Zach Randolph can still be productive in Sacramento

Through all but one game this preseason, the young Sacramento Kings have been led in scoring by one their older statesmen and new additions, Zach Randolph. The one who goes by Z-Bo has averaged 12.5 PPG through 5 games, serving as a veteran presence on the floor while rookies like De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson figure things out.

The Kings enter 2017 with a weird mix of very young talent, mid-career veterans, and very, very old players, like Randolph and Vince Carter. In order for this team to be competitive, those veterans will have to carry a load they didn’t have to in recent years.

Last season in Memphis, Randolph and Carter each played one of the fewest minutes-per-game seasons of their careers. At 40, Carter will remain in a reserve role for the Kings, but Randolph is likely to step back into a starting role, which begs the question of how much he has left to give.

Randolph, 36, averaged 14 PPG and 8 RPG last season, his first as a primary bench player since 2002-03, his second year in the league. That season was also the last time he averaged fewer minutes per game than the 24.5 he played last season. In those limited minutes last season, Randolph joined Tim Duncan, Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in NBA history to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes in their 16th career season or later. Randolph is the only of those players to average at least 12 rebounds per 36 minutes that late in his career.

This isn’t to say with more minutes Randolph’s production will increase – he only has one other season in his career where he averaged 20-and-12 per 36 minutes – but it does show he’s completely capable of jumping back into a starting role. When Randolph came in off the bench, he was usually the best player on the floor for his team and the guy the offense went through. He was expected to carry the second-unit offensive load and he did, though less efficiently than when he was a starter. His rebound percentage was actually the third highest of his career. But we have to look at Randolph’s per-36 average and rebound percentage increases through proper perspective, because he spent less wasted time on the floor. The per-36 statistic doesn’t take into account the wasted minutes a starter spends on the floor with sometimes more or equally talented players who will also demand touches and make plays. Randolph didn’t have to worry about that on Memphis’ bench.

What Randolph’s per-36 stats say about his potential performance this season though, is that he can still get a few buckets for Sacramento when given the opportunity. This doesn’t mean he should be expected to carry this young group. The main reason he accomplished something no other player in NBA history had previously done is because it’s rare that a player of his caliber is ever asked to come off the bench. If we remove the rebounds qualifier, there’s still only eight different players in NBA history to average 20 points per 36 minutes in their 16th career year or later, and Randolph is the only one of those players to have come off the bench, and will likely be the only one not to make the Hall of Fame.

Simply put, Randolph is too good to come off the bench, but not good enough to not be sent to the bench, which is probably the type of play we should expect to see from him again this season.

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Remembering Rick Pitino’s NBA coaching career

Rick Pitino was placed on administrative leave and effectively fired as Louisville’s basketball coach today, amid the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball.

If it’s ever possible for him to resume his coaching career at some point in the future, I’m not sure that there’s a place in the NBA for Pitino at this point in his career. But since it’s likely the two-time national championship coach is done at the collegiate level, let’s reflect back on his two short stints in the National Basketball Association.

New York Knicks (1987-89)

Pitino took New York to the playoffs in each of his two seasons with the Knicks. It was quite the accomplishment for a rookie coach, considering the team had missed the playoffs and failed to crack 25 wins in each of the previous three years under Hubie Brown. Pitino certainly benefited from budding star Patrick Ewing staying healthy during this stretch, something Ewing couldn’t do his first two seasons in the league.

In Pitino’s first season, the Knicks went 38-44, their best record in four years, and they stole a first-round playoff game from Larry Bird’s Celtics before falling in four games. In the 1988-89 season, with Ewing having one of his best career years, New York had its best season since it won the title in 1973. The Knicks won 52 games, but after sweeping Charles Barkley’s 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, they were ousted in six games by Michael’s Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

After that season, a 36-year-old Pitino, who always said he would return to college coaching after stints at Hawai’i, Boston U and Providence, stepped down as coach of the Knicks and took over at Kentucky, which was going through a scandal of its own at the time.

“I feel you have to know who you are. In my mind, I’m a college basketball coach, and that’s where my heart is.” -Rick Pitino

Boston Celtics (1997-01)

After a successful eight-year run at Kentucky that included a trip to the NCAA tournament in each of the six seasons the Wildcats were eligible, and a national championship in 1996, Pitino decided to give the NBA another try. The Celtics were coming off of what is still the worst season in franchise history, where they went 15-67 under M.L. Carr. Pitino was intrigued by the “glorious tradition” of the franchise and the “challenge” of turning things around. A $70 million contract over 10 years didn’t hurt either.

