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The art of the lottery ticket in Memphis

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A small-market staple.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, a Bankrate national survey found that 28% of American households that make less than $30,000 per year play the lottery at least once a week, spending on average $412 per year in doing so. Households with annual incomes over $75,000, on the other hand, only spend $105 a year on lottery tickets and only 10% of them play the lottery weekly.

To a certain degree, this wouldn’t appear to make much sense. No matter who you are, your chances of winning the lottery are worse than getting hit by an asteroid, so it seems both problematic and pointless that a significant percentage of people who are at or below the poverty line essentially waste their money on an unattainable pipe dream. And while it’s not my place to judge the financial decisions of other people, it’s definitely clear that the lottery leads to no tangible positive change for hardly anyone.

NBA: Summer League-Memphis Grizzlies at Chicago Bulls Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

When you take away the hope for positive economic change from normal means, however, poverty-stricken people are more willing to place their faith in such things. To be sure, the American Dream and upward mobility are nothing like what they used to be. In 1940, Americans had a 93% chance to out-earn their parents; in 2021, that chance is less than 20%.

Don’t ask me for all the factors as to why economic inequality has flourished so much in modern America; you don’t read me for my economic takes. I truly don’t know. But I do know that when certain people in our society believe that success is impossible for them by normal means, they’ll be more willing to take an extremely unlikely chance on something that could change everything for them — even if it might mean that it just ultimately hurts them. “This could be the one!”

Small markets in the NBA can serve as an analogue for this difficult reality. While it’s extreme to say that the league is rigged against small market teams — after all, the San Antonio Spurs have won five championships since 1999 — they’re generally still at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to matters like free agency and even trades (a small-market team can trade for a marquee player, but they’re generally reluctant to do so since that player will probably not stay there).

The Memphis Grizzlies, of course, have come to acknowledge this reality for themselves.

Outside of Chandler Parsons in the summer of 2016, they have never signed a marquee free agent. The reason is simple: Memphis is awesome, but no amount of cap space or Ja Morant star-power is going to change the fact that no star wants to come here instead of another big-market city. Toronto isn’t one of the NBA’s glamour cities either, and the Raptors still couldn’t Reven re-sign Kawhi Leonard after they won a championship together.

The Grizzlies are also unlikely to attain a star in a blockbuster trade in the near future. They do have quality assets, but teams like New Orleans, Golden State, and Oklahoma City have treasure troves that they can use to make superior offers to anything Memphis can reasonably give. The only star-caliber player that the Grizzlies could conceivably win a bidding war for is Ben Simmons, and well, there’s a reason for that to put it politely.

No, in order to compete for championships, the small-market Memphis Grizzlies have to rely heavily on three things: luck, quality drafting, and their own personal “lottery tickets”. They have been exceedingly fortunate with the first two; Ja Morant fell into their lap in the 2019 draft, and everyone that they’ve drafted since that time has become quality rotation players.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

But one bonafide growing superstar and an abundance of quality rotation players isn’t enough for meaningful title contention anytime soon. The Grizzlies must find another star, one that’s probably not going to come from free agency or trades. That’s why the front office has made it a point to acquire certain lottery tickets — players are easy to obtain since they have struggled to find their footing but still possess immense upside — over the last couple of years that could hypothetically alter the trajectory of the franchise.

Now lottery tickets usually don’t work out, and that has generally been the case for the Grizzlies so far, even as they continue to acquire more. “Winning on the margins” is helpful, but it usually only leads to marginally greater success.

When they acquired Josh Jackson, a former 4th pick who projected as an athletic scoring wing coming out of college, as a throwaway in a trade centered on De’Anthony Melton, there was hope that he could grow into an impactful wing scorer next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Granted they never gave him much in the way of consistent opportunity, but he ultimately showed that he was never going to be that in Memphis.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Just a week ago, the Grizzlies flipped Patrick Beverley for Juancho Hernangomez and, most importantly, Jarrett Culver from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Culver is a former 6th pick who was thought to be an extremely skilled wing with size who could be impactful as a scorer, playmaker, and defender, but he has generally been awful so far in his two-year NBA career. Obviously, Minnesota is a hardly a perfect picture of talent development, so there’s at least some level of hope that he can become in Memphis some version of the all-around wing that he was supposed to be. And if he does — which again, is extremely unlikely — he could help elevate the team into another competitive tier.

If you want to get frisky the definition of “lottery ticket”, you can count Justise Winslow as well. Winslow may have been an established NBA role player before he came to Memphis, but he now represents yet another upside swing the Grizzlies have taken that has yielded no real practical benefit,

The Grizzlies now hope that Ziaire Williams will now be the lottery ticket that they can cash in to truly build a championship-level core. It’s maybe a little unfair to put him in the same category as Culver and Jackson since he hasn’t actually played in the NBA yet, and I believe he’ll be a better NBA player than either of them. But considering his generally poor performance in college, there’s plenty of reason to believe that he won’t work out, even as a top-10 pick. If he does, though, Memphis gains another piece to its championship puzzle and possibly even another star next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

NBA: Summer League-Memphis Grizzlies at Chicago Bulls Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

And as much uncertainty that Ziaire Williams may bring, it’s that same uncertainty that teams like the Grizzlies must embrace if they’re to beat the odds and win an NBA championship. Chances and risks must be taken. They must swing for the fences. And when they miss, they just need to swing with even more ambition the next time.

That’s the art of the lottery ticket in Memphis.

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