I previously published an article offering my analysis and opinion of whether the Detroit Pistons should have drafted Carmelo Anthony with the second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. They did not. The question is interesting for several reasons. The Pistons had a 50-32 record in 2002-2003 and, as we know with hindsight, would go on to win the NBA Championship without the services of Mr. Anthony in 2003-04. However, they did so with almost all no input from the player they actually selected second, Darko Milicic (who would be traded in the middle of his third season with the Pistons after receiving little playing time). Meanwhile, Mr. Anthony went on to play for 18 seasons, finishing 11th all time on the NBA’s scoring list and winning numerous other accolades in his likely Hall of Fame career.

In this article, I will focus on a specific issue – how exactly did the Pistons, who not only made the playoffs in 2002-2003, but who also finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and tied for the fifth best record in the NBA, end up with the second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft? Each year, the NBA conducts a lottery among the teams that missed the playoffs the previous year (13 teams in 2003), and the Pistons were obviously not among those teams.

As I will explain, the road to the Pistons having the second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft began with the Detroit Pistons trading a veteran power forward to the then-Vancouver Grizzlies for what turned out to be a distant-future first round pick falling between spots 2 and 18.

Note on the Grizzlies’ Name

The Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis beginning in the 2001-02 NBA season. In this article, I will use Vancouver when referring to the pre-01-02 Grizzlies and Memphis for later Grizzlies teams. Note that both Vancouver and Memphis refer to the same Grizzlies franchise.

The Draft Lottery Generally

The NBA has conducted a draft lottery consisting of all of the teams that missed the playoffs in the previous season since 1985.[1] The lottery, in conjunction with the records of the teams in the lottery, determines the draft order. The formula has changed over the years – I will only discuss in detail the system that was in use in 2003.

The NBA had 29 teams in 2003. 16 of the 29 teams made the playoffs, leaving 13 teams to participate in the lottery.[2] The NBA Draft is thus weighted in favor of bad teams. Under the lottery system, the team with the worst record had a 25.00% chance of winning the number one pick while the team with the best record of the 13 had a 0.50% chance of winning the number one pick.

A team’s chance of winning the lottery was thus inversely proportional to its record. Two teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets, tied for the NBA’s worst record of 17-65 in 2002-03, so they each had 22.50% odds of winning the top pick. Another important point to note is that the only picks that moved in the lottery were in the top three. For example, a team from outside the top three odds could move into the top three through trades, thus displacing every team between it and the position indicated by its record. However, it was not possible, for example, for the team with the eighth best odds to move up to the sixth pick. Teams either moved into the top three or they remained in the position corresponding to their season records (unless pushed down by another team moving into the top three).

Per Real GM, the 2003 lottery odds were as follows (listed in order of probability of winning the lottery)[3]:

RecordTeam Odds
17-65Cleveland Cavaliers22.50%
17-65Denver Nuggets22.50%
24-58Toronto Raptors15.70%
25-57Miami Heat12.00%
28-54Los Angeles Clippers8.90%
28-54Memphis Grizzlies6.40%
30-52Chicago Bulls4.40%
35-47Atlanta Hawks2.90%
37-45New York Knicks1.50%
37-45Washington Wizards1.40%
38-44Golden State Warriors0.70%
40-42Seattle SuperSonics0.60%
43-39Houston Rockets0.50%

As you will note, the Pistons were not among the lottery teams. So, how did the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference end up with the number two pick in the following NBA Draft without even being part of the draft lottery?

The 2003 NBA Draft Lottery aired at halftime of game three of the Eastern Conference Finals[4], which fittingly featured the Detroit Pistons (albeit they were en route to losing the series in a four-game sweep by the New Jersey Nets). We will return to the lottery after explaining how exactly the Pistons had a stake in the event at all. It is a strange story highlighting the dangers of poor foresight. In order to understand the story, we must turn back the clock to 1997.

