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The Brooks-Brooks debacle: A botched trade that was a huge win for the Grizzlies

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https://theathletic.com/1744052/2020/04/17/the-brooks-brooks-debacle-a-botched-trade-that-was-a-huge-win-for-the-grizzlies/

“Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”

“Hell no”

That was the extent of my late-night text exchange with an executive involved in what turned out to be one of the most ridiculous failed trades in NBA history. But it pretty well sums it up. Never before had a deal failed because the teams involved couldn’t figure out which player was actually going to be traded.

MarShon Brooks. Dillon Brooks. Same last name. Two entirely different players. Both at the center of one big mistake that may have changed the course of the Grizzlies’ franchise forever. But what if the Grizzlies had made the trade they wanted to? What if they’d gotten the Brooks trade right?

Let’s set the scene first. It’s a Friday mid-December evening in 2018. The Grizzlies, playing the Heat at FedExForum, were losing a little steam after a red-hot 12-5 start that saw them leading the Western Conference at Thanksgiving. They were 4-7 in their previous 11 games, and the team was starting to feel the effect of losing Dillon Brooks to a mid-November knee injury. Seeking improvement at the wing position, the Grizzlies felt that a few changes might need to be made. And so, working the phones in the hours leading up to the game — and during the game itself — the Grizzlies were talking with the Washington Wizards about a trade. So, too, were the Phoenix Suns.

A three-team deal was in the works and as happens during many NBA three-team trades, one team was serving as the communication hub. That team was the Wizards, who were dealing with the Suns and the Grizzlies, meaning the two Western Conference teams never actually communicated with each other as the trade began to take shape. That would prove to be a big problem in a few short hours, but throughout the early evening, the Grizzlies felt fine about their end of the deal.

They intended to acquire Kelly Oubre from the Wizards in a deal that would cost them MarShon Brooks and Wayne Selden. The Wizards wanted some draft compensation from the Grizzlies and veteran Trevor Ariza from the Suns. Washington was going to send Austin Rivers to Phoenix. The Suns expected to receive Selden and Brooks from the Grizzlies.

 

Just not MarShon. They expected Dillon to be in the trade.

“We were very clear about who was in this deal, and Dillon Brooks never was intended to be a part of this,” then-Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace told reporters the day after the trade broke down.

Tommy Sheppard, currently the Wizards general manager but at the time the team’s second-in-command to Ernie Grunfeld, told NBA.com’s Michael C. Wright in December 2019: “I know that if there are ever guys with the same last names, common sense says to always refer to them with the first name. And I know we never, ever, and this isn’t an exoneration at all, I’m just saying that any conversations we had with Memphis, there was never MarShon Brooks’ name not once mentioned.”

There is an old saying — success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.

No one other than the people on those phone calls will know for sure who is to blame, but the entire incident made the teams involved a laughingstock. Players, coaches, fans, everyone was taking shots at the three teams involved. Social media was abuzz, and it was hilarious to those watching from afar. But within the teams, it was anything but funny. Because the trade leaked on Twitter during the Grizzlies-Heat game, the Memphis players involved had already heard from fans during that they were going to be traded.

It was especially awkward for MarShon Brooks because his mother was in attendance that night.

“In the fourth quarter, my mom was saying something, but she was far away,” he told the assembled media after the game, “So I couldn’t really get what she was saying. But she already knew beforehand because of social media. By the time I got to the family room, she already knew what was up.”

Immediately after the game, Wallace had to tell then-Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff what had occurred. The two men then quickly had to turn around and tell MarShon Brooks and Selden that no, actually, they weren’t being traded after all.

“It was a very difficult weekend for our group,” Bickerstaff told me at the time, “filled with emotion and obvious confusion. There was the initial emotion of thinking that we were losing two guys who had been battling with us. There was a (tough) conversation that had to be had with the team. Then (because they weren’t traded), there was yet another difficult conversation to be had with the team, and with Wayne and MarShon separately. Although it was a difficult time, the guys in the locker room made it easier, because they were supportive of their teammates and were there for them when they needed them most.”

What a disaster. And the ramifications of that debacle extended long past that weekend. Mike Conley told me last April that it represented a turning point for the team’s season. “We lost at home, big game for us, and the trade stuff that night — the Brooks-Brooks stuff — at that point, there were so many emotions for everybody, it shifted you from thinking about what we were fighting for and all the goals we had, to like, ‘What just happened?’ Our minds were all over the place. We couldn’t imagine what MarShon, Dillon, Wayne, all those guys were feeling.”

In his mind, the front office screw-up damaged the team’s locker room chemistry.

