Grizzlies Draft Lottery History: The LeBron James Nightmare of 2003

SECAUCUS, NJ – MAY 22: Deputy commissioner of the NBA Russ Granik holds a card with the Memphis Grizzlies logo, meaning that the Grizzlies have the right to choose their draft pick, during the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery on May 22, 2003 in Secaucus, New Jersey. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2003 NBAE (Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images)

As the 2018 NBA Draft Lottery approaches, the Memphis Grizzlies are still haunted by 2003, when they narrowly missed drafting LeBron James.

 

The NBA Draft Lottery can be a night of both salvation and despair for NBA teams and their fans.

As 1,000 lottery balls precariously bounce around the confines of an uber-secured backroom, 14 franchises seeking redemption (or if you’re Boston, just being greedy) eagerly await their fate.

2018’s deep class has left lots of potential for teams atop the board, including the Memphis Grizzlies. Even if they don’t get their top choice, the options are still appealing. But an even deeper class set the stage for the most infamous moment in franchise history, when they literally lost a coin flip for LeBron James. 

The Scene

The year was 2003. Memphis was coming off a 28-54 mess of a season that only gave them a 6.4% shot at the top pick. This was important because the Grizzlies were due to fork over a first round pick to the Pistons from the 1997 Otis Thorpe trade. The only catch: the pick was first-overall protected.

2003 was no ordinary draft either. Instead of a Kwame Brown or Michael Olowokandi, first prize in this deep class was a heavily touted high-schooler named LeBron James, who’d go on to a pretty decent career. It was the literal definition of “all or nothing.” Memphis was locked into a franchise-altering gamble at the highest possible stakes, but cashing in seemed like a pipe dream.

The Lottery

The Draft Lottery was held on May 22 at Madison Square Garden, where so much about basketball has gone wrong in the past 20 years. Representing the Grizzlies on the dais was President of Basketball Operations Jerry West; Hall of Famer and NBA logo model. As a player, West lost to the Celtics roughly 7,000 times in the Finals, so he’d seen his share of disappointment on the big stage.

Then-deputy commissioner Russ Granik gradually revealed the selection order. A sense of anticipation began to build when the Clippers were announced in the Grizzlies’ spot – the #6 pick. One by one, Memphis continued to dodge their death knell, inching closer to LeBron. Miami at #5. Toronto at #4. Then the Denver Nuggets – owners of the best lotto odds – fell to #3.

It was suddenly down to the Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers. A 50% chance at LeBron James. This was actually happening.

But, of course, it didn’t. Granik yanked the retro Grizz logo out of the #2 envelope. No LeBron. No anything. A cliché like “so close and yet so far” seemed painfully insensitive.

Memphis relinquished the pick to the Pistons, who succumbed to Euro Big Man Dementia by taking Serbian center Darko Milicic. In essence, two teams didn’t get a draft pick that night.

The Fallout

Obviously the short-sighted trade set Memphis basketball back innumerable years. Even if LeBron wasn’t to be had, there were three other Hall of Famers drafted in the top five. The Grizz could’ve landed a worse pick and still transformed the franchise. Sure it was impossible to know this in 1997 – when the pick was traded – but that’s the point. As West told ESPN in 2013:

“For a trade that, when you look back in history, was made for whatever reason, it was hard to imagine that a trade like that would’ve been made and not protect a team that hadn’t proven its worth yet. I’m not going to bad mouth anybody but that was an ill-advised decision.”

As such, Memphis drifted through the NBA basement for a couple more seasons, before making playoff cameos in 2005 and ’06. Despite an All-Star in Pau Gasol, and proven role players like Shane Battier and Mike Miller, the Grizz didn’t find a consistent identity until the Grit N Grind era.

Things worked out OK in the end for the Pistons. Despite bombing the Darko pick, they won the 2004 NBA title and spent much of the aughts among the NBA’s best teams.

And as for LeBron, well, we’re sure you’re aware of what he’s been up to.

There’s no telling how it could’ve played out differently. In an alternate universe, maybe Dwyane Wade is a Grizzlies icon. Maybe Iverson and Melo play together in Memphis. Maybe LeBron ends up in the West before ever having a choice in the matter.

But despite endless hypothetical outcomes, the lesson is clear: there are ways a deep draft can go awry, especially when it comes to trading picks. Thankfully, Memphis will get to choose their own fate with favorable odds in 2018, before playing Russian Roulette with their first rounder again next year.