Draft Flashback: Did drafting Steve Francis kill the Vancouver Grizzlies?
As far as NBA Draft debacles go, the Vancouver Grizzlies' selection of Maryland point guard Steve Francis in 1999 is rarely mentioned as an all-timer, in the vein of Darko in '03, Shawn Bradley in '92, Sam Bowie in '84 or any number of other ultimately disastrous uses of the No. 2 overall pick.
That's mostly because you could hardly call Francis a bust: The explosive point guard made three All-Star teams, had two seasons averaging a 20-6-6 statline (the only player besides LeBron to have multiple such seasons this century), and even was an underrated contributor to the greatest Slam Dunk Contest of All-Time.
The main problem? Not a second of it came in a Vancouver Grizzlies uniform.
In the summer of 1999, the Grizzlies had just wrapped their fourth year of existence, and had still yet to win 20 games in a season. The 1998-99 Grizz went 8-42 in the lockout-shortened season, the worst record in the league. They had a couple building-block players in the form of two previous top-three picks, star college point guard Mike Bibby and stat-stuffing forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and what should have been the foundation of a youth movement to finally bring the Grizzlies to promience.
But their supporting cast was deplorable, full of fungible veterans like Sam Mack and Tony Massenburg, as well as declining one-time franchise player Bryant Reeves, who saw a huge dropoff in productivity as he battled injuries and conditioning issues. They'd also yet to find success with a head coach, having already cycled through Brian Winters, Stu Jackson and Brian Hill in their first three seasons. The Grizzlies struggled to find any kind of organizational identity, and desperately needed more talent on the roster.
The 1999 draft should have been their chance to add a third core player to the foundation of Bibby and Abdur-Rahim. Though they lost the top pick in the lottery to the post-Jordan Chicago Bulls, ultimately depriving them of the opportunity to draft Elton Brand from Duke, their choices at No. 2 were numerous. Shooting guard Richard Hamilton had just led UConn on a surprise title run. Sweet-stroking wing Wally Szczerbiak had made a name for himself in that tournament as well, scoring 43 points in a first-round game for underdog Miami (Ohio). Versatile Rhode Island forward Lamar Odom could fit beautifully into nearly any lineup.
Instead, the Grizzlies set their sights on Francis. It was a peculiar direction for the Grizzlies to take, since they had already chosen their point guard of the future the draft before in Bibby. Neither player was the purest of points, necessarily - both were scorers as much as distributors, if not more - but both were pretty small by NBA standards (Francis was the bigger at 6'3") and both were college stars used to having the ball in their hands, which tends to create issues on a young, mostly rudderless team.
More importantly, Francis had already let the Grizzlies know pre-draft that Vancouver was not a preferred destination. The Vancouver market was not yet a preferred one of NBA players - Bibby had reportedly been less than thrilled to be drafted there the year before - and he was being steered away from the Northwest franchise by agent Jeffrey Fried and manager Nathan Peake. Francis hoped to be taken by the Bulls, his team hoped for the Hornets, and when he worked out for the Grizzlies pre-draft, "For some reason, most [of his jumpers] went "clang" off the rim," wrote Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian.
Still, then-Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson was unswayed, hypnotized by the blinding athleticism and potential shown by Francis in his one Maryland season. Fried tried to scare Jackson off his client, citing the "personal and professional problems" the pick would make. But despite rumors of a draft-night trade, Francis indeed walked to the stage when the #2 selection was made, and donned a Vancouver Grizzlies hat.
Though the MCI Center crowd in DC exploded at the announcement of his selection, Francis looked more than a little bit glum on draft night to have been taken by the Grizzlies. Fried reiterated to Jackson post-draft that it wasn't a good fit for his client, but the GM was steadfast in his choice. The guard attempted to make a go of it with the Vancouver media, but was put off by an encounter at the city's airport in which his small entourage was asked if they were a rap group, and Fried doubled down his efforts to motivate a trade out of Canada.
Fried's efforts would pay off in fairly spectacular fashion. The Grizzlies attracted trade interest from the aging Houston Rockets, who had just been ousted in the first round of the playoffs and were a year away from saying goodbye to late-'90s franchise cornerstones Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. Francis, along with emerging second-round selection Cuttino Mobley, would represent the future of Houston basketball in the 21st century.
