Business was booming in the NBA in the 1990s. As Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isiah Thomas faded away, Michael Jordan took over the spotlight. Everyone was interested in seeing him and everyone was interested in seeing who could take him down. Ratings and revenue were up all over the league.
As a result, the NBA explored expansion. In 1988-1989, they added a total of four teams – Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Minnesota Timberwolves. In 1995, they added two more – Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies.
The success of the NBA, led to the league expanding their reach into Canada.
NBA in Toronto has been an overwhelming success. The franchise has had superstars like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, Demar Derozan, and most recently Kawhi Leonard, who helped lead them to their first NBA Finals and championship in 2019.
NBA in Vancouver? Well, it was an overwhelming failure. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the Vancouver Grizzlies are one of, if not the, least successful team in the history of sports.
Six years after they first started playing in Vancouver, they left the city for Memphis before the 2001-02 season.
How? Why? There was so much excitement about bringing the NBA to Canada…. How did this experiment become such a colossal failure so quickly?
First, you need to understand the full extent of the misery and failure.
Misery and Failure
The Grizzlies lasted just 6 years in Vancouver, playing their first game on November 3, 1995 and playing their final game as Vancouver on April 18, 2001.
Since moving to Memphis the team has had some success. While they haven’t made the NBA Finals, they did make the West Finals in 2013 and between 2011-2017, they made the playoffs 7 straight years.
But before going to Memphis, they were awful, winning 22% of their games, going 101-359 overall from 1995-2001. Over that span, Grizzlies had the worst record in the league 3 times and finished last in the division 5 times.
101 wins in 6 years is pretty bad. Let’s put that into some comparable context:
- Toronto Raptors also began play in 1995. They had the same limitations as the Grizzlies, regarding draft picks and salary cap. Over the same 6 year time period as the Grizzlies, they won 182 regular season games and made the playoffs twice, including 1 series win
- Golden State Warriors won 73 games in ONE season alone. 72% of the Grizzlies 6 year win total, was accomplished in one season in 2015-16.
- New York Knicks have been really bad for the last 6 years, but they have won 147 games (including 2020), which is 31% of their games
- Charlotte Bobcats are the league’s most recent expansion team and they got off to a really rough start in beginning in 2004. Yet, they won a total of 188 games through 6 years, even making the playoffs in year 6.
- The post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls were awful, historically awful. Yet from 1998-99 season through 2003-04 they won 119 games (18 more than Vancouver’s history).
- Here’s one that’s worse on a skewed timeline – the “Trust the process” Philadelphia 76ers won 19% of their games over a three season period between 2013-2016. That represents a lower percentage than the Grizzlies at 22% over six years. However, the 76ers were trying to lose those 3 years, while the Grizzlies spent 6 years trying to win.
So what went wrong?
Well, outside of drafting Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 1996, their 2-0 start in 1995, and the awesome teal jerseys and cartoon grizzly….everything. Everything went wrong! Literally every moment in the 6 year history of Vancouver basketball.
The franchise played their first regular season game on November 3, 1995, playing in Portland. Coached by Brian Winters, a long-time assistant and 2x All Star as a player with the Bucks, the Grizzlies put together a dominant fourth quarter and won their first game 92-80.
Benoit Benjamin, a legendary Clipper who averaged 2.8 blocks per game in his six seasons in LA, led Vancouver with 29 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Former Knicks point guard Greg Anthony scored 15 points, with 6 assists, 4 rebounds. After winning 3 NBA titles as a player with the LA Lakers, Byron Scott came off the Grizzlies bench and scored 14 points.
Two days later, on November 5, 1995, the first regular season NBA game was played in Vancouver. On the same night that the Grizzlies played and won their first ever game, the Raptors hosted the New Jersey Nets, winning their first game and the first game by a Canadian team in Canada since 1946 (Toronto Huskies).
Minnesota Timberwolves, led by Christian Laettner (26 points, 11 rebounds) came to Canada and lost in overtime to the Grizzlies, 100-98. Byron Scott’s 18 points, led the team in scoring. Greg Anthony scored 17 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, and dished 8 assists.
Vancouver Grizzlies were 2-0!
Unfortunately, that was it. That was the peak of the excitement and that three day stretch is probably the most successful the Vancouver franchise ever was.
After starting 2-0. Grizzlies lost 19 straight and eventually finished their first season an NBA-worst 15-67. They went 1-25 between February and March, a stretch that also included a 23-game losing streak.
In their second season, they won just 14 games. In year 4, they went 8-42 in a lockout-shortened season. They did win 23 games in their final season, which shows an 8 game improvement over a 6 year span (which is not much of an improvement).
