I❤️JV

Hollinger’s Do Over: What if we (the Grizzlies) had taken Nikola Jokic?

Recommended Posts

https://theathletic.com/1795917/2020/05/07/hollingers-do-over-what-if-we-the-grizzlies-had-taken-nikola-jokic/

“What if ….?”

Work in an NBA front office for any length of time and this question will quickly haunt you. Multiply myriad personnel decisions over a period of years, and there will always be moves that you wish could be Ctrl-Z’d, or trades that didn’t quite get to the finish line, or the big fish that got away.

Fans and media play this game too – as you can see by our “Do-Over” series this week – but on the team side it’s even more haunting. Execs have a much greater awareness of the hundreds (thousands?) of things that might have been possible, but never got to the stage where they were even a rumor… not to mention the ones that were actually close but never leaked out.

So I can come up with a lot of small and medium-sized what-ifs from my seven years in the front office with the Memphis Grizzlies. However, when I play them out in my head, nearly all of them lead to the exact same place. The team still would have petered out as our “Core 4” aged, and a rebuild would have been necessary. Since the rebuild couldn’t have gone much better than the yield of the past two years, it’s hard to bash my head too much over the what-if game on these.

There is one scenario, however, that still bedevils me.

What if we had picked Nikola Jokic?

Coming into the 2014 draft, we had just one pick, the 22nd overall. We were absolutely gaga over N.C. State forward T.J. Warren, but he ended up long gone by the time our pick rolled around. We ended up taking UCLA guard Jordan Adams, who unfortunately injured his knee after a promising rookie year and couldn’t get his career back on track.

No, we weren’t considering taking Jokic at 22. However, during the first round the Utah Jazz called us. They had the 35th pick but were looking to get out of the draft in return for a future second-round pick. We had evaluated this as a deep draft (which turned out to be correct) and knew that our own pipeline of young players was nearly empty. So we jumped on Utah’s offer. The 35th pick was now ours.

Looking at our draft board, we had several potential possibilities listed. (Side note: I’m just telling you what the group was thinking; individuals within the group had differing points of view on all these guys, which is completely normal once you get this deep into the draft board.)

The short list: Clemson guard K.J. McDaniels was an athletic marvel but had a low skill level; we wondered how he might fit on a team already starved for shooting. A guard out of Missouri, Jordan Clarkson, had a great workout for us but his body of work in college was underwhelming. A forward from Syracuse, Jerami Grant, could run all day but his shot was broken. Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III worked out for us twice; he could jump and seemed to have some untapped potential. And Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, a Memphis native, had also worked out well for us and had youth on his side as a 20-year-old junior.

And then, off to the side, we had a “stash” list – players we could draft and keep overseas for a year or two. The No. 1 name on that list was Nikola Jokic, a plodding big man from Serbia who showed some perimeter skills and had a knack for passing. (While we’re having fun here, other luminaries from that list include Edy Tavares, Vasa Micic, Alessandro Gentile, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and future Grizzly Bruno Caboclo).

There were a lot of questions about Jokic. Could he guard anybody or would he just get pick-and-rolled to death in the NBA? Was he just OK as a shooter, or would his pick-and-pop game be a real weapon at the NBA level? Did he even like basketball? Even people close to him wondered this – Jokic had grown up riding horses and didn’t exactly seem committed to a grueling fitness regimen.

Jokic had played in the Hoop Summit that year and came in with some buzz, but had a disappointing week and scored only five points in the game. However, I had seen him play in Serbia after that performance, and he showed more of the skill and feel that have made him a superstar. He wasn’t the best big in the Adriatic League – that player, ironically, was his future Denver teammate Jusuf Nurkic – and he only shot 31.5 percent from 3 and 65.6 percent from the line that year. But certainly there was something there.

Jokic’s wasn’t the top name on the board when the pick came up, though. That was Stokes, a bruiser whose beastball style could fit with our, um, unique playing style in Memphis while we (hopefully) beefed up his skill level.

So the question was – take the best-rated player or take the stash? Sure, it’s obvious now what we should have done, but five teams after us faced the same decision and made the same choice. Two picks after us, one of the best organizations in the league took a collegian who never played a second in the NBA.

2014 NBA Draft - Round 2

PICK

PLAYER

POS.

