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A Memphis do-over: Hasheem Thabeet, the debacle everyone saw coming

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https://theathletic.com/1791895/2020/05/07/a-memphis-do-over-hasheem-thabeet-the-debacle-everyone-saw-coming/

If ever there was an event in Grizzlies history that was tailor-made for a do-over, it would be the 2009 first-round draft selection of UConn center Hasheem Thabeet. And that’s really saying something — there have been plenty of regrettable events in Grizzlies history from which to pick. None, however, can compare to when they squandered a golden opportunity to enhance their team for years to come. The outcome was a debacle because the process was a debacle.

And you could see it coming.

The 2008-09 Grizzlies were on the cusp of turning into a special group. But you wouldn’t have known it from the way that 24-win season unfolded. Marc Iavaroni’s disappointing stint as the team’s head coach came to an end midway through the season, with Lionel Hollins taking over to close the year out. Point guard Mike Conley was in his second year and still very much a work in progress. Rudy Gay was the team’s best player, but it always felt as though he could be more productive. O.J. Mayo was the team’s star rookie and enjoyed a stellar season capped by an appearance on the NBA’s All-Rookie team. Joining him on that squad was a young second-round pick named Marc Gasol, who exceeded all expectations in a terrific rookie year.

The Grizzlies tied with Minnesota for the fifth-worst record in the league but — thanks to some luck in the lottery — received the second pick in the 2009 draft. Speculation focussed on two names: young Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio and Thabeet. There were other players in consideration — and there was nothing approaching unanimity in the Grizzlies camp —  but those two were the most widely publicized candidates.

And each had their issues.

For Rubio, there was the matter of a rather large buyout with FC Barcelona. He made it known that he did not want to play in Memphis (or other small-market teams) and did not work out for the Grizzlies before the draft. Then-GM Chris Wallace had visited Rubio and scouted him in Spain, so the Grizzlies publicly dismissed the idea they’d pass on Rubio simply because he didn’t work out for them. James Harden and Tyreke Evans did come to Memphis, but neither impressed in individual workouts.

On the surface, Thabeet appeared to check all the boxes you’d want from a No. 2 pick — nearly 7-foot-3, huge wingspan, big-time shot blocker, good character, came from an elite program in UConn.

But it didn’t take long for red flags to start popping up all over the place.

Thabeet canceled a scheduled workout with Memphis just days before the draft, claiming a shoulder injury. The Grizzlies, however, were a bit suspicious and sent a contingent — including Hollins and Wallace — to Los Angeles to meet with Thabeet. They wanted to see if he really wanted to play in Memphis; heck, they wanted to see if he really wanted to play, period. His motor and desire had been an issue in college, and there were always questions about just how badly Thabeet wanted to be great. Worth noting: If you’ve got to check in with a player just hours before you draft him, he’s probably not going to be a great pick.

Another red flag should have been this mid-February performance against Pittsburgh:

That would be 6-foot-6 DeJuan Blair, who would be taken late in the first round of that same draft by San Antonio, destroying Thabeet to the tune of 22 points and 23 rebounds. Blair has 15 points and 13 boards in the first half alone. But it was that slam early in the game, a play where the undersized Blair just flipped Thabeet over his hip, judo-style, that set the tone for what Thabeet’s career would become. Blair scored at will on Thabeet, despite giving up eight inches, and dominated him physically on both ends of the floor.

Earlier this year, Blair told a story about Thabeet on Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel’s radio show: “A year after I went to the league, we were both at the NBA combine, and we were walking out of the restroom. He’s walking down the street. He crosses the street, and he goes on the whole other side. After that, I haven’t really run into him.”

Great players can have bad games; great prospects will throw a clunker or two into the mix. But rarely has a player such as Thabeet been so dominated on such an enormous stage in a way that exposed all of his flaws so clearly. And speaking of those flaws, another red flag came in the form of scouting reports such as this from DraftExpress.