Earlier, when asked what went wrong, I said everything. For everything to have gone wrong, it had to start with Grizzlies management and some awful decision making. But in their defense, the NBA handcuffed them, making it challenging to succeed right away.
NBA Draft and Trade Misery
Part of the agreement when the Grizzlies and Raptors joined the NBA was that they were ineligible to pick in the top 5 of the draft in 1995, and could not obtain the #1 pick for their first three years. That’s a crazy rule, in my opinion, and obviously hurt the Grizzlies.
Bryant “Big Country” Reeves – 1995, #6
Because of that insane rule noted above, the Grizzlies picked 6th in 1995. That, in itself is bad and it’ worse when you see who went in the top 5:
- Joe Smith – 16 seasons, averaging 10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg
- Antonio McDyess – career cut short by injuries, but in his first 5 seasons with Denver, he averaged 18.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg
- Jerry Stackhouse – 16.9 ppg over his 18 year career
- Rasheed Wallace – NBA champion with 2004 Pistons, career averages of 14.4 ppg and 6.7 rpg
- Kevin Garnett – Hall of Famer, NBA Champion with 2008 Celtics, all-time legend
Reeves was far from bad. He started 341 of the 395 game he played, playing 30 mpg and averaging 12.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg.
Problem was he just wasn’t the superstar Vancouver needed to kick-start the franchise. He wasn’t the guy fans were going to pay to come see.
But he was the guy that the team paid to play. In 1997, despite working with a limited salary cap compared to the rest of the league, the Grizzlies signed Reeves to a 6 year, $61 million extension, which did not end well. That first season, he averaged 16.3 ppg and 6.9 rpg, but over the next three (his final three in the league), he averaged 9.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, while playing 8 minutes per game less (34 mpg vs 28 mpg) and missing 77 games (after missing just 20 in the first 3 years).
Reeves played all 6 years in Vancouver, and retired shortly after the team moved to Memphis due to back injuries.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim, 1996, #3
Abdur-Rahim is the best player to ever wear the Vancouver jersey. This was a rare win for the franchise.
In 5 years, Abdur-Rahim missed just 3 games total and averaged 20.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg.
While it’s hard to knock this pick, it must be noted who else was in this draft. Without the ability to pick #1, Grizzlies lost out on Allen Iverson who went to 76ers. Marcus Camby (#2), Stephon Marbury (#4), Ray Allen (#5), Antoine Walker (#6) round up the top of the draft. Between 13-15, Kobe Bryant (#13), Steve Nash (#14), Peja Stojakovic (#15).
Abdur-Rahim made one All Star game, but as a member of the Hawks in 2002. In 2001, right before the move to Memphis, Grizzlies traded Abdur-Rahim to Atlanta for the #3 pick, in which they drafted Pau Gasol.
This was an extreme circumstance where the Grizzlies drafted the right player and got a positive return in a trade. Unlike their 1997 first round pick…
Antonio Daniels – 1997, #4
1997 Draft represented the beginning of the start of a great run in Canadian basketball. Except, I’m referring to the Raptors, not the Grizzlies. After winning 15 games in a year 1, the Grizzlies won 14 games in year 2. The Raptors, on the other hand, went from 21 wins to 30 wins in year 2. Progress!
After picking Damon Stoudemire 7th in 1995 and Marcus Camby 2nd in 1996, the Raptors drafted Tracy McGrady 9th in 1997. All three of those players help lay the foundation for the Raptors.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies picked fourth. After Tim Duncan, Keith Van Horn, and Chauncey Billups were drafted top 3, the Grizzlies took point guard Antonio Daniels.
Daniels would play just 74 games in one season as a Grizzlie. After starting 50 games and averaging 7.8 ppg and 4.5 apg, Daniels was traded to the Spurs after his rookie season. Daniels would become a solid bench player for the 1999 NBA Champion Spurs and he had a successful career as a backup guard, appearing in the playoffs in 10 of his 14 seasons.
In exchange for the #4 pick in the draft, the Grizzlies received Felipe Lopez and Carl Herrera from the Spurs. Lopez averaged 6.5 ppg in less than two years and Herrera played 4 games with the Grizzlies.
What is the value of the #4 pick? In the two years prior, #4 pick was Rasheed Wallace and Stephon Marbury. In the two years after, #4 was Antawn Jamison and Lamar Odom. More recently, Russell Westbrook and Kristaps Porzingis were drafted 4th and the #4 pick in 2019 was used as a trade chip to acquire Anthony Davis. Clearly, it’s a valuable pick. Except to Vancouver, who decided to essentially throw it away.
Mike Bibby – 1998, #2
Was Bibby the right pick? He played every possible game with Vancouver from 1998-2001, starting all 214 games and averaged 14.8 ppg and 7.8 apg.
