Posted by Kelly Dwyer
Between the trade that sent him from New York to Portland, the buyout that sent him away from Portland, and the Yi Jianlian situation that has us ruminating like it's 1999, Steve Francis has been on everybody's mind recently. Just walking through the park yesterday, or taking a stroll on the high street, it's become clear that the name on the tip of everybody's tongue is "Steve Francis." It's also become clearer that I'm not telling the truth.
Either way, he's been on our minds. Francis, a free agent since the Trail Blazer buyout, doesn't appear to be sure as to where he'll play next year. There was a dalliance with the Clippers, a pairing that still could happen (any live body at point guard, even one with limitations like Francis, would work in L.A.), and there was word that the Miami Heat may make a bid after losing the bidding war for Maurice Williams over the weekend.
And yet, I'm more interested in a bit of revisionist history regarding 1999, when Francis sulked his way through that summer's NBA Draft after being selected by the Vancouver Grizzlies. Wary of a potential hold-out, the Grizz ended up trading Francis two months later to the Houston Rockets (it was a three-team deal also involving the Magic, one that helped to secure the team more cap space in 2000) for Brent Price, Antoine Carr, Othella Harrington, Michael Dickerson, plus a first and second round pick.
Actually, "revisionist history" isn't quite the phrase that should be applied here. Most observers both lauded the trade on Houston's side, and dutifully ignored the Grizzlies' take on things back in 1999. Over the years, even with Francis' ugly departures from Houston, Orlando, and New York, the trade has come to still be regarded as an outright steal for the Rockets. I'm not buying that. Yes, Houston got the best player in the deal, and the Grizzlies should have done better (or not drafted the guy at all), but it wasn't a complete screwup, was it?
That summer, the Grizzlies fielded major holes at center (who doesn't?), power forward (Tony Massenburg had a career year in 1999, and the Grizz still lost 42 of 50 games) and shooting guard (coach Brian Hill liked Felipe Lopez, a 24-year old rookie, for some reason). Though drafting Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion, or Richard Hamilton would have made sense and filled a role, Vancouver went ahead and drafted Francis, claiming that they wanted to pair him with Bibby in the backcourt. That's the hole you have to dig out of now.
So they put together a trade that netted them two starters, some veteran bench help, and some draft picks. Yes, the Grizz should have tallied more than two draft picks (the first-rounder in the deal didn't come until 2003, and Jerry West traded it to Boston for the ability to move down and draft Troy Bell), but grabbing two starters for one potential All-Star isn't the worst you could do. It's the moves that came after (and before, really) the Francis trade that clipped British Columbia's chances at having a real team.
Othella Harrington, the sturdy scoring power forward out of Georgetown, managed to average ten points and six rebounds in only 22 minutes with the Rockets in 1999. Exiled in Vancouver, he appeared listless, actually shot the ball fewer times per minute (on a team that didn't feature Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, and Hakeem Olajuwon), and played significantly worse. Michael Dickerson's per-minute numbers won't astound, but he was a solid enough player to look like a B-level version of Joe Johnson (right down to the heaps of minutes he played) before injuries shut him down in 2001 at the age of 26). Carr and Price were pretty useless, and the coaching duo of Brian Hill and Lionel Hollins was less-than inspiring, to say the least. Steve Francis was on to something - everyone who passed through that Grizzlies organization back then acted as if they'd rather be anywhere else. Pity.
The Grizzlies didn't help things by drafting Stromile Swift second overall in 2000, then trading for another (better) power forward in Pau Gasol a year later and needlessly trading Mike Bibby to Sacramento for Jason Williams. Harrington was traded for Erick Strickland in 2000-01, and the Grizzlies pointlessly supplied its coaches with a series of well-meaning but washed-up vets (Doug West, Grant Long, Dennis Scott, Carr and Price) instead of identifying young talent to develop and build with.
It could have worked, though. It should have worked. Had injuries and poor decisions not created a sense of apathy among the players who made up the roster, things might not have bottomed out. It wasn't an equal deal, and the Grizz should have never saddled themselves with Francis to begin with; but, sadly, the trade really hamstrung a team in a city that deserved much better.