“There are a number of reasons to be skeptical about Thabeet’s ability to score on the NBA level…”

“Thabeet struggles badly trying to create opportunities for himself, being incredibly reliant on the talent and generosity of his teammates to generate offense for him.”

“Subjectively speaking, it wasn’t rare to see Thabeet become very passive on the court and only half-heartedly look for the ball.”

It wasn’t so much a matter of second-guessing the Thabeet pick; many folks in Memphis and beyond were first-guessing it long before it happened.

On the broadcast, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas was not overly impressed: “If you can get into his body, you can have a little bit of success against him. I think you have to draft him for his defense first and his defense only, frankly, because I’m not sure his offense is ever really going to get there.”

Thabeet’s first day in Memphis was probably his best. It was all downhill after his introductory press conference, where the dapper big man answered questions dressed in a custom-tailored shirt with his full name embroidered on the cuff. He was always fashionable. He enjoyed the trappings of stardom, enjoyed being a man of fashion, but did not always enjoy the basketball part. The working hard before, during and after practice part.

Additionally, the Grizzlies were already well-stocked at center, even if they weren’t sure just how good Gasol would turn out to be. It seems particularly foolish to take a very raw true center, a player who would need time to mature, when you already had an all-rookie center on the roster. Whatever Thabeet could do, Gasol could do it much, much better. Heck, human victory cigar Hamed Haddadi started to steal minutes from Thabeet on merit early into the 2009-10 season. Because he was getting so little playing time in Memphis, Thabeet was shipped to the D-League’s Dakota Wizards, a stunning move for a player picked second overall.

None of it mattered, and Thabeet was traded to Houston the following year. The Grizzlies had to package him with DeMarre Carroll and a first-round pick in order to get rid of him, a sign of just how much his stock had fallen in such a short period of time. Thabeet would go on to play three more seasons (with Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City) and ended his five-year career with averages of 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.8 blocked shots.

The one positive out of this fiasco: The Grizzlies received Shane Battier in the trade, a player who helped them win their first playoff series in April 2011 against San Antonio. And in spite of the disastrous selection of Thabeet, the Grizzlies enjoyed tremendous success over the following decade, making the playoffs seven straight seasons.

If the Grizzlies could do it all again, knowing what they know now, they’d surely have drafted Steph Curry (who went seventh) or Harden (third). At the time, Evans likely would have been the consolation pick, but let’s go with full revisionist history and take one of the two former league MVPs. Had they drafted either, the core of the team would have been Conley and Harden/Curry together in the backcourt with Gay, Gasol and a power forward to be determined. Let’s assume the team would have traded for Zach Randolph anyway, but with Curry on board, it seems less likely that Tony Allen would have become the Grindfather. Allen originally signed in the summer of 2010, but would there have been a spot for him if Curry were on the team? Would he have signed knowing that his role would have been smaller?

It’s tempting to tiptoe even further down that path and speculate whether or not Grit and Grind would have even existed had the Grizzlies taken Curry or Harden. Stylistically, those Grizzlies might have been a better fit for Gay, who could have played as an undersized power forward. All of a sudden, the Grizzlies would have been a smaller, faster, more skilled team. It would have been interesting to see how that group would have meshed with Hollins, who always said that he only coached a slow-tempo, defensive-minded style out of necessity. I don’t know that you can credit Thabeet’s presence for creating Grit and Grind, but it certainly pushed the Grizzlies down that road.

All of that makes for an easy do-over. Hindsight is 20-20. Replace Thabeet with either of those other players and that might have been a championship core, instead of a very good one.

We’ll never know.

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I'm surprised there's people still repeating that Rubio said he wouldn't play in a small market (as clearly proven by his refusing to play for Minny, Utah and Phoenix), which was a clear example of a mistranslation. I actually had someone tell me that a US based journalist misquoting another US based journalist mistranslating an interview was more credible than myself pointing at the actual interview in my native language.