The Pistons trade Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies

In the 1996-1997 NBA season, then-Detroit Pistons Coach Doug Collins had a rocky relationship with Otis Thorpe, a veteran power forward.[5] After concluding that the relationship was beyond repair, the Pistons looked to trade Mr. Thorpe in the off-season.

Mr. Thorpe was a good player who had a fine career. His accomplishments included one season averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, being selected to the 1991-92 NBA All Star Game, and being a starter on the 1993-94 NBA champion Houston Rockets.[6] He was still a solid starter and at 34 years of age in the 1996-97 season.[7]

Mr. Thorpe turned 35 before the start of the 1997-98 season. While he was still a solid player who could start for many teams, he was nearing the end of his career. Given where Mr. Thorpe was in his career going into the 97-98 season, one may imagine that the type of a team that would be most interested in making a strong trade offer would be a good team that viewed Mr. Thorpe as filling a need. Were the Pistons to take a low-ball offer, one could see some young teams making a play for Mr. Thorpe as a veteran presence at the right price.

Enter the Vancouver Grizzles!

The Vancouver Grizzlies (now Memphis Grizzlies) only became an NBA team in 1995-96. The team finished 15-67 in its inaugural season and followed that up with a 14-68 showing in 1996-97.[8][9] The Grizzlies’ did not make any significant changes after their league-worst showing in 96-97 beyond the addition of the fourth pick in the draft, Antonio Daniels, who would be traded after a single season to the San Antonio Spurs, where he would earn a championship ring.[10]

I offer this context to make clear that the only thing the Grizzlies were expected to compete for in the 1997-98 season was draft lottery odds. They were not close to being a playoff team, much less a good team.

You can see where this is going. The following passage comes from a report published on August 7, 1997:[11]

The Detroit Pistons sent F Otis Thorpe to the Vancouver Grizzlies in exchange for a conditional first round draft pick.

The key will turn out to be “conditional first round draft pick.” The author of the report declared Vancouver the winner of the trade because Mr. Thorpe would provide veteran leadership to the Grizzlies, and Vancouver would go into the 1997-98 season as “the only team to have 3 rebounders rank in the top 40 last season.”[11] (Note that there is no recognition of the potential for diminishing rebounding returns;)

The wording of the article betrays the fact that many NBA teams and commentators did not correctly grasp the value of draft picks back in the 1990s, especially draft picks of teams like the Grizzlies which were unambiguously slated for at least a few seasons of lousy records and high draft picks. Vancouver, being a poor team playing in Canada, was unlikely to suddenly turn its fortunes around by luring a star free agent. Its best path to finding a franchise-changing player was with one of its high draft picks.

(Moreover, beginning especially after the 1998-99 NBA lockout, draft picks gained additional value because of rookie salary scales limiting how much they earn for several seasons and thus how much they count against the team salary cap.)

Before we examine what precisely is meant by “conditional first round draft pick,” one may wonder how the trade worked out on the court for Vancouver. Mr. Thorpe proved to still be a solid player and he posted only slightly worse (but similar enough) numbers in Vancouver than what he had produced in Detroit in the previous season.[12] The Grizzlies next traded Mr. Thorpe to the Sacramento Kings in the middle of the season after Mr. Thorpe had played 47 games for Vancouver in a deal which did not leave much of a mark on either team.[6] In terms of team success, the Grizzlies finished the 1997-98 season with a 19-63 record, which was remarkably only the fifth worst record in a season which saw six of the NBA’s 29 teams finish with 20 wins or fewer (led by the 11-71 Denver Nuggets).[13][14]

The “conditions” on that first round pick

The Vancouver Grizzlies traded a future first round pick for 47 games of a 35-year old power forward in a season the team finished with a record of 19-63. This looks bad on the surface. But if you did not already know how this story ends, you may think that surely the Grizzlies, who were run by professional basketball executives, would have ensured that this future first round pick had adequate protections. After all, Mr. Thorpe was 35 years old and the Pistons made clear that it wanted to trade him due to a conflict with Coach Doug Collins. Perhaps the Pistons were looking to off-load Mr. Thorpe’s contract and had accepted a pick that they were unlikely to ever receive. Let us see on Basketball Reference:[6]

August 7, 1997: [Otis Thorpe] traded by the Detroit Pistons to the Vancouver Grizzlies for a [conditional 1st round pick]. 1st-rd pick … protected and required to land between pick 2 and 18, conveying by 2003 at the latest.

