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Have the Grizzlies really drafted poorly?

Or has the real problem been mismanagement of drafted players?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

It is well known that the Memphis Grizzlies have never drafted well. From Hasheem Thabeet to Josh Selby to Jamaal Franklin to as recently as Wade Baldwin IV, the team has swung and missed on draft selections not only consistently, but also when the franchise had large room for error.

As I wrote (shameless plug—in the nut graf no less!) in a recent post on Dillon Brooks, who may buck the supposed trend of poor drafting by the Grizzlies...

The Grizzlies’ draft history has been a dark, dismal road lit only by the slow-to-build but nonetheless mighty fire that is Mike Conley. Without his incredible transformation, there’s not much else you can point to in terms of success when it comes to the Grizzlies’ draft record.

The second sentence there is an incontrovertibly true statement, and I will show you why very soon. But first, let’s take a look at whom the Grizzlies have drafted over the last ten years, not including the most recent draft because there was no statistical data on those players at the time of this research.

Via Basketball Reference

Certain players stand out or seem to be missing here. For example, Kevin Love resides in the 2008 spot because the Grizzlies did in fact draft Kevin Love in 2008. However, the team traded him on draft night for O.J. Mayo. Mayo, while a preternatural scorer in his rookie season, declined in ability and stature every season since. Second example: Marc Gasol is nowhere to be found on this list. That is because the Los Angeles Lakers selected him in the 2007 NBA Draft, then traded him to Memphis for his brother, Pau, later that same season.

If you’re worried that the players on the above list aren’t representative of actual Grizzlies draft picks, don’t worry, those concerns and more are accounted for.

I went back through and double checked that every player listed here played his first game with the Grizzlies. If he did not, he either got removed from the list or I tracked down the players he was traded for, confirming whether or not they were rookies. If that traded-for player(s) was indeed a rookie, I again checked to see if he first played for the Grizzlies. If he hadn’t I repeated the above process until I either hit on a player who initially played in Memphis (and therefore counted him), was not a rookie (and therefore did not count him), or was waived (also did not count him).

Tl;dr version of the above paragraph: the criteria thus far are that a player must be a rookie, and must have played his first game with the Memphis Grizzlies. That allows a player like DeMarre Carroll, who was drafted by and played for Memphis but currently plays elsewhere, to remain on the list. It also allows a player like Gasol to be counted toward the Grizzlies (and Love not to be counted), even though he was not technically drafted by the team.

2009 NBA Draft
Hasheem Thabeet on draft night with then NBA commissioner David Stern.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Additionally, I set a minutes limit of 500 minutes per season. This was necessary in order to weed out some outlying data that would have allowed some crazy skewing of the data which, among other things, initially allowed the New York Knicks—the Knicks!—to be the most successful team in the draft over the last decade (Giannis Antetokounmpo’s brother, Thanasis, put up an ungodly .291 win shares per 48 minutes rate in six total minutes over two games in 2016 that led to that aberration).

The minutes limit is significant in our case because it cuts guys like Jarell Martin and Baldwin out of the picture. But it also controversially nixes Thabeet, a fact which is adjusted for, as you will see.

You may be wondering why these stipulations are needed in the first place. In order to find out how well the Grizzlies have drafted, I gathered the win shares and win shares per 48 minutes stats for the players who met the above criteria, added the numbers up, and then averaged them.

I then went and did this for every team in the league and found the mean win shares and win shares per 48 minutes of the entire draft population of the NBA from 2006-2016 in order to provide context.

The final condition I applied to this research was that even if a player stopped playing for a team, his total win shares and win shares per 48 minutes numbers were used for the team which drafted him. This was done to better identify how well a team—in this context, the Grizzlies—actually drafted.

Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns
DeMarre Carrol (1) attempts a layup against the Phoenix Suns in 2009.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the DeMarre Carroll example from earlier, he earned the two worst marks for WS and WS/48 of his career with Memphis before being traded and subsequently waived by Houston. Since then, however, he has played much better, earning him one of the better scores of any of the players drafted by Memphis. The Grizzlies should be rewarded for recognizing and seizing on Carroll’s talent before anyone else did, despite their inability to mold or retain him.

This exercise is about drafting, not roster turnover.

Finally, I chose win shares and win shares per 48 minutes because they are the advanced stats I trust most. If you’d like to learn what exactly these two stats do, I recommend going to the bottom of this link and reading up on them. But basically, these stats try to assess how many wins a player contributes to his team per season and per 48 minutes, respectively.

So, with all those conditions and rules in place, these are the nine player whom the Grizzlies “drafted” from 2006-2016.

  • Kyle Lowry
  • Mike Conley
  • Marc Gasol
  • Darrell Arthur
  • O.J. Mayo
  • DeMarre Carrol
  • Sam Young
  • Greivis Vasquez
  • Xavier Henry

As you peruse that list, you have to admit, it’s full of pretty solid players. That assertion is verified by the Grizzlies’ mean win shares and win shares per 48 minutes marks, which stack up well compared to the rest of the league.