In four seasons, Pitino was unable to coach the Celtics to a winning record however, and his .380 win percentage in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season is the seventh-worst in franchise history. Overall, he went 102-146, with his best season being the first. He turned Carr’s 15-win team into a 36-win team, but that was as good as things would ever get. Pitino’s attempt at reviving Boston was a failed experiment, and he resigned 34 games into the 2000-01 season.

“It’s heartbreaking to me, what’s happened here. I love the Boston Celtics and I’ll always be a fan. … This organization has treated me like royalty since I came here. But you know, I’ve been going at this pretty hard now for 3 1/2 years and I haven’t seen many results.” -Rick Pitino

That spring, Pitino returned to college basketball, taking over as coach of the Louisville Cardinals, a position he’s held until now. His time at Louisville was incredibly successful, winning a second national championship in 2013 and confirming his place among college basketball’s coaching elite. But his time at Louisville was also marred by scandal after scandal, and this latest investigation is apparently the last straw.

If a return to the NBA is ever an option for Pitino and the decision makers at the NBA level, there’s reasons to believe it can be either successful or a complete failure. Personally, I’m a fan of team’s bringing in young and upcoming coaches, especially rebuilding teams that are usually the ones in the market for a coach. At 65 years old, I don’t think Pitino fits that mold, making a return to the NBA unlikely. But all it takes is one executive to believe Pitino is the man to take his team over the top, so maybe we haven’t seen the last of him.

John Wall is in position to take over East after signing extension

If John Wall was concerned about things like stealing headlines and being the center of attention in the sports world for a day, he could had those things with his announcement of signing a supermax extension with the Wizards.

People questioned why he hadn’t signed the offer made some weeks ago by his team of seven years and whether he was unsatisfied with his level of exposure in the nation’s capital, but his decision to announce the agreement on the same day we learned of Kyrie Irving’s trade request shows that his number one priority was winning.

Wall intimated in the past that he needed to see what moves the franchise made and how the offseason shook out. Aside from re-signing Otto Porter to a large deal, and effectively handcuffing the franchise’s ability to bring in marquee free agents for the next few years, Washington made minimal roster changes. But as a top-4 seed in the East and a conference semi-finalist last season, the Wizards, behind Wall, Porter and Bradley Beal, should be a contender to reach the NBA Finals if Irving’s trade request is met.

Irving may or may not be moved, but the turmoil in Cleveland won’t easily be settled, especially with LeBron James’ pending free agency next summer. The top of the Eastern Conference looks ripe for the picking and Wall realized he’s in as good a position as anyone to benefit from a possible Cleveland collapse. The Celtics are probably the next best team in the conference, but the Wizards aren’t incapable of beating them in a seven-game series – not with Wall, arguably the second best player in the conference, locked in for the next six years.

Wizards sign Kris Jenkins, Marcus Keene to summer deals

Watching the NBA Draft as a fan of a team with no picks isn’t nearly as fun as when your team does have the pressure of getting it right; just ask any Wizards fan after the team went a second straight year without drafting.

But following the draft, things got interesting for Washington by way of undrafted signees. The Wizards scooped up Villanova forward Kris Jenkins and Central Michigan guard Marcus Keene for the summer.

Jenkins may be familiar to D.C.-area sports fans from his time as Gonzaga College High School after being adopted by the family of Upper Marlboro-native and University of North Carolina guard Nate Britt. Jenkins entered the national consciousness when he hit a buzzer beater against Britt and the Tar Heels to win the 2016 NCAA championship game.

People may not be as familiar with Keene because of where he went to school, but all he did last season was lead the nation in scoring at 30.0 PPG.

The reasons why each wasn’t drafted are physically obvious. At 6’6″, Jenkins is the rare undersized small forward. He can shoot the lights out when he’s feeling it but may be a little too unathletic to play shooting guard. Jenkins will likely be a bench specialist if he ever makes a regular-season NBA roster. Having his former Villanova teammate, Daniel Ochefu, on the Wizards’ roster should help make him more comfortable going into the summer

Despite being nearly unstoppable in college last season, Keene is a miniature 5’9″. He has drawn comparisons to Isaiah Thomas, who showed potential early in his career but took a few years to develop into the All-Star player he was last season.

