It is truly amazing how, despite being a decade apart, 2009 and 2019 are shaping up quite similarly for the Memphis Grizzlies.
- Both years, the franchise was coming off of consecutive losing seasons.
- Both years, the Grizzlies were going through a transition period after trading away a franchise icon with the last name of Gasol (Pau in 2008, Marc in 2019) to the eventual NBA Champion in both 2009 and 2019 ( Lakers and Raptors.)
- A new coach was hired to lead the team through the transition, with Lionel Hollins returning for his third stint as head coach in 2009 and Taylor Jenkins getting his first opportunity in 2019.
- The rookie seasons of O.J. Mayo, in 2009, and Jaren Jackson Jr., in 2019, had just concluded. At the time, Mayo was viewed as the potential focal point for the future of the franchise just as Jackson Jr. is now.
- Both years, fortune shined on the franchise as, the Grizzlies landed the number two pick each season.
- Both Draft Classes had an elite, once in a generation type power forward prospect in Blake Griffin and Zion Williamson. Furthermore, the majority of the draft community in 2009 and 2019 had a point guard with elite passing ability as the second ranked prospect in Ricky Rubio and Ja Morant.
- Within two days of the Draft Lottery, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express reported the franchise’s main target for the second pick, which was Hasheem Thabeet in 2009 and Ja Morant in 2019.
The similarities between the bookend years of the past decade are eye-opening. However, despite the many positives the franchise has experienced, the draft night debacle in 2009 still helped define the past decade. While many want to put the blame on Thabeet himself, he alone was not the only significant reason as to why he would become one of the biggest busts in draft history.
The flawed process, not the player, was the biggest culprit of the disaster that occurred a decade ago.
Chris Herrington, then of the Memphis Flyer and now of the Daily Memphian, saw the writing on the wall almost immediately. Along with others, he identified that former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley badly wanted Thabeet, despite other members of the front office wanting to go in a different direction. In the month between the lottery and the draft, no matter how much effort was put forth to consider other options, Heisley would not be deterred. As a result, the Grizzlies drafted Thabeet in an attempt to change the identity of the team.
Less than two years and 13 total starts later, Thabeet was traded to the Houston Rockets.
While the player was removed from the situation, the flawed process remained in place. The Thabeet pick likely was the most egregious draft mistake from the Chris Wallace era. However, it was one of many. While the Grizzlies certainly had a level of sustained success that many did not expect, the lack of contributions from their draft picks throughout the past decade limited the Grizzlies’ chances when it mattered most. As a result, the consistent inability to draft and develop players was the fatal flaw that led to the end of the Wallace era earlier this year.
Now, the Grizzlies are again in a transition period where they are looking to establish an identity for their future.
So what has the new front office done that provides hope the next decade could be different than the previous?
They have hired a coach that many hold in high regard due to his ability to develop players. They traded franchise icon Mike Conley to a place where he legitimately has a chance to win. They received a package of picks and players that has significantly improved the franchise in many areas. And for the first time in over a decade, many across the NBA feel the Grizzlies had one of the best drafts across the league.
The addition of Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, along with the potential for multiple first round picks in one of the next three drafts, has significantly improved the outlook of the Grizzlies. It is fine to point out that the Morant pick was due to luck, but that should not overshadow the fact that Jason Wexler, Zach Kleiman and the rest of the Grizzlies front office have been proactive and productive in their processes. They have succeeded in acquiring additional valuable assets for the future, which typically increases the chances that the future will be successful.
No one knows if this new core will be as successful as what the Grizzlies have been over the previous decade. At this point, that is a very high standard to achieve. However, what we do know is this new front office as shown an ability to acquire talent and assets that this franchise has been without for years.
It is amazing how quickly and successfully things can turn around once chaos and complacency are replaced with competence and continuity. As a result, many fans have seen their feelings of chagrin transform into confidence in just a few short months.
Ten years ago, the previous Grizzlies’ front office set a precedent when it came to drafting and developing players that eventually led to its demise. Now, the new Grizzlies’ front office has achieved a standard of success in a single draft that may be unprecedented for the franchise.
While time will tell how successful these moves truly will be, the time has once again arrived for Grizzlies’ fans to have confidence they could be great.