Oh no.

That is bad.

That is very bad.

In short, the Grizzlies were obligated to send to the Pistons a first round pick between positions 2 and 18 inclusive. The Grizzlies were required to send this pick by 2003. That is, if the Grizzlies had a pick falling between 2 and 18, it could decide whether to send the pick to the Pistons in that draft or put off the requirement for another year. But in 2003, the Grizzlies would no longer be allowed to kick the can down the road. In the event the Grizzlies put it off until 2003 and the pick in 2003 could not be conveyed (due to not falling between spots 2 and 18), it would turn into a trade of a second round pick by the Grizzlies to the Pistons in rhe 2004 lottery.

Jerry West, one of the NBA’s finest executives, took over the Grizzlies in 2002 after being the architect of many Los Angeles Lakers championship teams. Mr. West had this to say about the Grizzlies losing the second pick in the 2003 draft in the worst way possible due to a poorly-conceived trade in 1997:[13]

For a trade that, when you look back in history, was made for whatever reason, it was hard to imagine that a trade like that would’ve been made and not protect a team that hadn’t proven its worth yet. I’m not going to bad mouth anybody but that was an ill-advised decision.

Jerry West

(Note: We too will refrain from badmouthing Mr. Stu Jackson for the Otis Thorpe trade.)

Mr. West hits on a key point here. The Vancouver Grizzlies not only had no business trading in a vacuum a first round pick for a 35-year-old nearing the end of a career, the team also failed to do its due diligence in protecting the pick. As I noted, the Grizzlies were an awful team going into the 97-98 season, and the team had no obvious (i.e., any) prospects for immediate playoff contention. This is what Mr. West was referencing when he said that the Grizzlies did “not protect a team that hadn’t proven its worth yet.” To be clear, even if the Grizzlies had made the playoffs before 2003 in just the right way and managed to convey a non-lottery pick between 14-18, it would have still been a terrible trade. Given that the trade was made for 47 games of a player on a 19-63 team, it would have been a bad trade for Vancouver even if the deal flipped over to a second round pick in 2004. But the fact that the Grizzlies made so little effort to protect the pick that it left even a possibility that the team would have to surrender the second overall pick six years later defies comprehension.

This is not the sort of thing one can only see with hindsight – it was an objectively terrible trade when it was made. The issue is not whether Mr. Thorpe was still a solid player in 1997-98 who could help a team. It was that there was no scenario that what he would be able to do for a very young, very bad Grizzlies team slated to finish with one of the worst records would ever begin to justify a giving up a future first round pick. The only minor defense one could grant, assuming arguendo Grizzlies’ management was thinking about the future at all in 1997-98, is that perhaps management gambled that they would field a competitive team well before 2003. However, as we will see, this is not how things turned out.

The tale of the Grizzlies’ first-round pick

An article on NBA Trades explained how exactly the pick-conveying worked in practice.[14] The NBA Draft lottery is always held in May. If the Grizzlies ended up with a pick between 2 and 18 in a given year from 1998-2002, the team was required to notify the Pistons whether it was opting either to keeping the pick or convey the pick to the Pistons. Had the Grizzlies conveyed a qualifying pick in any one of these years, the conditions of the trade would have been fulfilled before 2003. As we explained in the previous section, if the Grizzlies did not convey the pick prior to 2003, then the Grizzlies were required to convey the pick in 2003 – provided that it fell between spots 2 and 18.