The team averaged 30.89 win shares, second only to (unsurprisingly) the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had by far the most total and average win shares of any team. Memphis’ average win shares were almost double the league mean of 17.5 WS over the past ten seasons.

The team’s average win shares per 48 number was more in line with the league’s going rate. Memphis’ draftees scored 0.091 ws/48 over the past decade, good for 15th, directly in the middle of the pack (the San Antonio Spurs—again unsurprisingly—led the league, by a lot, in this category). The league mean was .090.

What this data says is that Memphis has actually not drafted poorly at all. In fact, the team has been at the very minimum average and quite possibly well above average in terms of the quality of player selected.

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two
Darrell Arthur (00) and Marc Gasol (33) battle Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs for a rebound.

But, you might assert, the above doesn’t include Thabeet. Interestingly enough, adding Thabeet’s numbers into the mix didn’t change much for the Grizzlies. The team’s average win shares fell slightly to 28.28 (ranking third behind the Los Angels Clippers and ahead of the Golden State Warriors) and its win shares per 48 rose one one-hundredth of a point to .092 (still 15th). The Grizzlies found so much value in the second round through guys like Carroll and Vasquez, or through trades for guys like Gasol and Arthur, that their relative overachievement greatly displaces Thabeet’s relative underachievement.

Where things get really interesting is if you take a look only at the Chris Wallace era. He became General Manager in 2007, days before the team selected Conley with the fourth overall pick in the draft. This leads me to believe that Wallace probably had little to do with the Conley selection, but it’s possible he did. So, as a matter of fairness to him, we’ll inspect his draft history both with and without Conley.

It should be noted that even though Gasol was picked in 2007, he wasn’t traded until February 2008, when the team was firmly under Wallace’s control. Wallace orchestrated that deal, so he gets points for snagging Marc...even if Gasol’s rise would be hard for anyone to predict, he still got the deal done.

If we’re not counting Conley, two of the team’s three best players get left out of the conversation. Without Conley and Lowry, the team’s 2007 and 2006 first round picks respectively, the Grizzlies’ average win shares plummet to 11.37 and their average win shares per 48 falls all the way to .068 (these are including Thabeet’s numbers).

2007 NBA Draft
Mike Conley on draft night 2007.
Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Compared with that ten year league mean—which is not a totally fair thing to do, considering I just lopped off two years of draft data for Memphis. But the numbers are close enough in this situation, so that’s how this is going—the Grizzlies would rank fifth worst in average win shares and fourth worst in average win shares per 48 minutes. These ranks clearly reflect extremely poorly on Wallace’s draft record.

If we are counting Conley, things change drastically. His 62.8 win shares and .131 win shares per 48 minutes mark buoy the organization’s numbers tremendously. The team’s average win shares still fall without Lowry, but only to 23.66, more than twice as much if Conley were not counted here. That would rank fourth in the Association. The team’s .085 win shares per 48 minutes rate would dip below league average, but would still rank them 16th, one spot behind where it was before.

Obviously, if you count Conley, Wallace’s draft record looks significantly better. I am of the opinion that you should not count Conley, but I provided both scenarios so that you can decide for yourself.

What this is all boiling down to is that the organization’s drafting has been, at the very minimum, average over the last decade. Average is not bad, bad being the nominative term used in most conversations when describing the Grizzlies’ draft history.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Four
Chris Wallace (left) applauds Mike Conley for winning the Joe Dumars NBA Sportsmanship award in 2016.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

What has been bad has been the organization’s ability to either develop the talent they draft and/or its decision to jump ship early on draft talent. GBB’s own Brandon Conner (aka BallFromGrace) noted this in his intriguing random number generator vs. the Grizzlies front office piece yesterday.

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a pretty strong theme of “player X got better after leaving Memphis.”

That’s the case with Lowry, Carroll, Arthur, and Vasquez, who total 40 percent of the significant players drafted by the franchise since 2006. The Grizzlies decided that four of the six best players they drafted over the last decade either weren’t worth the effort or, in Lowry’s case, were impeding the progress of another player (Conley). That sentence should be highly concerning.

Couple that with the team’s dubious post-Conley drafting and there seems to be a common denominator when it comes to personnel decisions: Chris Wallace.

That’s not to say he’s been awful. Putting together the Grit and Grind Grizzlies was no small feat, and he has rightly been lauded for those efforts. But the inattention to developing young players has been damning, as has his draft record if you’re not counting Conley.

Nonetheless, the team is heading in a new direction. Dillon Brooks and Ivan Rabb may end up being 2nd round draft successes, and undrafted rookie Kobi Simmons may be a revelation as well. If those guys invalidate this entire piece, I would be very OK with that. But as it stands now, we should all probably be a little more critical of the job the front office has done over the past decade than we give it credit for.

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