As for Thabeet

F5AL.gif

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I wonder what Rubio would have looked like in a Grizz jersey 

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38 minutes ago, grizzgolf said:

I wonder what Rubio would have looked like in a Grizz jersey 

Conley averaged 11 and 4 in 2008-2009.  Not a player we couldn’t have drafted over with Steph, Rubio or Tyreke.  Or do the 3 guard rotation with Harden, Mayo and the Con Man.

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Knowing what we know now I'd say draft Curry, trade Mayo (and throw in the 27 if you have to) to get Rubio.  Rubio was a far better defender and passer than Mayo.  We could have Curry/Rubio in the backcourt.  Try to pry Millsap away from Utah (instead of trading that first round pic for Brewer later).  Defense, rebounding, shooting, passing.  Still could probably get the Darko/QRich/Zbo deal done, sign TA as a FA like we did the following season.  

Do-over dreams/what-ifs are a waste of time though.

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I was initially wanting us to take Rubio.

When it looked like he wouldn't sign with us, my preference changed to trying to trade the #2 and #27 with the Timberwolves for their #5, and #6 picks.  The TWolves would have taken Rubio at #2.  Assuming either OKC or SAC took Thabeet ... that would have left us either James Hardin or Tyreke Evans at #5, and (if we were smart) Steph Curry at #6.  That would have been epic.  Ahhh, gotta love hindsight.

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On 5/10/2020 at 10:27 PM, grizzgolf said:

I wonder what Rubio would have looked like in a Grizz jersey 

That's a big what if. A #2 pick salary means he could have been able to pay his buyout right away, and he would have started doing NBA weight and shooting training two years earlier, instead of languishing in FC Barcelona. Plus it's very hard to tell what he would have reached if he hadn't torn his knee in his rookie season.

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12 hours ago, smit-tay griz said:

Do-over dreams/what-ifs are a waste of time though.

The sad thing is that "anything but Thabeet" would have been a better scenario.

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15 hours ago, smit-tay griz said:

Knowing what we know now I'd say draft Curry, trade Mayo (and throw in the 27 if you have to) to get Rubio.  Rubio was a far better defender and passer than Mayo.  We could have Curry/Rubio in the backcourt.  Try to pry Millsap away from Utah (instead of trading that first round pic for Brewer later).  Defense, rebounding, shooting, passing.  Still could probably get the Darko/QRich/Zbo deal done, sign TA as a FA like we did the following season.  

Do-over dreams/what-ifs are a waste of time though.

Knowing what we know now, we could probably have ended up with BOTH Harden AND Curry if we had traded OJ Mayo, Conley, and Darrell Arthur plus the draft rights to Sam Young.

Curry/Harden/Rudy/Z Bo/Marc with TA, Demarre Carroll, and Hamed Haddaddi off the bench would have been nice.  Oh well.  

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On 5/12/2020 at 10:33 AM, fanboyslim said:

The sad thing is that "anything but Thabeet" would have been a better scenario.

Definitely.  Maybe this FO will do better.

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On 5/12/2020 at 1:21 PM, ALT GRIND said:

Knowing what we know now, we could probably have ended up with BOTH Harden AND Curry if we had traded OJ Mayo, Conley, and Darrell Arthur plus the draft rights to Sam Young.

Curry/Harden/Rudy/Z Bo/Marc with TA, Demarre Carroll, and Hamed Haddaddi off the bench would have been nice.  Oh well.  

I'm sure everyone thinks I'm crazy, but I really wouldn't want no-defense, flopping Harden.  With him and Curry I think we would've been unbalanced (not mentally).  Besides, having both would mean we would likely lose one or the other due to salary.

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15 hours ago, smit-tay griz said:

I'm sure everyone thinks I'm crazy, but I really wouldn't want no-defense, flopping Harden.  With him and Curry I think we would've been unbalanced (not mentally).  Besides, having both would mean we would likely lose one or the other due to salary.

