The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 18 | Zach Randolph
Games Played with Blazers: 551 Regular Season, 8 Postseason
*PTS: 16.0 | REB: 7.7 | OREB: 2.4 | FG%: 46.6%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 2001, drafted 19th overall in the 2001 NBA Draft
Departed Club: June 2007, traded to the New York Knicks with Dan Dickau and Fred Jones for Channing Frye and Steve Francis
Place in History: Rumors swirled around Zach Randolph long before the Trail Blazers made him the 19th pick in the 2001 NBA draft. The Michigan State forward had talent. He was no Kwame Brown (first overall pick of the Washington Wizards that year), but his raw scoring ability was impressive and he moved agilely for a man his size...6’9 and hovering in the mid-200-pound range. Scouts worried about his commitment to keeping down his weight, but if he would show discipline and focus, he could be a steal.
As it turns out, the scouts were right. Randolph was an awesome offensive talent, one of the steals of the draft. They were also wrong in at least one respect: he never had much of a problem maintaining his athleticism. Nobody really foresaw that both would become distant worries behind the controversy that dogged his Blazers career.
Portland could afford to gamble on Randolph in 2001 because they didn’t really need him. Rasheed Wallace had a lock on the starting power forward spot. Behind him came newly-acquired Shawn Kemp. Dale Davis manned the center position. Portland was all set.
With that frontcourt in place, the Blazers could afford to let their one-and-done prospect develop slowly. Randolph rode the end of the bench during most of the 2001-02 season. His team would win 49 without him, but the roster wasn’t producing. Kemp was an odd fit, often unproductive. Davis was fine, but not earth-shaking. The door was opening a crack.
With Kemp gone and the roster in flux, Randolph got a steady diet of reserve minutes the next year. He stepped into his new role admirably, trailing only Davis for field goal percentage, equaling the team leaders in points and rebounds per minute. Zach was efficient. He was willing. On a roster where all the veterans seemed to be moving backwards, he, at least, was charging forward.
The first serious rumbles of the impending Z-Bo shockwave came in April of 2003, right at the end of the season. Looking for more offense, Head Coach Maurice Cheeks moved Randolph into a starting role alongside Wallace. Randolph responded with a 31-point, 13-for-25 performance against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 11th, followed by a 13-for-17, 27-point outing against the Phoenix Suns four days later.
As it turned out, shooting 76.5% from the field is going to get you noticed. Portland’s per-minute guy was starting to look like a volume scorer. He was only getting started.
The Blazers drew Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2003 NBA Playoffs. Cheeks went conservative at the start of the series, returning Davis to the starting lineup and Randolph to the bench. The Blazers promptly lost the first three games. Veteran forward Scottie Pippen got injured in Game 1, was replaced by Bonzi Wells, who poured out 45 points in Game 2, to no avail. Game 3 wasn’t great for Wells and Portland lost again. They needed more.
Entering the fourth game down 0-3 with nothing to lose, Cheeks inserted Randolph into the small forward spot. Zach responded with 25 points on 9-17 shooting while hitting 7-10 free throws. The Blazers won.
Zach gave the Blazers 22 points on 7-12 shooting, hitting 8-8 free throws in Game 5. And...the Blazers won.
Zach shot 6-10 in Game 6, scoring 21, hitting 9-9 free throws. Clearly the Mavericks were having trouble handling him. The Blazers won!
Randolph averaged 11 rebounds through those three games too. Portland was starting to get the idea. Maybe playing Zach big minutes was a good thing?
The Blazers laid an egg in Game 7. Zach shot 5-12 for 14 points with 10 rebounds in the loss. Though they dropped the series, the Blazers had found a big man.
The very next season, Randolph started 80 of 81 games played, averaging 38 minutes per night. He shot 48.5% from the field while producing a team-leading 20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He was scoring more than Wallace, rebounding more than Davis, and playing more efficiently than anybody on the team.
On February 9th, 2004, the Blazers traded Sheed to the Atlanta Hawks for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau. Rumored all season, the move should have been a watershed moment. Wallace had been the franchise superstar for eight seasons, leaving huge shoes to fill. There was no doubt who was taking his place, though. (Hint: it wasn’t going to be Abdur-Rahim.) The spot had already been occupied by Randolph who, in his first season starting, had posted better numbers than Rasheed ever had. Everybody felt a new era was about to begin.
Sadly, it would not turn out rosy for Zach or the Blazers. When Randolph ascended to the “#1 Option” throne, he inherited a kingdom that was crumbling. Portland fans hoped he could turn it around. Instead, like Nero, he fiddled on the rooftops as the world burned around him.
Portland’s record dropped to 41-41 the year Rasheed left. They missed the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. Pinning the decline on Randolph would be disingenuous; the collateral damage around Rasheed’s departure was overwhelming. If there was an official agenda, basketball felt like the third item on it, at best.
2004-05 was supposed to be the next step forward. Instead the Blazers won only 27 games. Cheeks was fired mid-season. Kevin Pritchard, at the time a relatively-anonymous young executive, took over as interim coach. watching from the sidelines as Portland lost 17 of their final 22.