TEAM

SCHOOL/CLUB

31

Damien Inglis

SF

 

Bucks

Chorale Roanne (France)

32

K. J. McDaniels

SF

 

76ers

Clemson (Jr.)

33

Joe Harris

SG

 

Cavaliers (from ORL)

Virginia (Sr.)

34

Cleanthony Early

SF

 

Knicks (from BOS via DAL)

Wichita State (Sr.)

35

Jarnell Stokes

PF

 

Jazz (traded to MEM)

Tennessee (Jr.)

36

Johnny O'Bryant III

PF

 

Bucks (from LAL via PHO and MIN)

LSU (Jr.)

37

DeAndre Daniels

SF

 

Raptors (from SAC)

UConn (Jr.)

38

Spencer Dinwiddie

PG/SG

 

Pistons

Colorado (Jr.)

39

Jerami Grant

SF

 

76ers (from CLE)

Syracuse (So.)

40

Glenn Robinson III

SF

 

Timberwolves (from NO)

Michigan (So.)

41

Nikola Jokic

PF/C

 

Nuggets

Mega Vizura (Serbia)

That said, in our position, a stash made some sense. We were going to have one rookie already with Adams, and we were hoping to be all-in that year with the best team in franchise history. We could take a “lesser” prospect, save a roster spot by keeping Jokic overseas, and retain his rights to sign him a year or two down the road. We briefly thought about it, but this was a deep draft with good prospects available, and that’s why we acquired the pick in the first place. Using it to stash Jokic seemed like a reach.

Hindsight is 20-20, but holy crap that would have changed things.

Obviously, this would have depended heavily on a few other things also going well in the subsequent years. We would have brought Jokic over within the next year or two, and one presumes his talent level would have quickly become apparent.

At that point, however, we would have faced a hugely difficult decision. Marc Gasol was already an All-Star center in his prime; Jokic would have been the up-and-comer. The right move would have been to trade one of them – but would we have had the stones to trade Gasol and re-orient the team around Jokic?

Had we done that, the haul likely would have been enough to forestall needing rebuilding. The team could have kept going on winning with a Mike Conley-Jokic core and the proceeds from a trade.

But that only would have happened if Jokic had gotten on the court. And he might not have, at least not right away. Because there’s another factor here that everybody forgets about.

In training camp in 2014, we were desperate to bring in another center to round out the group. We already had 15 players under contract and were making calls on random unsigned veterans a week before camp (this was not uncommon at that time, before Exhibit 10 G League deals came along). One agent told me his player wasn’t available, but he had another one – Hassan Whiteside – who had just finished the previous season in Lebanon.

Yes, Lebanon.

Well, we hadn’t really scouted the Lebanese League much, but we knew Whiteside was big and even if he ended up being terrible he wouldn’t be around long. Sure, send him over.

You know how the rest of this goes. Whiteside was really good in training camp, but we already had a plus backup center in Kosta Koufos and our roster was full. So we waived Whiteside, he went to the G League, killed everybody, and was signed by the Miami Heat.

Obviously if we had stashed Jokic, we would have had the open roster spot and could have used it to keep Whiteside. Maybe not for long – he would have been on a one-year minimum with no Bird Rights. But it’s at least plausible that in 2016 we would have had Marc Gasol, Hassan Whiteside and Nikola Jokic on our team at the same time.

It’s fun to think that we could have hugely profited trading out of that, but the more likely scenario is that only Gasol would have had massive trade value – the others would be seen as “backups.” Plus, the other, complicated part of this “what if” is that we would have needed to have the stones to trade Gasol at a time when he was a first-team All-NBA center and our team was at its absolute peak.

OK, that wasn’t happening. And, given the cap mechanics, it’s all but certain we wouldn’t have been able to keep Whiteside for long.

The more believable what-if, however, is that by the end of the 2016-17 season, we might have been ready to move forward with Jokic. That would have entailed trading Gasol when his value was near its absolute peak, which still would have been a hugely emotional decision for the franchise. But I’ll put it this way: It wouldn’t have been hard to make a good deal. We had teams asking about him constantly.