After Bibby was drafted, 4 of the next 7 picks were Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce. OUCH!!
But give them some credit – the #1 pick was Michael Olowokandi to the Clippers and big man Raef LaFrentz went #3 to the Nuggets. So among the top 3, the Grizzlies hit a homerun.
Right before their move to Memphis in 2001, Bibby was traded to the Sacramento Kings. He was 23 years old at the time and a rising star with a lot of value. Yet, the Grizzlies decided to trade him got was former Magic hero Nick Anderson, who played just 15 games with Memphis and called it a career and a young Jason Williams to replace Bibby at point guard. Williams did play 4 years in Memphis and was traded to the Heat in 2005, just in time to become an NBA Champion in 2006.
Steve Francis – 1999, #2
Grizzlies reward for going 8-42 in 1998-99 was nothing. Literally, nothing.
After the Bulls took Elton Brand, Grizzlies opted to draft Steve Francis. Uh oh. This was the beginning of the end… “Stevie Franchise” had ZERO interest in joining this franchise.
Francis hated the idea of playing in Vancouver. So rather than take Baron Davis (#3) or Lamar Odom (#4), Grizzlies took a guy who they knew wasn’t going to be happy. Francis is from Maryland and played college ball for the Terps and claimed he wasn’t comfortable playing so far from home and without any kind of spotlight. After a long battle with the team, he was eventually traded before his rookie season season, never playing a game for the team.
Francis was traded to the Houston Rockets for Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, Antoine Carr, Brent Price, and future first and second round draft picks. So like I said, for the #2 pick, coming off an 8-win season, they got NOTHING.
Stromile Swift – 2000, #2
This pick is somewhere in the middle of the previous #2 selections – Bibby and Francis. Swift was #2 after the Nets took Kenyon Martin #1.
Swift did play 7 years with the Grizzlies franchise, but was mostly underwhelming for a #2 pick. As a rookie, in his lone season in Vancouver, he averaged 4.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg in just 16 minutes per game.
To be fair to the Grizzlies, outside of Martin, this was not a very exciting draft. The next eight players drafted to round out the top 10 were Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, Mike Miller, DerMarr Johnson, Chris Mihm, Jamal Crawford, Joel Pryzbilla, and Keyon Dooling. Nothing like the previous drafts, where Grizzlies passed on multiple All Stars and Hall of Famers. Swift was a fine pick compared to Marcus Fizer.
The Worst Trade Ever Made
Obviously, the Grizzlies had some bad luck and some bad decisions. Trading away #4 (Daniels) and #2 (Francis) picks for nothing was stupid. Not getting a significantly greater return for Bibby was tough.
But in hindsight. those trades don’t even compare to that time when the Grizzlies made one of the worst trades in the history of, not just the NBA, but sports.
In 1997, they traded a future first round pick for Otis Thorpe. Okay.
Thorpe, to his credit, averaged 14 ppg and 8.2 rpg over a lengthy career in which he started the majority of the 1,257 games he played over 17 seasons.
But entering his age 35 season, coming off a year where he averaged 10.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg for Detroit, was it really worth it for a terrible Grizzlies team to trade a first round pick?
The good news for the Grizzlies, is the pick came with lottery-protection rules. The bad news for the Grizzlies, is they were so bad for so long, that those lottery protections finally ran out and the worse news is they ran out during a historically epic draft.
Six years after trading a future first round pick for 35 year old Otis Thorpe, it was time to pay the price.
The 2002-03 season was the most successful for the franchise, who finished 28-54 in their second season in Memphis. After years of finishing last and failing to strike gold in the lottery, they finally won some games.
Grizzlies once again landing the #2 pick, despite 7.1% odds to do so. Except, according to the terms of the lottery protection, unless the pick was #1, the Grizzlies would convey the pick to the Pistons.
Therefore, because of Otis Thorpe, the Grizzlies sent the #2 pick to the Detroit Pistons, who were coming off of a 50-32 season in which they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Thorpe only played 47 games for the Grizzlies. He was traded halfway through the 1997-98 season to the Kings for Bobby Hurley and Michael Smith. His final NBA season was 2000-01, which means he was out of the league for two years and was 40 years old, when this pick was finally conveyed.
He was out of the league for two years and played 47 games! That’s what the Grizzlies traded a first round pick for.
So the 2003 NBA Draft…no big deal right? Well, Lebron James went first to the Cavs. Then, 3-4-5 was Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. 3 legends. 3 Hall of Famers. The Pistons drafted Darko Mililic #2, with the Grizzlies pick. For Detroit, it didn’t matter because they still won the NBA title in 2004.
For the Grizzlies? They missed out on history. They missed out on the chance to draft a legend! Instead, they had Otis Thorpe scoring 10 points a game for 47 games.