As you can probably now guess, the Grizzlies kept their own pick from 1998-2002. See their top selections below:

DraftRecordPickSelectionFtn
199819-632Mike Bibby15
19998-422Steve Francis16
200022-602Stromile Swift17
200123-596Shane Battier18
200223-504Drew Gooden19

(Note: The Grizzlies were not eligible to win the lottery until 1999. Thus, the team’s chance of earning the top pick in 95-96, 96-97, and 97-98 was 0%. The same restriction applied to the other 1995-96 expansion team, the Toronto Raptors.)

Because all of the Grizzlies 1998-2002 picks fell between 2 and 6, the team had to notify the Pistons by June 1 in five consecutive years that it was keeping its draft pick.

In hindsight, one may wonder why the Grizzlies did not convey the pick before 2003 and avert disaster. However, unlike with the 1997 Thorpe trade, this is a case where hindsight is 20/20. The Grizzlies finished with terrible records in the five seasons at issue, and the team’s struggles resulted in high draft picks. I sincerely doubt that any team would have willingly surrendered a top six pick to forestall a hypothetical in 2003.

The Grizzlies draft record was so-so. Mike Bibby turned out to be a good point guard, albeit his notable accomplishments came after the Grizzlies traded him to Sacramento before the 2001-02 season. Steve Francis was an upper-echelon point guard for the first several years of his career before injuries piled up, but he refused to play for the Grizzlies and was traded to the Houston Rockets before the start of his rookie season. Stromile Swift had a nondescript career but was a part of the Grizzlies rotation for a number of seasons. Both Shane Battier and Drew Gooden had solid careers, with the former notably playing a key role on the 2011-12 and 12-13 Miami Heat championship teams.

The Grizzlies’ best draft-day move did not involve its own pick. In the 2001 Draft where the Grizzlies took Mr. Battier with the sixth pick, the team made a deal with the Atlanta Hawks for rights to their third pick, a certain Pau Gasol.[20] It was the selection of Mr. Gasol which laid the groundwork for the Grizzlies’ first winning season and playoff appearance in 2003-04, which was followed by two more. The Grizzlies traded Mr. Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2007-08 season (whereupon he was Lakers’ second-best player on their 2008-09 and 09-10 Championship teams, and in my view should have been named NBA Finals MVP in 2010). That trade returned a package highlighted by the draft rights to Mr. Gasol’s brother, Marc Gasol, which set the stage for many strong Grizzlies teams in the 2010s.

With perfect hindsight, the Grizzlies’ best opportunity to fulfill their obligation to Detroit would have been in 2000, which was one of the weakest drafts in modern NBA history. But as I noted above, I doubt that any team, even the most forward-thinking, well-managed team, would have surrendered the second overall pick to guard against an uncertain bad future outcome. Ideally, having top-six picks in five consecutive drafts in addition to trading for the best player in the 2001 draft would have yielded a competitive roster in 2002-03 which would have either ensured that the pick conveyed to Detroit was outside the lottery (14-18) or not conveyed at all.

But things do not always work out.

The 2003 NBA Draft Lottery

The Grizzlies finished the 2002-2003 NBA season with a then-franchise best 28-54 record. While 28-54 set a new high-water mark for the franchise, one can do the math and see that this was still a poor record.[21]

The bottom of the NBA was quite a bit better than it had been in 1997-98, so 28-54 was good for the sixth-best lottery odds, a 6.4% chance of winning the top pick.[3] Of course, due to the ill-fated August 1997 Otis Thorpe trade, there were only two draft scenarios for the Grizzlies:

PickOddsOutcome
16.4%Keep pick and select LeBron James
2-3 or 6-893.6%Pick must be conveyed to Detroit

(There is a minor technicality to the Grizzlies’ odds. Memphis owned Houston’s pick as a result of the 1999 Steve Francis trade. Unfortunately for Memphis, Houston had missed the playoffs with a 43-39 record, and thus had the worst – 0.5% – chance of winning the top pick. As expected, Houston did not move into the top three and thus stayed at 13.)