Yeah, one of our issues is that we had a "small ball" back court with Conley and Mayo that was REALLY small and this was before the Small Ball Era really took over.

So... if you add Steph Curry that is a REALLY really small 3 guard rotation and then I guess you put him at the 2.  

Didn't watch much Harden.  So... I am not gonna say that I was super high on him going into the draft.

Before the draft or months before the draft I really liked Ricky Rubio (I like passing point guards with flair).  

For the draft I wanted Tyreke Evans.  Hard to explain now, but in college playing for the Memphis Tigers he was basically... James Harden but with more length on defense.  

With him he could have played the 2 or even the 3.  You get your guard rotation of Conley/Tyreke/OJ and you also have TA by that point (I think).  

I guess I didn't realize that his jump shot was broken. Or maybe it got worse.  Or maybe he just peaked as the go-to do-everything lead guard for the Sacto Kings -- which is guy I wanted to draft.  PEAK TYREKE was a heck of a ball player.

I liked Thabeet.  Didn't hate him.  He rebounded, blocked shots and dunked the ball.  He even looked older than he was supposed to be.  In for Memphis, which I think had the WORST bench I have ever seen.  He and Demarre Carroll never had a dang chance.  Thabeet used to headline a bench mob zone defense that absolutely shut down the other team.  BUT, we probably didn't score either.  ... I wasn't AS BIG on Greg Oden either (even BEFORE I knew he had one leg shorter than the other.  I guess an optimistic Oden apologist would say that one of his legs was LONGER than the other).  I guess I liked the smaller guards and wings more a decade ago than I do now.  I think the Small Ball Era philosophy is over-done.  Overrated.  Even if this isn't technically the END of small ball.

Even the Steph Curry bulls (I actually felt sorry for the Knicks when they didn't draft him) and the James Harden bulls never predicted those guys being mega stars.

Now teams like the small ball types and are over looking or underrating the bigs.  Even if THIS isn't the big man jail break draft it is gonna happen at some point.  Then you really don't wanna be left behind cuz your 6'9 "big" who looks more like Bo Outlaw than Wilt Chamberlain is gonna have to be your "power forward" for the next 10-15 years.

Not saying it's the same thing but guys like Onyeka Okongwu and Obi Toppin are supposed to go in the 10-15 range (at worst) -- if not top 5 then a sharp shooter like Markus Howard is supposed to be a mid/late 2nd round pick AT BEST.  Mason Jones isn't really on the radar and he can fill it up.  He went for 40 a few times.  Hard to believe that BOTH Markus Howard AND Mason Jones will wash out in the pros.

For bigs, these sleeper guys (ok, one is not.  not really) they can hit the 3 some and block a few shots.  I like that skill set.  Aleksej Pokusevski, Makur Maker, and Borisa Simanic look interesting.  If the league's pace starts to really slow down then Luka Garza might be underrated (if he stays in the draft).  

 

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I wonder what the "red flags" are regarding big men/centers in the draft.

Is it any particular stat?

Between Thabeet and Greg Oden (drafted two years prior) the NBA saw two of its BIGGEST (in more ways than one) busts in short order.  One guy was riddled/cursed with injuries but he still may have been massively overrated.  The other (Thabeet) was just a flat-out bust.  

Are there any similarities between these two?  

Any takeaways?  

Because missing on guys like this can set your franchise back more than 10 years.  Can you imagine the Blazers with Oden?  Or, the Grizzlies with Steph or Harden or even a young Tyreke Evans on a rookie deal?

Guards and wings bust all the time too -- people just make a bigger deal out of the centers/bigs who bust.  They also tend to get over-drafted.  Or, at least they used to.

I am actually doing a semi-deep dive into the big name bigs in this draft -- to see if I can find any comparisons as well as red flags (and green flags?).  ... I actually have an interesting comp for one of the players in this draft -- but the years/ages for the stat lines don't match up.  

There's not a top 5 team in this draft that can afford to burn a top 5 pick.

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