NEW YORK – They had come to celebrate O.J. Mayo’s arrival into the NBA, to toast his future success with the Minnesota Timberwolves, to trumpet the beginning of his professional basketball career, or, perhaps, the advancement of it. As Mayo’s family and friends squeezed into Jay-Z’s 40/40 late Thursday, even they weren’t aware the real party had yet to start.
By the time Thursday had disappeared into Friday, Mayo was looking for a new baseball cap and everyone was clinking glasses again. The Timberwolves traded Mayo to the Memphis Grizzlies in an eight-player deal that ranked as the biggest on this draft night, and as the news started to trickle across the TV screens in the club, Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay wrapped his newest teammate in a big hug.
Mayo had smiled at the cameras and said all the right things some three hours earlier when the Timberwolves made him the evening’s third overall pick, but he had also never stepped foot in Minnesota. Memphis is nearly 400 miles closer to his hometown of Huntington, W.V. And home being home, the one-and-done USC guard appeared happy to join the Grizzlies.
That’s good because Mayo didn’t come cheap. In addition to parting with the draft rights to forward Kevin Love, the No. 5 pick, Memphis gave up Mike Miller, a sharp-shooting guard who is extremely valued around the league. The Grizzlies were able to dump the remaining two years and $13 million on Brian Cardinal’s contract while also sending center Jason Collins, whose contract expires after the upcoming season, to Minnesota. In return, the Timberwolves unloaded Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker and Greg Buckner.
The contracts of Walker and Buckner aren’t guaranteed past the upcoming season, but Jaric has three years and $21.3 million left. Getting rid of Jaric gives Minnesota the potential to be a significant player in the bountiful free-agent summer of 2010.
“This trade should make Minnesota better a lot faster,” said one Western Conference executive.
Another West GM was more succinct: “Memphis got jobbed again.”
That says something considering the Grizzlies and Timberwolves are each due a hefty playoff share, respectively, from the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. No one had more to do with delivering David Stern his treasured NBA Finals than these two woeful franchises. Minnesota packaged Kevin Garnett for the Celtics while Memphis served up Pau Gasol.
The Timberwolves at least received a player worthy enough to build around in Al Jefferson. The Grizzlies won’t save face unless Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, makes his way to the NBA and grows into his own talent. Memphis officials were ripped for the trade, and deservedly so. There was no reason for them to agree to such a deal nearly a month before the trade deadline.
Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley vowed to be more active in the decision-making process for this draft, and that had more than a few rival team executives drooling. Heisley, in fact, might have put his own stamp on Thursday.
“Memphis clearly wanted to win the press conference,” said a rival player-personnel director.
Translation: The Grizzlies were more interested in making a headline and selling a quick ticket than wading through a more deliberate rebuilding plan. And outlet passers, like Love, don’t sell many tickets.
Mayo obviously will determine whether Memphis made a heady trade. Love has the potential to be a nice complementary piece, but it’s a reach to consider him a franchise cornerstone. Mayo may yet grow into that. The Grizzlies were far from the only team enamored with him, and some league officials are already hailing the trade as a victory for Memphis. It’s not like Minnesota has a rich history of savvy draft-night moves: Two years ago, the Timberwolves traded Brandon Roy for Randy Foye.
Timberwolves assistant GM Fred Hoiberg, in fact, lauded Mayo throughout Minnesota’s news conference. Later asked about the potential of trading Mayo, Hoiberg said, “We’re keeping him.”
But that was before the Grizzlies called back after the end of the first round. Minnesota pressed for Miller and Memphis relented. By then the Grizzlies had traded for Kansas forward Darrell Arthur, a one-time lottery prospect whose stock dropped amid reports he could have a kidney ailment. An executive with a rival team who has seen Arthur’s medical results dismissed the kidney problem, saying the bigger red flag was a knee issue that could eventually require surgery and six months of rehab.
Still, there are at least a few people who think Memphis could end up with a steal in Arthur. Maybe Mayo and Mike Conley prove they can play together well enough to join Gay as the franchise’s foundation. Maybe the Grizzlies turn their glut of guards, which also includes Javaris Crittenton and Kyle Lowry, into another piece.
That’s a lot of wishful thinking, but the Grizzlies have to start somewhere. So into Friday morning, Mayo celebrated. For one night, at least, that said enough.