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LeBron James to the Grizzlies? A painful ‘what if’ for Memphis fans

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https://theathletic.com/1730266/2020/04/09/lebron-james-to-the-grizzlies-a-painful-what-if-for-memphis-fans/

By now, the pain has subsided. Mostly. But make no mistake, May 22, 2003, was one of the worst days in franchise history.

The Grizzlies paid a terrible price for mismanagement that happened years before the team even arrived in Memphis. In August 1997, prior to the team’s third year in Vancouver, then-general manager Stu Jackson decided that it would be wise to trade a future first-round pick for 34-year-old power forward Otis Thorpe. The Grizzlies were not close to contending. They did not need to add a veteran, much less one who didn’t want to come to Vancouver. As an especially miserable postscript, Thorpe ended up playing only 47 games in Vancouver before being traded in February 1998.

What a debacle.

The terms of the deal were as follows: The pick had to be sent to Detroit between 1998 and 2003 and had to be between No. 2 and No. 18 overall. The Grizzlies had the right to keep the pick each year (until 2003) and did so because it consistently fell in the lottery. In 2003, the Grizzlies were finally forced to surrender the pick — unless it ended up No. 1 overall (another stipulation of the original trade). The odds of that happening weren’t great (6.4 percent) but not impossible.

And yet, as the lottery progressed, the Grizzlies card didn’t appear. They were set to have the sixth pick if everything went according to the odds, so when the No. 6 spot went to the Clippers instead of the Grizzlies, it became apparent that Memphis had jumped into the top three. And when the third pick went to Denver, that meant that the Grizzlies had a chance — a real chance — of keeping that pick. And what a pick it would be!

The 2003 draft was loaded with incredible talent at the top, and the biggest prize — LeBron James — was the clear-cut No. 1 pick. After James, the next four picks were Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. That’s four Hall of Famers (and Darko). Had Jackson not made the Thorpe trade, the Grizzlies would have been virtually guaranteed a transcendent star. Instead, it was LeBron or bust. You can watch it if you want. I won’t blame you if you don’t.

 

If you look at then-Grizzlies president of basketball operations Jerry West after the No. 2 envelope was revealed, you can see a man’s heart break on live television. And his reaction was mirrored by every Grizzlies fan. Crushing despair followed by seething rage.

West told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst in 2013: “It was devastating to the franchise to not have that pick. We were able to build a respectable team after that, but just imagine having a player like Mr. James playing for your team. It was unbelievably disappointing. For some of us, we were filled with anger because we were thinking, ‘How could we not have this draft pick protected?’ With all the good things that have been done in Memphis and where they are today, that franchise could’ve come so much farther. It hurts to think about. It was a sad day.”

There can’t have been a bigger loss in draft history. It was either a Mount Rushmore-level NBA legend or … nothing at all. And, as was the case for the Grizzlies for a long time, they got nothing. What if they hadn’t, though? What if LeBron had ended up a Memphis Grizzly?

It’s important to remember that, in spite of the draft disaster, the 2003-04 Grizzlies won 50 games under Hubie Brown, the NBA coach of the year. Brown’s 10-man rotation (that sometimes included 11 or more) was a hit, and the Grizzlies’ depth served them very well. Once they traded Wesley Person to Portland for Bonzi Wells in December, things kicked into high gear. Pau Gasol, James Posey, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Lorenzen Wright, Stromile Swift, Jason Williams, Earl Watson, Bo Outlaw, Jake Tsakalidis and Wells formed a solid rotation, and even Theron Smith and Dahntay Jones played well at times.

Now add LeBron James to that mix. He averaged 21 points, six rebounds, and six assists during his rookie year in Cleveland, numbers that no Grizzly has ever achieved in a season. And that was James’ rookie year! He’s only gotten much, much better, as you well know. Adding James to that team would have likely kicked Miller to the bench, giving the Grizzlies a starting lineup of Williams, Posey, James, Gasol and Wright.

I don’t think Brown would have been willing to play Gasol as a center and James as a power forward; this was 2003 and the NBA was far bigger and less spaced-out than it is now. Besides, the wing combination of Posey and James would have been dynamite at the time. People easily forget just how good Posey was for those Grizzlies playoff teams of the mid-2000s — a phenomenal 3-and-D player capable of locking down opponents while also hitting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc. James would have been surrounded by far more talent in Memphis than he was his rookie season in Cleveland and would almost certainly have led the Grizzlies to more than 50 wins.

Gasol is a Hall of Fame-level player, but he only truly came into his own when he was playing alongside Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Gasol is one of the greatest secondary stars in league history but was miscast in Memphis as the No. 1 guy. He deservedly received a maximum-level contract, but fans expected more than he was capable of giving. If he played alongside James from the earliest stages of his career, he would have turned into an even more dangerous player.

With James at the core and locked into the Grizzlies organization, the team would have burst into the newly opened FedExForum in 2004 with a ton of momentum. James would have increased the profile of basketball in Memphis, and the Grizzlies would have been on national television dozens of times. Instead of being a nice, quiet surprise, the team — and the city — would have been on everyone’s radar.

A 2010 Cleveland Plain Dealer article asserted, with the input of economists, that James’ presence alone was worth at least $100 million per year to downtown Cleveland, and potentially up to $200 million. The area around the arena was thriving, with more restaurants, more hotels, more people, more money. Could you imagine what it would have done to Beale Street if FedExForum’s opening included a James-led Grizzlies squad? The revitalization occurring in downtown Memphis now might have happened a decade earlier if LeBron had been a Grizzly.