The Grizzlies were on the upswing. The front office was now led by Mr. West, one of the NBA’s finest executives, and the team had several promising young players, chief among them Mr. Pau Gasol. Imagine adding a young player from what looked to be a strong draft class. Alas, thanks to that very poor 1997 trade, there was a 93.6% chance that the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons, would be making the Grizzlies’ selection instead.

That the Grizzlies’ moment came in 2003 added some extra drama. Although the 2003 draft class featured many strong players, there was little doubt that LeBron James, who had just completed his senior year of high school, would be the first pick regardless of the lottery outcome. Mr. James was touted as the best high school prospect since Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the 1960s, and as we know, he has lived up to the impossibly high expectations set for him.

Mr. West knew that the odds of a miracle – that 6.4% chance yielding the number one pick and LeBron James – were small. It was through no fault of his own – while Mr. West was busy building the foundation for three Lakers championship teams, the Grizzlies had been mortgaging their future for a 35-year old power forward. One might think that Mr. West would not want to be sitting in a television studio with a camera trained on him for something that had a 93.6% chance of ending poorly. But either in a bout of hope or masochism, Mr. West decided to personally represent the Grizzlies at the live-on-TV draft lottery.[13]

Would there be a miracle? When the deputy commissioner revealed the sixth pick, it was shown to be the Los Angeles Clippers instead of the Memphis Grizzlies. This meant that the Grizzlies had some luck – they moved up from the sixth position into the top three.

Mr. West said of the moment:[13]

You’re sitting there scared to death that we’re not going to have our pick and you’re begging, “Please let us have this pick.” We all knew what was at stake for us. Then you see that you’ve moved up and your heart goes into your throat a little.

Jerry West

The only three teams that had yet to be called were the Grizzlies and the teams with the two best odds of winning the lottery, the 17-65 Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets. The lottery returned after a commercial break. The Denver Nuggets were revealed to have the third pick meaning it had come down to one moment. The Grizzlies would either draft LeBron James with the first pick or send the second pick to Detroit.

Of course, we know what would happen. I again quote Mr. West:[13]

It was devastating to the franchise to not have that pick. We were able to build a respectable team after that but just imagine having a player like Mr. James playing for your team. It was unbelievably disappointing. For some of us, we were filled with anger because we were thinking, “How could we not have this draft pick protected?” With all the good things that have been done in Memphis and where they are today, that franchise could’ve come so much farther. It hurts to think about. It was a sad day.

Jerry West

The final draft order:

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Detroit Pistons (via Memphis Grizzlies)
  3. Denver Nuggets
  4. Toronto Raptors
  5. Miami Heat
  6. Los Angeles Clippers

There was (literally) no possible way the 1997 Otis Thorpe trade, considered an afterthought at the time, could have ended worse for the Grizzlies or better for the Pistons.

Postscript

The Detroit Pistons famously (or infamously) selected Darko Milicic second and not Carmello Anthony. Despite barely playing Mr. Milicic in 2003-04, the Pistons finished 54-28 and went on to win the NBA Championship behind one of the most dominant defenses in NBA history.

Despite missing out on the chance to take a future hall of fame inductee with the second pick in the 2003 NBA Draft (it seems clear that the Grizzlies were one of a minority of teams that would not have taken Mr. Milicic with the second pick)[13], the Grizzlies recovered well and posted a franchise-best 50-32 record in the 2003-04 season.[22] The surprise result yielded an Executive of the Year award for Mr. West and Coach of the Year for Mr. Hubie Brown. The Grizzlies would also post winning records and playoff appearances in 2004-05 and 05-06, although they were swept in the first round of the playoffs in all three seasons.