And that my friends, is the saddest and possibly most significant chapter to the miserable history of the NBA in Vancouver.
Along with the Grizzlies, the Toronto Raptors also began play in 1995. However, their trajectory was quite the opposite of the Grizzlies.
From 1995-2001, Vancouver went 101-356, while Toronto went 188-278.
- Grizzlies highest win total was 23 in 6th and final year – Raptors won 21 in year 1
- Only 1 season with less than 20 wins for Raptors (4 for Grizzlies)
- Raptors made the playoffs twice in their first six years, going 6-10 including a series win over the Knicks in 2001
The other big point of comparison is the draft. Only once (1996) did the Raptors draft higher than the Grizzlies, and that turned out to be the one good Grizzlies pick. While Vancouver failed to capitalize on 4 of their 6 picks, the Raptors NAILED their first four, drafting Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady, and Antawn Jamison (who was immediately traded on draft night for Vince Carter).
Over that same time, Grizzlies drafted Antonio Daniels and Steve Francis.
Winners and Losers
Who are the biggest beneficiaries and losers from the presence of the Vancouver Grizzlies.
10 Biggest Winners
Toronto Raptors: the failure of the Grizzlies forced them out of Canada in 2001, leaving the Raptors as the country’s darling team.
Indiana Pacers: went 11-0 vs Vancouver, the only team never to lose to them between 1995-2001
Utah Jazz: in addition to the Pacers, Jazz are the only other team to go undefeated in Vancouver (11-0 on road and 22-1 overall)
Denver Nuggets: as part of the worst trade ever, the Pistons received the #2 pick in the 2003 Draft. That along the Nuggets to draft Carmelo Anthony at #3.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim: he is the best player in Vancouver basketball history and is responsible for any shred of success the Grizzlies had from 1996-2001. He was traded to the Hawks in 2001, and made the All Star team in 2002.
Sacramento Kings: hard to believe now, but there was a time when the Kings were considered good. From 1998-2006, they made the playoffs every year, including a 5 year stretch with Mike Bibby, after acquiring him in 2001
Memphis: city known more for it’s college basketball than pro basketball, was able to land the Grizzlies upon relocation and they’ve had a nice run of success.
Baron Davis: Grizzlies passed on Davis in 1999, to take Steve Francis #2. More on him below, but obviously Francis wasn’t happy. Davis was drafted #3 and went on to have a very exciting career.
Houston Rockets: acquired Steve Francis for almost nothing. Francis won co-Rookie of the Year in 2000 and made 3 All Star appearances as a Rocket. He was eventually traded to the Magic for Tracy McGrady.
Steve Francis: he forced his way out of Vancouver before ever playing a game and got the spotlight he desperately wanted in Houston
10 Biggest Losers
Vancouver: so much excitement, so much anticipation and yet so much misery. The city probably deserved better. The NHL’s Canucks have been a successful franchise so it’s not the city’s fault the Grizzlies stunk.
Byron Scott: former Lakers PG started 4/5 games in the 1991 NBA Finals and won 3 championships with LA in the ’80s. During the Grizzlies inaugural season in 1995, Scott came off the bench in all 80 games he played.
Brian Winters: very respectable player in his career, making 2 All Star game appearances and his #32 jersey is retired by the Bucks. But as head coach of the Grizzlies, he lasted 125 games and had a winning percentage of 18%.
Boston Celtics: only team with a losing record against Vancouver franchise (5-6).
Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Wizards: two of three teams to not finish over .500 against the Vancouver franchise (more below)
Greg Anthony: went from being a part of the New York Knicks Finals team in 1994, to being the #2 pick in the expansion draft and playing for the Grizzlies two years later
Antoine Carr: after helping the Jazz in a bench role get to back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, Carr played the final 21 games of his 17 year career in Vancouver. Before the 1999 season, Houston included Carr in a package of players for Steve Francis.
Dennis Scott: averaged 12.9 ppg in 94-95 when the Orlando Magic went to the NBA Finals. Scott averaged 5.6 ppg in 66 games during his final NBA season in 1999-00 with Grizzlies
Fans/execs: anyone who invested any time or money into the franchise
Head-to-head Records vs Vancouver
|Opponent||Overall Record||Road record|
|New Jersey Nets||7-3||4-2|
|New York Knicks||8-2||3-2|
|Golden State Warriors||15-8||8-4|
|Los Angeles Clippers||12-12||5-7|
|Los Angeles Lakers||22-1||10-1|
|Portland Trail Blazers||16-7||7-5|
|San Antonio Spurs||20-3||11-1|
*Washington vs Grizzlies – 4-2 as Wizards, 1-3 as Bullets