Let's be honest: If a less fawned-over basketball executive than Jerry West had presided over the Memphis Grizzlies' draft last week, there might be a recall movement under way that would draw sympathy from Gray Davis. As it is, though many fans still cling to the happy myth that West is an infallible genius who works in mysterious ways, there have been plenty of questions. National media outlets such as ESPN.com have lambasted the Grizzlies' draft, and West's picks have spurred a war of words between true believers and skeptics on Grizzlies chat boards.
West's decision to trade out of the lottery on draft night, while debatable, isn't necessarily a bad move.
As perplexed as most Grizzlies fans likely were on draft night, the team's moves look a little better with a few days' perspective. Though West did indeed draft Boston College guard Troy Bell and Duke swingman Dahntay Jones significantly higher than any prognosticators had envisioned, those accusing West of trading two first-round picks for second-round talent are probably being unfair. This was a deep draft in which qualitative distinctions between picks 15-35 were highly debatable, and Bell and Jones were solidly in the first-round mix. The way the draft panned out became a worst-case scenario for the Grizzlies, with none of the likely picks for the team sliding to the Grizzlies' draft slot at 13. With no clear pick at 13 and the cost of trading up in the draft apparently prohibitive, West's decision to trade down -- moving down three spots from 13 but up seven spots from 27 -- seems sound.
Fans may legitimately wonder how Bell and Jones fit into what seems to be a crowded backcourt picture. Bell became the team's fourth small guard under contract, joining starter Jason Williams and backups Brevin Knight and Earl Watson. The book on Bell is that he's an explosive scorer and big-time athlete whose ability to handle the point at the next level is questionable. Bell could be another Bobby Jackson -- the fearless reserve guard for the Sacramento Kings. He could also be another Will Solomon -- the big-scoring combo guard from a major conference who failed to pan out as a Griz rookie a couple of years ago.
Bell graded out as the best pure athlete at the Chicago pre-draft camp, where he also showed his ability to man the point, but with the Grizzlies he may not have to. Head coach Hubie Brown intimated that he's likely to pair Bell with Watson as the second-team backcourt, turning a style born out of necessity last season, when Gordan Giricek was traded and Michael Dickerson failed to come back from injury, into a choice.
"Last year, we played Watson and Knight together and proved that you can play a small backcourt, but you have to press," Brown observed. The implication is that if Watson and Knight could discombobulate opposing backcourts with a pressing and trapping style, then substituting Bell, who is a little bigger than Knight but just as quick, will make the gambit even more effective. And Bell's deeper range and penchant for getting to the line (where he's been a near-90-percent shooter) will add needed offensive juice to the second unit.
As for Jones, a 6'6" super-athlete with a so-so outside stroke, it would seem he'll be stuck behind Bell and Shane Battier, who figure to be the backup wings (behind Wesley Person and Mike Miller). But Jones, at least potentially, is such a lock-down defender that one imagines Brown will find a way to get him on the floor.
"[Jones is] a highlight film, but he must improve his range from 17 feet out," Brown said. "But we have a guy here who specializes in that." The guy in question is assistant coach Hal Wissel, a shooting specialist brought aboard by Brown last season.
But it's hard to envision either Bell or Jones ever becoming a star, and perhaps that's the source of the frustration so many Grizzlies fans have expressed. Bell and Jones, while surprising picks, are safe ones, reminiscent of West's decision to draft Drew Gooden over bigger-risk/bigger-reward athletes such as Nene Hilario and Amare Stoudamire last season. These are "class and character" guys, as West said the day after the draft, but they're also role players, and 28-win teams need more than good role players to turn the corner.
What's next? With the mid-level exception (about $4.8 million) and over $17 million in expiring contracts in the form of Knight, Person, and Stromile Swift, the Grizzlies could probably be a significant player in the trade and free- agent markets. The question is whether to try and make a splash now or stand pat and maximize cap room for next off-season. But that's a different column.