Mr. West spoke of the 2003 NBA Draft in pained tones.[13] He wondered what could have been if the Grizzlies had won the lottery. While we cannot say for certain what would have happened, I will venture that the Grizzlies would have been in position to win multiple championships before the end of the decade with a core of Mr. Gasol, Mr. James, and a strong young supporting cast (compare the Grizzlies’ roster with the Cavaliers team Mr. James carried to the Finals in his fourth season in 2006-07).

However, keeping the second pick without more would have done wonders for the Grizzlies. Adding Mr. Anthony to the mix or even trading down in the top five and selecting Mr. Bosh or Mr. Wade would have had the potential to elevate the Grizzlies from decent playoff team to legitimate contender. Alas, shortsightedness can have serious consequences.

Footnotes


[1] NBA.Com. 2023. “NBA Draft Lottery: Odds, History and How It Works,” May 12, 2023. https://www.nba.com/news/nba-draft-lottery-explainer.
[2] “———.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2003.html#all_divs_standings_E.
[3] “NBA Draft Lottery History – RealGM.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20220702133800/https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/lottery_results/2003.
[4] “2003 NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 3: Pistons vs Nets, May 22, 2003 | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/200305220NJN.html.
[5] Reed, William F. 2019. “TOUCHY SUBJECT PISTONS FORWARD OTIS THORPE IS ONE OF THE LEAGUE’S HARDEST-WORKING AND MOST UNSELFISH PLAYERS–BUT ALSO ONE OF ITS MOST THIN-SKINNED.” Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.Com, December 20, 2019. https://vault.si.com/vault/1997/04/14/touchy-subject-pistons-forward-otis-thorpe-is-one-of-the-leagues-hardestworking-and-most-unselfish-playersbut-also-one-of-its-most-thinskinned.
[6] “Otis Thorpe Stats, Height, Weight, Position, Draft Status and More | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/t/thorpot01.html.
[7] “Otis Thorpe 1996-97 Game Log | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/t/thorpot01/gamelog/1997.
[8] “1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies Roster and Stats | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/VAN/1996.html.
[9] “1996-97 Vancouver Grizzlies Roster and Stats | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/VAN/1997.html.
[10] “Antonio Daniels Stats, Height, Weight, Position, Draft Status and More | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/d/daniean01.html.
[11] “ARCHIVE: Houston Roundball Review NBA Trade Analyses — Pistons Deal Thorpe to Vancouver.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20221205101359/https://www.thehrr.com/nba/trade_archive/080797thorpedealt.html.
[12] “Otis Thorpe 1997-98 Game Log | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/t/thorpot01/gamelog/1998.
[13] Windhorst, Brian. 2013. “An Oral History of the 2003 Lottery and Draft – ESPN.” ESPN.Com, June 23, 2013. https://www.espn.com/nba/draft2013/story/_/page/2003-draft-history-1/an-oral-history-2003-lottery-draft.
[14] @nba_trades. n.d. “Detroit Trades Otis Thorpe in ‘97… Gets Darko Milicic in ’03.” NBA Trades (blog). https://nbatrades.tumblr.com/post/31086105882/detroit-trades-otis-thorpe-in-97-gets-darko.
[15] “———.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20220705004227/https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/lottery_results/1998.
[16] “———.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20220524190343/https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/lottery_results/1999.
[17] “———.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20220703033128/https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/lottery_results/2000.
[18] “———.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20220703033128/https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/lottery_results/2001
[19] “———.” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20220703033128/https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/lottery_results/2002.
[20] “Pau Gasol Stats, Height, Weight, Position, Draft Status and More | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/gasolpa01.html.
[21] “2002-03 Memphis Grizzlies Roster and Stats | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/MEM/2003.html.
[22] “2003-04 Memphis Grizzlies Roster and Stats | Basketball-Reference.Com.” n.d. Basketball-Reference.Com. https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/MEM/2004.html.