But the story of the day for the Grizzlies isn't tonight's game or even the team's weakening grasp on the playoff race. It's the assignment of #2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet to the NBA Developmental League's Dakota Wizards, with whom he's scheduled to play tonight.
This latest turn in what has been a disappointing rookie season for Thabeet has spurred another look at how the team came to draft Thabeet. (A pick that, it should be noted, was fairly widely questioned locally but not particularly denigrated around the country, with the Grizzlies getting pretty good "draft grades" from most national sites.)
The media narrative that has emerged around the pick goes something like this: That General Manager Chris Wallace preferred Tyreke Evans at #2. Player Personnel Director Tony Barone Sr. favored Thabeet. Scouting Director Tony Barone Jr. was pushing Stephen Curry. And Assistant General Manager Kenny Williamson and Head Coach Lionel Hollins were either leaning Curry or not pushing hard for anyone in particular, depending on which account you believe.
Based on what I know, I'd say that narrative is reasonably accurate, but also somewhat misleading. In assigning one — and only one — favored prospect to each of the team's decision makers, the narrative gives the false impression of all-or-nothing conflict over the pick. For instance, I don’t think anyone in the local media knows with absolute certainty that Chris Wallace would have taken Evans if left alone to make the pick. I know he liked Evans very much and suspect he had Evans atop his personal list. I also believe that he liked both Thabeet and James Harden. (On Curry, I'm not sure.) Similarly, while others in the room may have had a preference for one player or another, that doesn't mean they were outwardly opposed to other picks.
In the end, with the team warned off Ricky Rubio, and no good trade offers on the table for moving off the pick, it seems the decision came down to three players: Thabeet, Evans, and Curry. With Evans and Curry playing so well this season, it's easy to forget the real questions surrounding both players prior to the draft. With Evans, there was a concern about his need to dominate the ball and how that would fit in a backcourt with either Mike Conley or O.J. Mayo. With Curry — whom few outside the Griz draft room ever took seriously as a potential #2 pick — there was a question about adding another small guard to what was already an undersized backcourt. (Harden doesn't seem to have been as seriously considered, likely because drafting him would have necessitated developing Mayo more as a point guard, something the coaching staff has been very reluctant to do. Also, Harden had a particularly shaky workout with the team.) And so, with legitimate questions about all of the guards under consideration, Thabeet emerged as the closest thing to a consensus pick in the room.
Of course, there was another person involved in this decision, and that's majority owner Michael Heisley, who has made it clear that he's the ultimate decision maker on all major transactions. ESPN.com's Chad Ford reported immediately after last summer's draft-lottery drawing that the Grizzlies were likely to take Thabeet, with Heisley pushing him over the objections of the basketball staff. I did not then and do not now think that's entirely accurate, but I do think Heisley's instinct all along was to take Thabeet.
One media assertion, courtesy of Commercial Appeal beat writer Ron Tillery, is that Barone Sr. "talked Heisley into" taking Thabeet. I think it's fair to implicate Barone Sr. in the Thabeet pick, as I do believe he was the biggest Thabeet booster among the top decision-makers. But I think the suggestion that Barone Sr. convinced Heisley to select Thabeet is probably too strong; it suggests that someone else was making a strong case against the Thabeet pick, and I haven't seen any indication that that's the case. My understanding is that Heisley didn't need to be talked "into" taking Thabeet, but rather that he would have needed to be talked "out of" taking him. Thabeet was going to be Heisley's pick unless persuaded otherwise. With no strong consensus forming around any of the guards, that never happened.
My biggest problem with the pick was that it was rooted in a misguided assessment of the roster — underrating Marc Gasol as a starting center going forward and underrating the need for more backcourt help even if Mike Conley had fully panned out.
But I didn't think that Thabeet couldn't be a significant player. I still don't think that. His shot-blocking is legitimate. He's rebounded better than his college production indicated. He's athletic enough to be an offense threat as a finisher around the basket even without a post game or a jumper. He was a bad pick at #2 and a bad pick specifically for the Grizzlies. A little bit lower in the lottery for a team needing a center, he would have been a very reasonable pick.
The key for Thabeet is the work ethic and desire to get better, and his performance this season raises serious questions on those fronts. Hopefully getting sent to the D League will wake him up a little. And hopefully the presumably significant game action will be helpful.
I like what True Hoop had to say today about the assignment. There shouldn't be a stigma about sending a player to the developmental league. That's what it's for. I'd like to see it used more by NBA teams and expanded into something more like a true minor league.