Randolph’s personal efficiency declined during the season. In a single year he went from singular, young hope to the biggest carrot in a confusing forward stew. Zach found himself sharing the court with not only Abdur-Rahim, but Darius Miles, Ruben Patterson, and Travis Outlaw. Most of them wanted to do the same thing he did: score. A backcourt of Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson, and Nick Van Exel offered little texture, nor did highly-touted draftee Sebastian Telfair. In theory the Blazers should have been able to score from every position but center. In practice, the lineup was a mush of B-level offensive players. It was like hosting a party in an open kitchen, but nobody could actually cook.
Instead of rising above the good-but-not-great offensive talents around him, Randolph began to sink into the midst of them. He played fewer minutes, attempted fewer shots, and his field goal percentage plummeted from a fairly-incredible 48.5% (considering the variety of shots he took) to a much more pedestrian 44.8%.
All of this paled in comparison to Portland’s off-court issues at the time, though.
In prior seasons Wells and Wallace had drawn the ire of Portland fans with indecorous comments about their position and priorities as professional basketball players. The occasional Humvee-related headline aside, their offenses were mostly confined to the sports pages. Both had been traded, but not before burning through the entire supply of fan goodwill that once seemed inexhaustible.
As the city and its media watched for further offenses, Randolph and teammates obliged them, whipping up the Bieberstorm to epic proportions. Randolph had a series of low-level run-ins with law enforcement. Miles made headlines for bad behavior at strip clubs. Patterson’s past—which included sexual assault and domestic violence allegations—was held up as emblematic. Stoudamire became embroiled in marijuana-related controversy. Anderson was accused of quitting on the team. Zach Randolph’s Blazers couldn’t turn around twice without falling into the never-ending pit of controversy and consternation.
Portland’s chemistry and character issues might have been overlooked had the team won 59 and come within a single game of the NBA Finals as they had in 2000, or even made the Conference Finals like 1999. Blazers fans once applauded J.R. Rider, after all. Winning 27 games in 2004-05, then 21 in 2005-06, nobody was having it. Randolph was the best player on teams that the vast majority of people loathed passionately. Along with Wallace, he would become the central symbol of the infamous “Jailblazers” era...a time long past, but still not forgotten.
Cultural issues shouldn’t obscure the fact that Randolph could play, though. He was built as solidly as they come and he could spin like a cat. Once his momentum was headed in a certain direction, nobody outside of a seven-foot behemoth could stop him. If he was guarded by such, he was more than capable of pulling up for the jumper. At his best, he was Charles Barkley-esque in his ability to score in a hundred ways you’d never suspect.
Randolph’s offensive rebounding was superb as well. He wasn’t a muscle forward like Buck Williams or a technician like Dennis Rodman. He was more like the “Worm” from Rounders. Every time a would-be hero thought he had something, Zach would slip in and steal it away. He’d seldom throw down a putback jam. Instead he’d grab the ball you thought was already in your fingers and put it off the backboard for a quick two while you were still wondering how he got it in the first place.
Despite his talent, the Randolph-centered teams never won in Portland. He remained the central figure until 2006, when a new light dawned for the franchise. That year the Blazers traded Tyrus Thomas to the Chicago Bulls for second-overall pick LaMarcus Aldridge, then selected Brandon Roy sixth. Roy would win Rookie of the Year, while Aldridge showed plenty of promise at power forward. Together the two covered Zach’s scoring, leadership, and even floor position. In the summer of 2007, the Blazers traded him to the New York Knicks for center Channing Frye and guard Steve Francis. At the time, it was considered addition by subtraction.
Randolph didn’t fade from the league, however. It seems hard to believe, considering how long he was in Portland, but he was only 26 at the time. Despite the negative publicity, his talent and prowess would be borne out by the length of his stay in the league after.
Over the next two years, Randolph spent one and a half seasons in New York and half of one with the Clippers. They were statistically productive—he averaged more than 20 per game throughout—but ultimately meaningless. The forward finally found a home in 2009, joining the Memphis Grizzlies. In Memphis, he transformed his reputation from wandering malcontent to trusted veteran. He not only stuck, he flourished.
Randolph earned his first NBA All-Star berth during his first season in Memphis. He’d stay there eight more years, returning to the All-Star game in 2012-13, helping the Grizzlies to seven playoffs appearances as a key member of their “Grit and Grind” brigade. His tough play and gray-area reputation fit the town. Playing alongside Marc Gasol and Mike Conley for Head Coach Lionel Hollins didn’t hurt. Not having to fill the lead role every night freed Z-Bo to become one of the best, most valuable character actors in the league.
When Randolph finally retired, he left 17 years and 5 teams behind him. His legacy is complex, especially in Portland, but there’s no doubt he stands among the most talented offensive forwards to put on the uniform and that he left a memorable impression, for better or worse.
For the stats, the talent, the hope, some things not worth belaboring, but also the later redemption in Memphis, Zach Randolph earns the 18th spot in our list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Watch Zach score and rebound in the videos below. He’s the inverse of your normal star. It doesn’t look like any of those shots are going in, but somehow they do.
Share your thoughts and memories of Zach Randolph below, and stick with us as we continue onward towards #1!