It is perhaps appropriate, given the state of the Memphis Grizzlies franchise, that the excitement and anticipation that greeted the team's acquisition of the number-two overall pick at last month's draft lottery has, in the following weeks, dissipated into anxiety and dread among what's left of the team's fan base.
A month ago, moving up from number six (their pre-lottery slot) to number two looked like a pretty good consolation prize in what was then thought to be a two-player draft. Now, a few days before the draft, things are not so simple.
It has become increasingly clear that the Grizzlies will not draft and keep Spanish moptop-teen point guard and passing prodigy Ricky Rubio with the second pick in the draft. Part of this may be because Rubio and his agent, Dan Fegan, have made it abundantly clear they have no interest in coming to Memphis. But this lack of interest also appears to be a two-way street. Essentially, the kid has no champions in the Grizzlies' war room.
Further, there are enough questions about Rubio — his legal issues with his Spanish team, his youth, his athletic limitations, and lack of scoring punch — that he's no longer being portrayed around the league as the obvious second-best prospect in the draft (following consensus top pick Blake Griffin).
I still think Rubio's franchise-altering potential warrants the number-two pick, but the Grizzlies apparently don't agree, and as the draft approaches, the likely scenarios are these: If the Grizzlies keep the pick they are highly likely to select UConn center Hasheem Thabeet, a 7'3" shot-blocking specialist with a raw offensive game. Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has wondered why he shouldn't take the big man for his defensively challenged team and apparently hasn't gotten a persuasive answer to that question. Thabeet — derided as "Thabust" by his most vociferous detractors — is a controversial pick among fans and media, but there appears to be as much consensus for him as anyone else among the team's decision-makers.
The competing scenario is a draft-day trade, with the Grizzlies presumably selecting Rubio or even Thabeet and moving them to another team (likely destinations: Minnesota, Sacramento, New York) for a package of multiple assets. My sense is that Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace is looking for a deal, with Thabeet as a fallback option.
The wildcard scenario is the Grizzlies throwing the whole draft for a loop by picking someone other than Thabeet or Rubio at number two. Arizona State guard James Harden has been presented as the prime contender in the national media, but I detect more enthusiasm among team insiders for Davidson's Stephen Curry and the University of Memphis' Tyreke Evans — both prime targets if the team ends up trading down.
The prospect of a Thabeet pick is disappointing: Shot-blocking is a limited attribute and Thabeet's lack of both clear offensive ability and a palpable mean streak suggests stardom is unlikely. Further, drafting Thabeet would mean using the team's best asset for a position where the team is already in decent shape (I'm not convinced Thabeet will be a better pro than incumbent Marc Gasol) and not addressing the team's two biggest needs: a more physical power forward and more perimeter firepower on the bench. This puts more pressure on the rest of the team's offseason, though maybe that's not such a bad thing.
The most encouraging thing about the looming draft is the prospect of the unknowable. A year ago, all of the talk heading into the draft was about discussions between the Grizzlies and Miami Heat for the number-two pick. What actually happened — dealing with Minnesota at number three for O.J. Mayo — was something no one outside the organization saw coming. Like last year, expect the team to be active — in discussion, at least — and for the options to begin narrowing only very close to the draft.
Whatever happens on draft night, it should only be the start to a vitally important offseason. The Grizzlies have money to spend this summer, but it's hard to find anyone around the league who believes Heisley is ready to open up his wallet. For a variety of reasons (more on this to come), this summer is the right time to spend. Will Heisley let the Grizzlies get back in the game? Fans — those who are left — should demand it