The Grizzlies finished the '02/'03 season with a 28-54 record. The worse part about that was the fact it was their best season in franchise history. At the end of the season, it was a good news-bad news situation for Memphis fans.
The good news was Jerry West became their GM. Getting The Logo to run your front office basically guarantees a competitive team. One of the best talent evaluators in NBA history leading a rebuilding (well, building) effort is a good thing. The bad news was the Grizzlies fans had to wait a year for West to get a high draft pick despite their 28-54 season. Let's take a look at the lottery odds from 2003.
- Cleveland Cavaliers - 22.5%
- Denver Nuggets - 22.5%
- Toronto Raptors - 15.7%
- Miami Heat - 12 %
- Los Angeles Clippers - 8.9%
- Memphis Grizzlies - 6.4%
Unfortunately for Grizzlies, they traded their 1st round pick in the 2003 draft to Detroit in 1997 for a 35-year-old Otis Thorpe (who would end up playing only 47 games for them). The pick was no.1 protected, and nobody was holding their breath for a 6.4% chance. It turned out to be one of the most dramatic TV nights in Memphis history.
The drama started when NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik read the 6th pick goes to Los Angeles. The Clippers had the 5th best odds, meaning someone jumped up in the Draft. Miami and Toronto turned out to be at 5 and 4 - Jerry West was starting to get his hopes up. When the no.3 envelope said "Denver Nuggets," everyone held their breath. Will Cleveland get the kid from Akron, or will Memphis miraculously keep their pick and turn the franchise over?
Ouch. We got to see heartbreak on live tv - from LeBron James to losing the pick in a second. Detroit got the no.2 pick and fell in love with Darko Miličić. The rest is history. Jerry West went on to build a perennial contender in a small market in the Western Conference (and gifting Pau Gasol to the Lakers), but it could've been so much better.
West is a fantastic basketball mind, but even he needs a Kobe or Magic for a championship-level team. As good as you are, you have to get lucky. The thing is, intelligent teams put themselves in the position to get lucky. (and the Cavs get three first-round picks in four years).
Players from the '03 Draft would go on to define NBA basketball for the next 15 years. It's often slept on how close we were to Memphis being one of the most important chapters in that story. All this for 47 games of Otis Thorpe. At least GM's understand the value of Draft pick protections these days; well, most of them.