The Memphis Grizzlies will still make a run at the playoffs in the Western Conference, this season and for years to come. But no matter how successful the team is, there's no turning back the clock to 2009, when Memphis made a massive mistake by selecting UConn center Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick overall.
As a reminder, the following players were still on the board when Memphis took Thabeet off of it: James Harden, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, Gerald Henderson, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Ty Lawson, Darren Collison and others. All but two of those players are NBA starters; Harden is the top candidate for Sixth Man of the Year and Rubio is about one more big game from getting the nod over Luke Ridnour.
Thabeet, meanwhile, has played 11 minutes this season for a team starting Jordan Hill (another 2009 first-rounder) at center.
The Grizzlies cut ties with Thabeet quickly once it became apparent he didn't have the potential for near-term success; Memphis traded the Tanzanian big man to the Houston Rockets at the 2010 in-season deadline with a first-round pick and DeMarre Carroll for Shane Battier and Ish Smith. Battier ended up as a half-season rental; he served well as a reserve for Memphis as it made its first playoff run since the last time Battier was in town, but left the Grizzlies without compensation as a free agent in July.
Memphis' pick just to get rid of Thabeet and pick up Battier will be conveyed sometime between 2013 and 2016; it is lottery-protected throughout. That's just trouble on top of trouble. Meanwhile, Thabeet was the target of heavy amnesty clause speculation during the abbreviated offseason, and could very well find himself out of the league in another year's time. He's been nothing but a disappointment on the court. Meanwhile, the three players picked directly after him in 2009 could all have hardware by the end of the season, should No. 3 Harden win the Sixth Man and No. 5 Rubio join No. 4 pick Evans as a Rookie of the Year.
Maybe Memphis won't notice as Thabeet finds himself out of the league. But the Grizzlies won't be great forever, and blowing that crucial draft prevented Memphis from adding a key play that could take them over the hump. It's really similar to what the Detroit Pistons did to themselves in 2003 by taking Darko Milicic at No. 2 instead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or even Chris Kaman. Like Memphis, Detroit had immediate success regardless; a year after the fateful draft, the Pistons were NBA champions. Detroit would go on to nearly win another title in 2005 before losing in the next three conference finals series.
You could look at Detroit's run and say, "Eh, they didn't need that pick anyway." But just imagine how much better and longer that run would have been with one of stars the Pistons passed up. That's exactly what Memphis faces: the Grizz with Harden, Evans, Curry or even Rubio would be a better team today, and would be better two or three years from now than it was as a result of the Thabeet deal. The draft is such a crucial piece of team-building, and good teams almost never get such high picks. Detroit did in 2003 thanks to a trade, and Detroit blew it. Memphis got one just before the team's rise, and blew it. These are critical mistakes lost in the shuffle as we shift attention to the here and now.
The top of the draft has appeared to be a systemic problem for the current Grizzlies regime; Memphis has gotten great value down toward the bottom of the first round and into the second (Darrell Arthur, Greivis Vasquez, Sam Young) but poor value up top (headlined by Thabeet and Xavier Henry, who has also already been traded). Memphis had the right recipe to build a long-term contender -- salary flexibility, smart moves in the trade and free agent realms, lots of high draft picks. GM Chris Wallace aced the test when it came to free agency, landing Tony Allen for a pittance; trades worked out as well, as the Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph pick-ups show. But there's a gaping hole where another stud should be on this roster, a hole that prevents Memphis from riding with the Oklahoma City Thunder into the remainder of the decade. No matter how good the Grizzlies are going forward, we'll be reminded how good they could have been if only they hadn't fallen in love with height and picked someone, anyone but Hasheem Thabeet.
The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.