Jokic, plus a kings’ ransom from a Gasol trade, plus Mike Conley? That would have been a pretty good team. But Conley still would have only played 12 games in 2017-18, so you even wonder if that season would have ended in the lottery anyway (the Grizzlies went 22-60, although that was wind-aided by our 4-29 blitz to the finish line). The most likely scenario is that the Grizzlies would have been just good enough to land in the middle of the lottery, costing us a shot at Jaren Jackson Jr. However, it’s highly likely we would have picked Shai Gilgeous-Alexander if we’d landed in the muddle of the 8-10 positions (we really liked him, I swear).

The year Jokic definitely would have impacted most is 2018-19. Cracking the top eight in the West would have been a challenge (the eighth-seeded LA Clippers won 48 games) but if the Gasol trade haul had landed enough quality via either picks or players, the Grizzlies likely could have cracked the postseason behind that equity plus Jokic and Conley.

And yet … unless the Grizzlies still traded Conley after the season and followed the exact same pattern of moves that yielded Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton, it’s not totally clear that it would have changed much going forward. Surely they would have been too good to land Ja Morant in the lottery, but a combo of Gilgeous-Alexander and Jokic would be a sweet core to build around, and there wouldn’t have been the lottery pain from the 2018-19 season.

That’s what’s so crazy about the what-if game – it gets really complicated once you really think through all the implications. The Grizzlies landed in such a fortunate place in the past two lotteries that it’s tough to construct a what-if and connect the dots to a better future, even if those dots had involved drafting an All-NBA player in the second round. The Grizzlies still would have needed the foresight to move Gasol, nail the Gilgeous-Alexander pick, get quality long-term players (and re-sign them) in a Gasol trade, and execute a similar pattern of moves with Conley this past summer.

That doesn’t stop me from thinking about it all the time. It’s the one move that could have significantly altered the trajectory of the past three seasons in Memphis, not to mention the 10 or so that will follow. As a result, it’s without a doubt the biggest what-if from my seven seasons with the Griz.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hmmm.  Pretty crazy.  I agree ... there's no telling what might have been.  I too feel fortunate how it ultimately turned out.  It's still early to predict the long term results, but it certainly seems like we've done very well in the draft the last couple of years with Jaren, Ja, and Brandon.  But of course, who knows, our success this year might have cost us James Wiseman or some other future superstar.  Ah ... maybe we can travel into a multi-verse where we can explore all these scenarios and what-ifs.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
19 hours ago, pjs said:

Hmmm.  Pretty crazy.  I agree ... there's no telling what might have been.  I too feel fortunate how it ultimately turned out.  It's still early to predict the long term results, but it certainly seems like we've done very well in the draft the last couple of years with Jaren, Ja, and Brandon.  But of course, who knows, our success this year might have cost us James Wiseman or some other future superstar.  Ah ... maybe we can travel into a multi-verse where we can explore all these scenarios and what-ifs.

Teams have a finite window.  While this window is open, you don't have to get EVERY pick right, but you need to get most right -- and gotta hit on some of those sleeper picks, since good teams don't get high draft picks.

Outside of the Thabeet draft, if we had taken Draymond Green or Will Barton (instead of Tony Wroten) or had picked up Jokic (instead of Jordan Adams) then our "run" would have been extended.

Thabeet/Wroten/Adams really limited our ceiling.  And, the drafts those years (outside of the 2009 Thabeet draft) weren't all that great (or deep).  

Maybe taking Thabeet, we "learned" from our mistake and got cold feet in going after another 7 foot mystery man (Nikola Jokic), so 0-2.  In this draft do we tempt fate yet again and go after a 7 foot mystery man?  Or... any other mystery man of random height or do we go with a "known quantity" with limited upside?

I think our past few drafts have solidified our "floor" for the future as well as our projected baseline.  BUT, the next draft or three could help determine our "ceiling" with this current core in the Brave New NBA.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

To go back to Jordon Adams. I really thought he might be that 6th man with a scoring punch off the bench we needed. I seem to love the scrubs. Expect Henry. I didn't like that pick at all. Or Baldwin. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Would've been a tough pick. He's essentially just Gasol. Better scorer, way worse defender, better rebounder, probably a better passer, but we also never used Marc as essentially the point guard like Denver does. 

He may never develop into the player he is today because he'd been behind Marc. Even if we did see the signs, hard to imagine we would have traded Marc right in the middle of our playoff run. Who knows, a lot of what ifs there. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now