I don’t think I need to remind any of you that the Memphis Grizzlies’ draft pick this year is of extreme importance.
Whoever the Grizzlies pick with whichever pick they receive will shape how the franchise looks both in the short and long term. Some prospects fit this description more dramatically than others, but no matter who that player ends up being, great expectations will be heaped on his shoulders.
However, depending on where the Grizzlies pick and who they value will ultimately determine the fates of the final vestiges of the Core Four.
Instead of trying to describe this idea in a generally philosophical way (which I did and ended up cutting ~400 words), let’s hop straight into an example or two.
Imagine the Grizzlies get the number one overall pick. Or even the second or third pick. The team would be in a position to select one of the three best players in this draft. Looking at DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, and Marvin Bagley III, any one of these three guys has the potential to step in next year and have an impact on a playoff caliber team, something this front office has professed it believes the Grizzlies can be next year. All three of those prospects are also players around which you could potentially build a core if you’re a rebuilding team like Phoenix or Atlanta... or Memphis?
These players give you options if you’re the Grizzlies. That’s why they’re so much more valuable than the next tier of guys below them. Let’s say the team takes one of Ayton, Bagley, or Doncic, but Mike Conley and/or Marc Gasol suffer another injury riddled season that eliminates Memphis from the playoffs. Because the franchise has a cornerstone in its back pocket, it could pivot into a full rebuild by trading one or both of Gasol or Conley. A player of that caliber mitigates next season’s worst case scenario.
Conversely, a player of that caliber could also extend Gasol and Conley’s careers. Having a young bull to divert some of the workload would be beneficial to both veterans, were they to stay healthy. And there is a decent enough chance that someone like that could be the final third cog in the system that Chandler Parsons was supposed to be (and also alleviate some of the pressure/duties from Parsons, hopefully allowing him to play more freely).
Suppose—and this is probably not a fair thing to suppose, but I’m not deleting anymore sentences from this post, so just deal with it—the player the Grizzlies draft gives you the equivalent production of rookie year Anthony Davis (Davis did not win Rookie of the Year in 2012-13, Damian Lillard did). That’s 13.5 points per game, 8.2 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and two blocks per contest in about 29 minute per game. Not too shabby at all.
Davis’ rookie season PER of 21.7 would be better than any Grizzlies player to have played more than 10 games from this season according to Basketball Reference. Better than Gasol, better even (ever so slightly) than Tyreke Evans.
Davis’ other advanced numbers (win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus, and value over replacement player) all would mark him as a top three or four player on the team. And I don’t think it’s out of the question to think any of Ayton, Doncic, or Bagley could average 13.5/8 in his rookie season. (The obvious huge difference is that Davis was already an elite-level defender, and I don’t think any of these guys are at that level yet, though Ayton perhaps is the closest.) It may be ill-advised to dream so loftily, but if the Grizzlies were to win the number one overall pick, that’s the caliber of player we could potentially be talking about.
Now let’s reimagine that out of an unexpected Grizzlies surge, excellent tanking from competition, and some pure bad luck that the team falls all the way to the fifth or sixth or even seventh pick. Now the team’s really in hit-or-miss range. You’d have to imagine that players like Collin Sexton, Mikal Bridges, maybe even Trae Young would be the best players remaining.
Now you’re in a conundrum. Do you draft the best overall talent or a player that fits your system/ethos/needs? Confining yourself to this dualistic debate drastically depresses the flexibility the team had when getting to choose one of the three best players in the draft. If you choose for fit, you may be mortgaging your future by letting a potentially better player slip by. I see this as the Mikal Bridges effect.
Bridges fills needs for the Grizzles. He’s a long wing who can shoot and defend multiple positions. In these ways, he’s actually a great prospect for the team, as it needs wing depth, a shooter, and it wouldn’t mind a little defensive versatility if it could get it. But what if that meant taking him while someone with a higher ceiling, like Michael Porter Jr. or maybe Jaren Jackson Jr., was still on the board?
Now you’re really pigeonholing yourself into that win-now two-year timeframe where a lot of lucky stuff, including Bridges being the guy you need him to be, has to happen. AND if Gasol/Conley has another injury riddled season, then what do you do? It’s much less likely that Bridges is a cornerstone guy compared to Ayton/Doncic/Bagley. Do you ride out another terrible season and try again in 2019-20 with a 32-year-old Conley and a 35-year-old Gasol?
Your first round pick in the 2019 draft is one through eight protected, so there is a chance you might be able to draft a player to complement Bridges. However if you even get 25+ top level games from Gasol/Conley, you may have to forfeit that pick to Boston, or at the least, pick on the lower end of that range. Or you could hope somehow to get a top 2019 draft pick in any Gasol/Conley trade, which I see as very unlikely.
On the flip side, if you choose for talent, you may be excising the chance for Conley and Gasol to make the playoffs one last time. I think of this as the Trae Young effect.
Instead of filling a need with their fifth or sixth or seventh pick, the Grizzlies forego Bridges and take Young or Sexton or Mohammad Bamba. A pick like this, to me, signals a full rebuild on the horizon. These guys are projects. Nothing wrong with projects. You know who was a project? Michael Alex Conley Jr. He turned out pretty great.
But a project inherently takes time. Point guards especially tend to take longer to develop into great players (possibly partially why their careers often last longer than their bigger counterparts). If you take one of these players you’re signaling that you don’t think you can win next year. However, you are taking the player you believe will be the best once his career is over, so what you sacrifice in the short term, you hope to make up for in the long term.
Drafting Young (who, realistically, will not go that high, but who fits my theory to a ‘T,’ so here we are) or Bamba means that you’re trading Conley or Gasol or both. There’s something to be said for having a veteran presence around a young, moldable guy like those two. But there’s a lot more to be said if you can grab two or even three (I know this is a mega reach) first rounders for those two guys, if the team believes they are cornerstone caliber.
For all the above reasons it is pretty important that the Grizzlies lose the final four games of the regular season. If they do that, they secure a pick no worse than fifth, and could, although it would be unlikely, end up with the very best lottery odds and pick no worse than fourth. That’s not to say that whoever they pick with a top three pick (were they to get one) wouldn’t be a bust. That potential will always be there. But the likelihood of picking a cornerstone guy is much greater in that top tier of prospects.