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Jerry West on how the Memphis Grizzlies almost picked LeBron James

Before Jerry West became general manager, the Memphis Grizzlies made a trade that hurt their chances in the 2003 NBA Draft.

It’s a little-known story that LeBron James almost ended up with the Memphis Grizzlies. It was mainly because the 2003 NBA Draft class turned out as one of the most legendary batches in league history. Everything else — including the what-if situations — was overshadowed. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to look back on that wild draft lottery night where Jerry West, then the Grizzlies’ general manager, shared his thoughts on almost picking another iconic basketball player in LeBron James.

Otis Thorpe

On draft lottery night, the Grizzlies had a mere 6.4%  of getting the first pick. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the top favorites with 22.5%, followed by the Denver Nuggets, also with 22.5%. The Toronto Raptors were at 15.7%, the Miami Heat were at 12%, and the Los Angeles Clippers were at 8.9%.

The Raptors and the Heat were assigned the fourth and fifth pick, respectively, while the Clippers got sixth. This meant that someone had moved up the lottery. And when the Denver Nuggets got the third pick, it then placed West’s Grizzlies in the most interesting spot. Show host Mike Tirico summarized perfectly to West and the viewers how the next envelope could shape the Grizzlies’ franchise.

Jerry West, if your Memphis team gets the number one pick, you got the obvious dream in this draft. But, if you get 2 or 3, you don’t get anything,” Mike Tirico said.

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This is due to the Grizzlies’ trade in 1997 for the 35-year-old Otis Thorpe (a decent big who played just 47 games for them). The pick was no. 1 protected. And so if the Grizzlies got the first pick, they would keep it. But anything less than that, they would have to send it to Detroit. This was a grave mistake and a lack of foresight by the pre-West Grizzlies front office.

Forecasting the future

If the Grizzlies did end up with the first pick, there was no question West would pick James. The St. Vincent-St. Mary standout was the consensus pick by almost all analysts. And even if West lived in a cave, away from the know-it-all analysts, he would’ve still picked the kid from Akron. Nevertheless, West expressed no regret in missing out on James.

“When you get down to these situations with a player of the magnitude at one or two in the draft, it would have been an enormous addition to our team -- enormous,” West said right after the lottery. ”I think there are three or four kids in this draft that are going to be tremendous NBA players, and more importantly for the city of Memphis and the Grizzlies coaching staff, if we’d have gotten the number one pick we would have gotten a real special player,” West said, per Sports Illustrated.

Of course, the man was right. Four “kids” did churn out legendary careers: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. Feeling bad for West isn’t the correct sentiment here. After all, he’s also the man who courageously traded for a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant. 

West was also an executive board member when the Golden State Warriors started winning titles in bunches. Of course, West is also responsible for luring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the LA Clippers. That little wrinkle involving LeBron James — which is not entirely his fault — won’t hurt his legacy.

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