Now that the dust has settled on last week's NBA draft, longtime Grizzlies fans could be forgiven for not recognizing their team.
The dismantling of a team that suffered through three consecutive playoff sweeps from 2004 to 2006 began at the '06 draft, when Jerry West wisely jettisoned local object of worship Shane Battier to bet on the all-star upside of incoming rookie Rudy Gay. The process followed the next summer when the team selected Mike Conley with the fourth pick, adding some needed oomph to a point-guard core that had included stale veterans Damon Stoudamire, Chucky Atkins, and Bobby Jackson.
But, this February, new general manager Chris Wallace decided to accelerate the process, wiping the $48 million owed to franchise centerpiece Pau Gasol off the books in exchange for two prospects (rookie guard Javaris Crittenton and Gasol's rapidly improving little brother, Marc), two picks, and financial freedom. The deal was wildly ridiculed at the time, but as Pau's mammoth contract increases and the Grizzlies acquisitions mature over the next three seasons, I suspect the verdict on the deal will change.
The demolition was completed last week, when Wallace paired holdover Mike Miller with the team's number-five pick to acquire the third-rated player in the draft: USC guard O.J. Mayo, a player widely compared to such current NBA stars as Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups, and Brandon Roy. As a bonus, the number-28 pick acquired from the Lakers for Gasol turned into Darrell Arthur, the Kansas power forward who dominated the University of Memphis frontline in the college national championship game and slid in the draft based on erroneous reports of a kidney ailment. The Grizzlies had Arthur rated as the 11th best prospect in the draft.
So, little more than a year after taking charge of a capped-out loser led by a core duo of well-compensated and pushing-30 post-season underachievers in Gasol and Miller, the much-maligned Wallace has completely remade the Grizzlies. The lone holdover from the final playoff run is forward Hakim Warrick, the senior Grizzly at age 25.
Wallace claimed after the draft that his team now has as good a collection of young talent as any in the league, and the facts bear him out. Barring trades, the Grizzlies are likely to go into next season with the following players all potentially in the rotation: Conley (age 20), Crittenton (20), Mayo (20), Arthur (20), Gay (21), Kyle Lowry (22), Darko Milicic (23), and Marc Gasol (23).
That's eight core contributors age 23 and under. The only other team in the NBA that boasts a collection of young talent as deep and (okay, more) promising is the Portland Trailblazers. No other team really comes close, with the Bulls, Hawks, Warriors, and Timberwolves all having four significant under-23 players on their roster.
It's the deepest and potentially best collection of talent in franchise history, a group bursting with athleticism, upside, and the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. The team also has money to spend right now and potentially much more in 2009 if they refrain from long-term free-agent contracts this summer (as I would expect).
But there are also important qualities this assemblage lacks: experience, proven commodities, a balance of skills. All of the team's guards are used to handling the ball, not playing without it. None of the team's power forwards are proven power players. There is clearly work to be done. A final product won't take the floor until at least the fall of 2009.
Unless the Grizzlies sign Methuselah in free agency, this is likely to rival Portland as the youngest team in the league and without the experience playing together Portland's core got a year ago. And, typically, very young teams in the NBA lose — in bunches.
It would be helpful to think of this year's Grizzlies as an unusually promising expansion squad: year one of a brand-new team. But, with back-to-back 22-win seasons having followed three straight playoff sweeps, do Grizzlies fans have the patience for growing pains? Can the palpable and desperately needed post-draft excitement generated by the Mayo acquisition survive the certain-to-be-rough early patches these baby Grizzlies are going to face? For that matter, can owner Michael Heisley — astutely preaching a long-term plan focused on eventually winning big — accept the bumps along the way? Can Coach Marc Iavaroni, already seemingly on shaky ground, survive a bad start?
Those questions won't begin to be answered until November. Until then, Grizzlies fans can bask in something that's been in too-short supply over the past few seasons: hope.