Keene and Jenkins each have the potential to carve out roles in the NBA, but it will require a team to have the patience to allow them to adjust to the game. Neither is a lock to make this roster, but if they show some flashes on the court who knows what happens.

Update: Wizards also reportedly signed Florida forward Devin Robinson.

What’s left for Wizards in regular season with 4 games left

Entering Wednesday, the Wizards sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings, already guaranteed home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors, who currently have an identical 47-31 record and hold the tie breaker for third place, can either gain distance from or swap places with the Wizards in tonight’s game at the Detroit Pistons. But no matter the result, Washington is in a good position with a week left in the regular season. 

It’s that very reason some may argue that it’s time for Washington to begin resting a starting unit that has played more minutes than all but one team in the NBA this season. There isn’t much the Wizards can realistically play for in their final four games, so why risk injury and fatigue ahead of the real season? The answer is simple: the things Washington can accomplish are potentially franchise altering and these opportunities don’t come around often in D.C.

50 WINS

It’s no secret the Wizards are in position to win 50 games for the first time since doing it as the Bullets in the 1978-79 season. Reaching this milestone would be a tremendous boost to the perception of the franchise outside of the district and to the overall pride of the fan base within. It would also mean a lot to the players on this roster, who have made it known that winning 50 games is important to them. 

The Wizards have already checked off a few milestones this season, including a division title and at least 47 wins for the first time since that 78-79 season. The Bullets lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in the finals that year.

In its final four games, Washington plays the Miami Heat twice, the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. These are teams the Wizards are better than and more than capable of beating, but two of which could still be playing for a playoff spot and won’t go out without a fight. Still, with this monumental goal in sight, the Wizards should make the push for 50. The opportunity isn’t guaranteed to come around again. Washington would become a lot more attractive to free agents and a place its own players would want to stick around. 

PLAYOFF SEEDING

The Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers currently hold down the 5-8 seeds in the Eastern Conference, separated by just 2.5 games. Miami, Charlotte and Detroit aren’t far behind. So things at the bottom of the playoff chase can move around just as easy as the top. Furthermore, Washington’s record against those teams currently in is an identical 3-1, so on the surface it would seem fruitless to play for seeding. The Bucks are rolling down this final stretch of season however, and if it was one team of that bunch to avoid it would be them. Chicago’s six wins in the last 10 games are as many as Milwaukee’s, but the Bulls aren’t seen as a threat, even with Dwyane Wade’s imminent return. In fact, Wade’s return may be seen as a hindrance to some. Atlanta has struggled mightily as of late and will be lucky to get in. 

Washington still has a long shot to grab a top-two seed, which would ensure home-court advantage at least through the first two rounds. The Wizards need to make that a goal in order to not only take advantage of the second-best home record in the East, but to also get the most favorable playoff matchups. If Washington can’t jump to one or two, it may want three, depending on where Cleveland lands. Where the Wizards are now, they would likely face Milwaukee in the first round, Cleveland in the conference semifinals, and if they got past that, Boston or Toronto would be waiting in the conference finals. Not the easiest road.


CHEMISTRY

A week ago, 50 wins and at least a top-three seed seemed more likely than not. The Wizards were in the midst of a four-game winning streak, including a rout of the Cavaliers. They followed that up with three straight duds against Western Conference playoff teams and have been playing .500 ball over the last 10 games. The previous span of 10 games saw the team go 7-3. The difference in those stretches are a decline in production by the team’s starting unit and a dip in three-point shooting. Markieff Morris is the only starter to have increased his offensive production over the last 10 games, but even he has dropped off dramatically in rebounding. John Wall made a higher percentage of his two-point shots, but his assists are just under 10 a game over that stretch. Still really good, but down from the 11 he averaged over the previous 10 games. It would behoove the Wizards to get that chemistry back between the starting unit as they head into the playoffs, as this team will only go as far as one of the league’s best starting fives will take it. Washington doesn’t want to stumble into the playoffs and have to play a team that likely scratched and clawed to get in and figured it out along the way.