“I’m not saying you lost guys, but you felt like you needed to be a little bit extra with them, make sure they’re good, make sure everyone’s good, your focus changed,” he said. “Making sure everybody’s good instead of being locked in. You just feel it. You feel it going that way and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

 

And sure enough, the Grizzlies, who had already been slumping a bit, fell off a cliff and lost 19 of their next 22 games. They went from leading the West at Thanksgiving to 14th at the All-Star break. MarShon Brooks and Selden did end up being traded, but not to Phoenix. They went to Chicago along with two second-round picks (including this year’s) in exchange for Justin Holiday, a move that did little to improve the team’s fortunes.

The botched trade served as something of a wake-up call for Grizzlies owner Robert Pera, who took the opportunity to scrutinize the team’s decision-making process. Pera had already tasked a then-little-known executive named Zach Kleiman to be more hands-on regarding the team’s personnel decisions. Kleiman, who had to that point worked mostly on contractual language and smaller deals, had developed a reputation around the organization as being very detail-oriented. Crossing over into the basketball operations side after serving as legal counsel, Kleiman was heavily involved in the Marc Gasol trade with Toronto that netted the Grizzlies Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. 

Just two months later, Kleiman would be running the team’s basketball operations, while Wallace was pushed aside. Bickerstaff was fired. Conley was traded in June. The Grizzlies wiped the slate clean and accelerated a rebuild that has gone exceedingly well thus far.

Would it have happened had the Brooks deal – with MarShon — gone through? Almost certainly not.

They would have added Kelly Oubre to a lineup with Gasol, Conley, Brooks (Dillon, of course) and Jaren Jackson Jr. Oubre has played well in Phoenix and presumably would have done so in Memphis, too. Assuming the Grizzlies would not have bottomed out with Oubre, you would have expected them to hang on to Gasol at the deadline. There was some disagreement within the organization about just how legitimate their chances of winning would have been, but they would have pushed harder — and wouldn’t have lost the confidence of a key player such as Conley. Perhaps they would have ended up closer to 50 wins and been in the conversation for the No. 8 seed, though that seems overly optimistic. Or maybe they would have won 40 games and still finished well out of the playoffs, only with a worse chance of jumping up in the lottery.

Remember the seemingly unending conversation about conveying that 2019 lottery pick to the Celtics? With Oubre, the Grizzlies would have had a very good chance to end up with a pick outside the top eight in the draft, and would thus have shipped it to Boston. And that would have meant no Ja Morant.

You can draw a straight line from the Brooks-Brooks draft debacle directly to the new Grizzlies regime, to Kleiman, to Taylor Jenkins, to Morant, and, perhaps, to more long-term star potential than Memphis has ever had before. It turned out to be the very definition of a beautiful disaster.

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It's very weird how much that trade would've changed things. We probably don't trade Gasol (though we certainly still would've considered), which means we don't get Delon or JV. We certainly don't trade Conley, which means we don't get Brandon Clarke, or Josh Jackson and Melton (via the Kyle Korver trade), or Grayson Allen. Certainly don't get Ja, but kind of impossible to figure out where we would've been in the draft.

Lineup without Trading Gasol: Mike, Dillon, Oubre, Jackson, Gasol, with Holiday, Dorsey, Bruno, JaM, Temple, (or Bradley for those two) and Noah. Borderline playoff team, no better off then we are now, but significantly older. 

With the Gasol Trade: Mike, Dillon, Oubre, Jaren, JV, with Delon, Avery, Noah, Bruno, Miles and Holiday. I would've like to see what this team could've been, because it had a good mix of vets and young guys. Certainly a playoff team, probably as good as the mavericks are this year. 

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7 hours ago, Rdk4121 said:

It's very weird how much that trade would've changed things. We probably don't trade Gasol (though we certainly still would've considered), which means we don't get Delon or JV. We certainly don't trade Conley, which means we don't get Brandon Clarke, or Josh Jackson and Melton (via the Kyle Korver trade), or Grayson Allen. Certainly don't get Ja, but kind of impossible to figure out where we would've been in the draft.

Lineup without Trading Gasol: Mike, Dillon, Oubre, Jackson, Gasol, with Holiday, Dorsey, Bruno, JaM, Temple, (or Bradley for those two) and Noah. Borderline playoff team, no better off then we are now, but significantly older. 

With the Gasol Trade: Mike, Dillon, Oubre, Jaren, JV, with Delon, Avery, Noah, Bruno, Miles and Holiday. I would've like to see what this team could've been, because it had a good mix of vets and young guys. Certainly a playoff team, probably as good as the mavericks are this year. 

That would have been crazy if we never made those moves

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Great rebuild so far with Ja/Jaren/Dillon plus the Jonas trade.  And the Warriors/Jazz picks.  Great job so far — although we got really lucky moving up to 2 to get Ja.  

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