Daydreaming … (Obligatory time travel noise)
‘Tis May 22, 2007 on a sunny, room-temperature day in Secaucus, New Jersey where the 2007 NBA Draft lottery is set to be held tonight. Memphis Grizzlies fans are feeling good. The night represents hope for the fans of a franchise that have just wrapped up the 2006–07 season with a league worst 22–60 record. Tonight is the night the Grizzlies will secure a top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft scheduled for June 29, 2007. After tonight, the Grizzlies will essentially have secured a savior for the franchise. Grizzlies fans everywhere are salivating at the thought of Greg Oden running (if that’s what you want to call it) up and down the floor, camping out in the post on defense swatting everything that comes his way, and gracefully slamming every ball that is fed to him through the hoop on offense. That gargantuan man would be all the Grizzlies in just mere months. If somehow the Grizzlies don’t get the first pick in the draft, they will certainly get the second. Statisticians everywhere say the odds of the Grizzlies falling out of the top two picks are extremely low. In that case, if the Grizzlies get the second pick, the team will certainly be glad to "settle" for Kevin Durant. After all, many NBA general managers would take this long, gangly freak of nature number one if presented the opportunity. Durant would anchor the Grizzlies for years to come. All is good. Right? Wrong!
The night is here, and the silly concept that is the NBA Draft Lottery is underway. The Boston Celtics have just received the 5th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Everything is going according to plan. Then Grizzlies General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations Jerry West is looking smug in his seat behind the podium waiting for the announcement that the Grizzlies will draft number one in the 2007 NBA Draft. Then the unthinkable happens. The team that will pick fourth in the upcoming draft is the… Memphis Grizzlies. WHAT!? How could this be? This is an outrage! The hope of a franchise is crushed in a matter of a few seconds.
Right after the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery and before the 2007 NBA Draft, Jerry West retired from his post as General Manager thus putting the Grizzlies in quite a predicament. Chris Wallace, current General Manager, was hired on June 18, 2007 just days before the draft.
Fast forward to the night of the 2007 NBA Draft, June 29, 2007. With the fourth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select… Michael Conley from Ohio State University. Indifference. Frustration. Despair. All these are emotions teeming through Grizzlies fans. There was not the ecstasy that should be oozing out of a fan base after its’ team drafts a talented prospect, much less one of the best players from that draft. It wasn’t that the collective fan base didn’t like the Conley pick, but rather the cruelty of the NBA draft lottery, which at its core is a very unjust process, still lingered in fans’ minds. The team had earned the number one pick after a dismal season. It was supposed to be Memphis’ pick, and Grizzlies fans were possessive, if not proud, of it! The Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics had no right to the Grizzlies’ prize.
While picking Conley did fill a need at the point guard position, it wasn’t the sexy, ticket selling pick that a Greg Oden or Kevin Durant would have been. With the Grizzlies having traded their 2007 second round pick two years before, Conley was all she wrote for the Grizzlies 2007 draft. The second round pick that the Grizzlies traded turned out to be Carl Landry. Oops.
Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy to look back on a draft several years after and say what a team’s front office did well or should have done. Many would rate the 2007 draft as Wallace’s best since he took over the position for West. He was able to fill a position of need, and Conley has blossomed into an above-average point guard that really serves as the glue that keeps the Grizzlies a lean, mean grit ‘n grinding machine. Without Conley, the Grizzlies would not be the contender they currently are today. He has truly earned every bit of his 5 year, $45 million contract extension he received in 2010. I’m not a Chris Wallace hater by any means, but it is nice to see that some of his picks do pan out after all.
Nowadays, Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace is praised just as much by Grizzlies fans for a trade that was made in February 2008 as he is for picking Conley in the 2007 draft. In what was then one of the most criticized trades in NBA history, Wallace sent Pau Gasol and a second round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for what seemed like a sack of balls at the time. The Grizzlies received Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the rights to Pau’s brother Marc Gasol, and 2008 and 2010 first round draft picks from the Lakers. The reason this is significant in the scheme of the 2007 NBA Draft is that if the Lakers don’t draft Marc Gasol with the 48th pick, then Marc is not a Grizzly today.
But, let’s pretend the clock could be turned back and history could be changed for a second. What could have happened differently in the 2007 draft lottery and draft that could have changed the landscape of the league and the makeup of the Grizzlies as we know it?
Say the Grizzlies got what they deserved, which was the first pick in the draft. Already having a young, talented small forward in Rudy Gay, Wallace would have likely gone with Greg Oden. As any casual follower of the NBA knows, this would have been a disaster. Oden has done nothing of note in his injury plagued NBA career. Rather than be in the playoffs the last couple years, the Grizzlies would likely still be picking in the top five year after year had they selected Oden.
For the sake of argument, say Wallace would have taken Kevin Durant with the first pick even though Rudy Gay was waiting in the wing. Substitute Kevin Durant for Mike Conley. Do the Grizzlies have a championship by now with Durant? The starting five would likely be PG Kyle Lowry, SG Tony Allen, SF Kevin Durant, PF Zach Randolph, and C Marc Gasol. It’s hard to tell either way. (The reason O.J. Mayo is not factored into the equation is because the Grizzlies would likely not have had a high enough pick in the 2008 draft to select him had the team gotten Durant in the 2007 draft.)
Also, what if the Grizzlies had selected Joakim Noah with the 4th pick? Would the team be better or worse off than with Conley? The team would likely be less balanced, so it’s easy to say Conley was the right pick. While Noah would certainly have been a valuable asset to the Grizzlies, his offensive game is not very polished. He would be a perfect fit for the Grizzlies system on defense, but he certainly would not add more than Marc Gasol adds on offense. Conley fits within the Grizzlies system on both ends of the ball perfectly. On the offensive end, he plays within himself and plays as a true point guard, which is exactly what Lionel Hollins demands. On defense, Conley has developed into a steal machine and has helped the Grizzlies backcourt develop into one of the most disruptive in the league.
Another scenario worth considering is what if the Grizzlies had drafted Marc Gasol with the fourth pick in the 2007 draft? Would Pau have stuck around to play with his brother? The Grizzlies would have an interesting lineup today, but it would not likely be as formidable as the current roster makeup.
With all that said, when the Grizzlies fell out of the Durant/Oden sweepstakes, Mike Conley became the right, logical pick for Wallace to make. He would likely do the same thing if he had to do it over again knowing what he knows today. However, an interesting tidbit in all this is that if the 2007 NBA Draft was redone with the knowledge NBA General Managers have now, it’s not a stretch to say Marc Gasol would likely be the number two pick in the draft. He has developed into that good of a player. The Grizzlies definitely got a steal in Gasol.
At the end of the day, it is what it is and all those other good clichés. In retrospect, you will be hard pressed to find a Grizzlies fan that regrets drafting Mike Conley in the 2007 NBA Draft. He has played an essential role in molding the Grizzlies into the title contender they are today. However, a Grizzlies fan can dream of Durant dominating the league in a Memphis Midnight Blue jersey. Wouldn’t it be nice?