The Rockets would end up acquiring Francis in August, as part of an 11-player deal that was then the largest in league history. In the deal, the Grizzlies also jettisoned a good deal of their roster flotsam to Houston and Orlando, and ended up acquiring Antoine Carr, Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, Brent Price and a future first-round pick. Francis was elated, referring to the deal in divine terms: "He didn't want to put me in Vancouver and worry about the team being sold...That's why I know I'm God's son."
In Houston, Steve Francis became Stevie Franchise, and proved one of the most electric talents of the turn-of-the-century NBA. He averaged 18 points, 6.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game as a rookie on 45 percent shooting, splitting that year's Rookie of the Year award with Brand. Houston won 34 games and missed the playoffs, as Olajuwon and Barkley played just a combined 64 games between them, but the future appeared to have arrived in H-Town in the form of Francis.
For the Grizzlies, the struggles continued. They did land two reliable starters in the Francis deal in Dickerson and Harrington, but they were hardly difference-making players. Though Vancouver finally crept over the 20-win mark in 1999-00, they still finished dead last in the Midwest division with their 22-60 record. Brian Hill was fired 22 games into the season, replaced by Lionel Hollins, who was not retained at season's end. Meanwhile, the team's poor performance started to adversely affect fan turnout, and attendance dropped to under 14,000 a game, the third-worst mark in the NBA.
Partly due to the sagging ticket sales and partly due to the temporary weakness of the Canadian dollar, the Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment group that owned the Grizzlies started to lose money on the team, and began looking to sell. The team eventually turned up in the hands of American businessman Michael Heisley, who claimed a desire to keep the team in Vancouver, but scouted American cities that would be able to support a move, eventually landing on Memphis.
The move was approved in the Summer of 2001, and the Vancouver Grizzlies were no more. Their 23-59 record in the 2000-01 season would go down as the best mark in franchise history, and only the miserable 11-71 Denver Nuggets of 1997-98 saved them from having finished last in their division in every season of their existence. Since supplanted by Seattle as the former NBA city whose lack of a franchise is the most bemoaned, it seems unlikely the Association will return to Vancouver anytime soon.
The next season saw the Grizzlies not only playing in a brand new city, but with virtually a brand new roster as well. Mike Bibby and Shareef Abdur-Rahim were both traded in the offseason, Bryant Reeves retired before playing a regular-season game in Memphis, and even Othella Harrington had been sent to New York before the previous trade deadline.
The team would instead attempt to build around two top-10 selections in the 2001 draft, Duke forward Shane Battier and Spanish center Pau Gasol, as well as the previous summer's top selection, LSU big man Stromile Swift, and former Kings point guard Jason Williams, acquired in the Bibby deal. The Grizzlies went 23-59 again during their first year in Memphis, but within three seasons, were competitive enough to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, as Gasol turned into the franchise's first All-Star and true franchise player.
Meanwhile, though Francis would make his All-Star teams and endorsement dollars in Houston, he never won much there. The Rockets only made the playoffs once during Stevie Franchise's five seasons in Houston, losing in five games to the Lakers in 2004. That summer, Francis was traded to the Magic in another blockbuster deal that netted Houston superstar wing Tracy McGrady. After a decent first season in Orlando, Francis would decline unexpectedly and precipitously, with injuries and conditioning issues sending him to an early retirement, after one more brief go-round with the Rockets, in 2008.
As bad as the the Francis trade might've worked out for the Grizzlies in the summer of 1999, the trade wasn't the mistake - taking the guard in the first place was. The '99 draft was the Grizzlies' best shot to add a third potential young star to the mix with Bibby and Abdur-Raheem - picking No. 2 again in 2000 (for the third straight year!), the Grizz landed a bust in Swift, in an infamously lousy draft class where just about everyone ended up disappointing.
Rip Hamilton and Lamar Odom both went on to be core pieces of championship teams later, and Wally Szczerbiak helped bring the Timberwolves to relevance for the first time in franchise history. If the Grizzlies had drafted one of them instead of Francis, who's to say how successful the team could have become in Vancouver?
Instead, the team's unrequited love for Francis resulted in them netting a couple of average starters. Kelly Dwyer (then of ESPN) argued some years ago that the trade actually wasn't so bad for Vancouver because it netted them some decent players and picks, and because things with Francis would end so badly on his other teams. It's a fair point, but the team needed so much more than that in 1999 to have a chance of building something worth saving.
They didn't get it in time, and now Vancouver basketball fans can only watch the Grizzlies develop one of the NBA's strongest basketball cultures in Memphis - the best franchise in all America, according to a ESPN the Magazine's 2013 power rankings - and weep at what could have been.