Most of all, the Grizzlies would have almost certainly made it to at least one NBA Finals. The competition in the Western Conference was more difficult than what James’ Cavs faced in the East, but his team in Memphis would have been better as well.

The Grizzlies did make the playoffs from 2004-06 but were swept — 12 games to none — in those three postseasons. After that, the team bottomed out until the Core Four started its decade of dominance in 2010. There were a lot of hard years in there, years that would have been much more fun had James been on the roster.

If the Grizzlies could have just kept the pick at No. 2, things would have been dramatically different. By all accounts, they would have selected Anthony rather than Milicic, who ended up going second to Detroit. Anthony’s a huge talent, too, and he would have boosted the Grizzlies’ national profile. He would have been a fantastic consolation prize. Instead, the Grizzlies got the booby prize: nothing.

Blame Stu.

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if the Grizzlies were lucky enough to land James . he would have force a trade 

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I just looked back at the 2003 n.b,a draft, the Grizzlies gave a First round draft pick for a 35 year old Otis Thorpe unbelievable 

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I remember this ping pong day. It was a forgone conclusion that we were giving that pick up, but I always watch the order anyways. I was in no way, shape, or form expecting to move up, let alone to #1. 
When they said that we had moved up, I still didn’t get excited. Then when it got down to the top two and we were one of them, I obviously got excited. If I remember correctly, they went to a commercial and during that time the adrenaline kicked in. That pacing around the room nervous energy of what could happen. I had heard about LeBron, but only had seen highlights of him. I just thought of adding a #1 pick to the roster more than anything. Of course the rug was pulled out and hopes were quickly dashed. What was expected to be nothing more than a draft lottery turned into a brief jolt of excitement of what could be. Gut-wrenching at the time, but a long time ago. I would say the Thabeet pick burns worse than that because we had control on that one.

Things could always be worse.

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He would've left to go chase a ring.  Just like Durant.....great player, but had to go join a stacked team to win a title...

...and both of those guys probably could have won a title with their original teams; but I guess they didn't want to work that hard.

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Man I remember laying down on the floor like football players do when a kicker is attempting a clutch field goal while Stern was calling teams. After we lost I just kept laying there 

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Watching that on TV was... not fun.  Basically a form of "basketball soul crushing".  

What made it worse was...  that draft was good at the top and Carmelo or D Wade or Bosh would have been great.  BUT, it was FIRST PICK OR BUST before.

So... we either got one of THE BEST FIRST PICKS ever or we got NOTHING.

Has this ever happened before?

... The Jazz once traded a future first round pick for Gail Goodrich that turned into Magic Johnson.

But, has anyone lost a MORE DUBIOUS number one protected pick?

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6 hours ago, Allen said:

Man I remember laying down on the floor like football players do when a kicker is attempting a clutch field goal while Stern was calling teams. After we lost I just kept laying there 

that's 4 times we came up short with the number pick 1. 2000.  2003  2009 2019

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1 hour ago, lions said:

that's 4 times we came up short with the number pick 1. 2000.  2003  2009 2019

Ironically, we missed out on two of the most hyped number one picks since Shaq (LeBron and Zion).  I had Ja first and I think our guy will be one of the best #2 picks — like Kevin Durant (who I had at one) but I don’t have Zion being a bust like Oden.  ... didn’t we even have the best odds to end up with the top pick in the Oden/Durant draft?  

On a related note, Vancouver came up with the winking ping pong ball combination I their FIRST draft but weren’t allowed to pick at one so they had to redo it.  

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14 hours ago, ALT GRIND said:

Ironically, we missed out on two of the most hyped number one picks since Shaq (LeBron and Zion).  I had Ja first and I think our guy will be one of the best #2 picks — like Kevin Durant (who I had at one) but I don’t have Zion being a bust like Oden.  ... didn’t we even have the best odds to end up with the top pick in the Oden/Durant draft?  

On a related note, Vancouver came up with the winking ping pong ball combination I their FIRST draft but weren’t allowed to pick at one so they had to redo it.  

fixed 

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I at least always smile on our bad luck this day when the Pistons one upped our misery by taking Darko with 'our' 2nd pick after LeBron. Thank you Pistons.

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2 hours ago, UofMark said:

I at least always smile on our bad luck this day when the Pistons one upped our misery by taking Darko with 'our' 2nd pick after LeBron. Thank you Pistons.

Darko was simply ahead of his time. In 2003 the league was so obsessed with beefing up 7 footers and making them true bigs who play in the post.  In todays game a 7 footer with his first step when facing up would be a serious talent. 

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5 hours ago, Dwash said:

Darko was simply ahead of his time. In 2003 the league was so obsessed with beefing up 7 footers and making them true bigs who play in the post.  In todays game a 7 footer with his first step when facing up would be a serious talent. 

Timing is everything!  Darko went to a bad situation too — top team but one led by a bunch of vets with strong personalities led by an old school alpha coach in Larry Brown who didn’t play rookies.  Would have been a better pick 5 or 6 years later once small ball really started to get going.  Now I think the league is getting bigger again.  In today’s NBA draft he would be mocked (Drafted) based on his potential to play the 4.  

 

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With that team plus Lebron we win not a game but at least a series his rookie year. That team would have been legendary. 
Hubie coaching keep in mind they won 50 games that season without Lebron 

Jwill/Lebron/Shane/Pau/Lorenzen

Earl/Mike/Bonzi/Posey/Stro

Troy/Dahntay/Person/Bo/Jake

 

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