teams keep accumulating wherever he goes, and how much is just coincidence? I’m afraid us Clippers fans will have plenty of opportunities to ponder this over the rest of the season.