What if: the 2003 NBA Draft, LeBron James and the Memphis Grizzlies
On May 22, 2003, the Memphis Grizzlies lost out on a prized possession that would’ve changed their entire future: No. 1 pick, LeBron James.
Picture this: On the 22nd of May 2003, the NBA lottery went down to two teams—the Cleveland Cavaliers, being represented by Gordon Gund, and the Memphis Grizzlies, represented by the logo himself, Jerry West. This was a defining moment for two franchises. Cleveland with the chance to take the hometown icon, or another achievement in West’s career as a general manager by making the Grizzlies contenders for years to come by bringing in LeBron James.
In reality, the No. 1 pick went to Cleveland, and Memphis lost out on the second pick due to a pre-existing trade from 1997 (for some reason, the Grizzlies traded away a top-1 protected pick for Otis Thorpe. He stayed as Grizzly for one season).
Now it’s time to play the ‘what-if’ game. What if Memphis got some extra added luck and got the No. 1 pick? What would happen to all the LeBron James-to-Cleveland conspiracies? All will be covered when I play this ‘what-if’ game looking into the Grizzlies’ future for seven years.
And before I begin, the Grizzlies obviously take LeBron.
In reality, the Grizzlies had a 50-win season with Pau Gasol cementing his stardom and becoming one of the best bigs in the game with Hubie Brown as coach (supposedly an amazing coach who had a 49 percent win percentage). The Grizzlies looked very good, but they could’ve been even better.
James would’ve made an instant impact the same way he did with Cleveland. But with even bigger improvements to the team. For example, the Cavs’ pace slowed down when Lebron joined (94 to 90.8 possessions per game), however, their offensive rating went up +4.9 (96.5 to 101.4) and their defensive rating dropped -2.5 (106.7 to 104.2).This made the Cavs go from the worst team in the league to ninth in the East, all on the back of LeBron.
Now with Memphis, they were already a really good team. They ended the season as the sixth seed in the West, but were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. In terms of win shares per 48 minutes, the Grizzlies totaled 55 wins (reality was 50). If we add LeBron’s rookie year W/S per 48, and do the same difference between projected win shares and actual wins (10 percent difference) in theory, the Grizzlies would’ve won 58 games. This in turn makes Memphis the joint top seed (with the Timberwolves) and gives them a much easier match-up in the playoffs.
If the rest of the NBA stayed the same in terms of wins, the Grizzlies would’ve faced the Nuggets in the first round, being led by another star rookie, Carmelo Anthony. The Grizzlies would’ve overpowered them with LeBron over Melo and Gasol over Nene making it smooth sailing. Then onto their real test, the Spurs. In reality, they were knocked out by the Spurs via sweep. In the said series, the Grizzlies couldn’t play their style of offense with only Gasol averaging over 15 points per game. However, LeBron would’ve changed that. Changed it enough to beat the Spurs? Probably not. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were just too damn good that series for a LeBron-led Memphis to beat them.
James made the Grizz a much better team in his first season.
Reality: 50-32, swept in first round
LeBron: 63-19, lose in second round
In reality, the Grizzlies had a bit of a slump due to slowing down their pace (91.4 to 88.5) and also due to Pau Gasol missing 26 regular season games and with only glorified role players surrounding him: Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Jason Williams. The Grizzlies couldn’t do better than the eighth seed.
For Lebron James, this was his ‘coming-out’ season. With his win shares nearly tripling (5.1 to 14.3), a 7.4 increase in PER (18.3 to 25.7), and a 27.2/7.4/7.2 season, LeBron had made it as an NBA superstar. In terms of no stats being able to completely work in hypotheticals, Lebron’s increase of win shares (9.2) have been added to the Grizzlies’ record.
This would’ve left the Grizzlies at 54-28 record, good for fifth in the West. With this standing, they would have faced off against the Mavericks in the first round. In reality, the Mavs were taken to seven games by the Houston Rockets with inspired performances from Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. In fiction, Memphis would’ve topped the Mavs due to lack of defensive depth on LeBron and Gasol.
On to the second round.
Memphis would’ve faced the Phoenix Suns, the team it lost to in reality in the first round. And it would’ve stayed that way. Steve Nash was on fire in the regular season and playoffs and there’s no way Jason Williams could stay in front of him.
LeBron had become a superstar, but this Grizzlies team was getting better due to his presence.
Reality: 45-37, swept in first round
Lebron: 54-28, lose in 6 in second round
The next few years…
For the next few years in this hypopthetical, LeBron and the new-look Grizzlies won’t have won a championship and they wouldn’t be a fully-fledged contender till 2009.
Pau Gasol doesn’t get traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. This is due to Jerry West believing he has a contender with LeBron and Pau together and doesn’t see the need to rebuild.
Draft changes: In 2006 the Grizzlies selected Rudy Gay. In this hypothetical, there was no point drafting Gay. They’d still go along with the Battier trade for the eigth pick, but instead they would take J.J. Redick, needing another shooter next to LeBron to pair up on the wings with Miller. This would make the Grizzlies fully small-ball with Lebron at the 4 with two shooters next to him.
Another draft change will have happened in 2007. In real life, the Grizzlies had a horrible season and ending up with the fourth overall pick. But with James and Redick (minus Gay), they would have been drafting near the end of the first round and with a need at point guard still, Aaron Brooks likely would’ve become a Grizzly.
For the next draft (‘08) The Grizzlies would’ve still been drafting near the end rather than the top. In this hypothetical with a plethora of shooting around LeBron they would’ve stuck with that in ‘08 and taken Ryan Anderson near the end of the draft (taken 21st in reality).
2008-09 season: the year of LeBron James
This season was going to be it for the Grizzlies. With a core of Brooks, Redick, Miller, James, Anderson and Gasol, they (would’ve been) poised to break out.
This season, in real life, was the season of LeBron James. Most notably the playoffs of LeBron when he steamrolled the Pistons, Hawks, and getting close to dominating the Magic. The reason he didn’t win that year was down to a lack of support.
Enter the new Grizzlies.
Besides LeBron James having his all-time great season, Redick started playing much better on limited minutes (would’ve started in this hypothetical), Anderson had a good rookie season with great shooting and Gasol had grown into a leadership role on the championship winning Lakers side.
Another thing to take into account is certain players not being on the other good teams that year. Pau was no longer on the Lakers dealing a huge blow to their championship abilities. Redick and Anderson not being on the Magic destroys their depth. Even Aaron Brooks not being on the Rockets causes a blow.
To cut a long story short, the Grizzlies would’ve replaced the Lakers in this season and in turn would go on to win a championship. LeBron winning MVP and Finals MVP, essentially taking Kobe Bryant’s position that year of being the best player in the league.
The Grizzlies finally win a ring and LeBron starts his haul in 2009 rather than 2012. Gasol wins a ring on the team he was drafted on, becoming one of the best Grizzlies of all-time. Mike Miller, J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson’s contributions kickstart the small-ball system of floor spacing being essential.
The 2009 season would’ve been a fun one.
Do they become a dynasty?
Now Grizzlies fans, you must be asking, what about “The Decision?” This could’ve still been a problem. It all would’ve been down to the ‘09-’10 season. If LeBron James repeated, there’s no doubt in my mind he stays.
Heck, he even might’ve brought Dwyane Wade to the Grizzlies.
Therefore Grizzlies fans, keep the ‘03 draft lottery conspiracies going, Jerry West should have had the No. 1 one pick, brought the city of Memphis a championship and maybe even created a dynasty.
However we will never know.
Blame David Stern and his conspiracies, man.
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