Due in part to the success of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, the popular belief is that teams that possess players with off the charts speed and athleticism ultimately win out in the modern NBA . This might be the case, but there is one squad in particular that has been bucking this trend over the course of the past few seasons and continues to grind it out. Though they have a few players that can jump out of the gym, the strength of the Memphis Grizzlies is the old school skill sets of their two landlocked big men – Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
There are a couple of forward/center tandems that receive more accolades and press than the Memphis duo, probably none more prominent than four of the players who control the paint for the two L.A. teams. The Los Angeles Clippers became known as “Lob City” thanks largely to the vertical exploits of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin and Jordan are both a sports anchor’s dream; a highlight reel waiting to happen, ready and willing to embarrass their opponents around the rim on a nightly basis. The Clippers might be the most athletic team in the Association, and with Griffin and Jordan among the league leaders in ‘dunks’ each year, it is easy to see why.
Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have only been partners in crime for eight games at this point in the season, but by the end of the year (if Pau isn’t traded) the duo could very well be the reason the Lakers make an extended postseason run. Slightly diminished coming off of back surgery, Howard is still a premier defender and will only get better as he rounds back into shape. Like his brother Marc, Pau is an outstanding passing big and one of the last true 7-footers left in the league. You can’t teach length, and his performance in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals is the primary reason the Lakers bested the Celtics in that classic series.
These and other “bigs” often get more attention, but in terms of effectiveness and just plain nastiness, you can’t help but take in the abilities of Randolph and Gasol.
They are an easy tandem to overlook for a couple of reasons. For starters, they play in Memphis. Now, there is no question that Memphis is a city that loves its Grizzlies, but when you think of the “glamour” cities in the league, Memphis isn’t typically mentioned in the same breath with spots such as Miami, Boston, Chicago, or New York. And in terms of excitement and style of play, watching Z-Bo and Gasol is kind of like watching some of the cagey veterans in your dad’s YMCA league, as they are proficient shooters, won’t hesitate to blast you with a hard foul or set a forceful screen, and play primarily below the rim.
Despite being handcuffed with the vertical leaping prowess of a couple of middle aged men, I personally think there is something inherently brilliant about the way these two men operate and play the game of basketball. They are epitome of old school and opponents go into each game against Memphis knowing that they will in for a battle of attrition for four quarters. Few players in the league use their size and powerful frames as well Randolph and Gasol, and their physical brand of basketball would’ve suited them perfectly for the Bad Boy Pistons or Pat Riley’s Knicks in bygone eras. Z-Bo in particular has the innate ability to efficiently put the ball in the basket against far more athletic opponents, often getting his shot off over, around, and threw those trying to stop him.
This group of Grizzlies first really emerged as force back in the 2011 playoffs when they took out the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and pushed the OKC Thunder to seven games in the second round. Last year, they engaged in a memorable first round duel against the Clippers, a back and forth series that went the full seven games. Though they lost this particular series, they mucked it up and beat up the Clippers to such a degree that they were basically sacrificial lambs for the Spurs in the next round.
Memphis is off to a 6-1 start in the 2012-2013 NBA season, including wins over the Heat last week and the Thunder Wednesday evening. It wasn’t surprising to see that Z-Bo and Gasol each imposed their unique brand of basketball on the more finesse Thunder team in last night’s test affair, with Randolph getting booted late in the contest for letting Kendrick Perkins exactly how it is.
With a handful of teams devaluing the inside game and focusing on hybrid forwards, the Grizzlies will go into a majority of their games with a distinct advantage inside. Whether they can parlay this advantage into another deep postseason run remains to be seen, but watching Z-Bo, Gasol, and the rest of the Grizzlies play this year has made it clear that Memphis is a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.
The bigger question is, can they ride their talented frontcourt and evolve into a championship caliber team? Or, as in past years, simply be known as a dangerous team that no wants to face come playoff time? Whichever route they go, you can rest assured that Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will continue to employ their bruising style and remind us all that old school basketball still has a valuable place in today’s game.