Before the fall of 1995, every NBA team played their home games in the United States. The NBA thrived in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s before finally expanding out of the U.S. into Canada, adding the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies before the start of the 1995-1996 season. Both Toronto and Vancouver had traditionally been good NHL cities, so the addition of two NBA teams from Canada seemed like a natural move at the time.
Vancouver had historically been a very popular city for travel, as well as a major area for filmmaking. Owners and fans were optimistic about the creation of the Grizzlies and hoped that the fourth most densely-populated city in North America could become a great basketball town. Just before the 1995-1996 season began, General Motors Place opened, as the home for both the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.
The Grizzlies ended up going 101-359 from 1995-2001, the worst record in the NBA during that 6-year span. Then, before the start of the 2001-2002 season, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, and many fans wondered what had gone wrong. How could Vancouver, one of the most beautiful and popular cities in the world, fail so badly as an NBA city?
There are several factors that seem to have contributed to the lack of prosperity the Grizzlies endured in Vancouver.
The most crucial single mistake was the gigantic 6-year, $64 million deal given to their 1995 draft pick Bryant Reeves. Had the Grizzlies received a top five pick in 1995, they could have instead chosen and potentially signed either All-Star Kevin Garnett or Rasheed Wallace to a long-term deal. Reeves was never an All-Star and averaged less than 10 points per game throughout his career after signing that huge contract.
Another reason Vancouver could not hold onto the Grizzlies was the lack of home game attendance. Attendance was at more than 17,000 per game at General Motors Place in Vancouver's first season, but dropped each of the next two seasons. During the Grizzlies' last two seasons in Vancouver, attendance fell below 14,000. Over that span, the Grizzlies franchise lost tens of millions of dollars, while showing little signs of future progress.
The NBA strike in 1998 certainly did not help the financial situation and may have contributed to the Grizzlies being bought by Michael Heisley. Heisley had promised to keep the Grizzlies in Vancouver, but ended up moving the franchise to Memphis just one year later.
Also not helping the case by any means, the Vancouver Grizzlies sported one of the least marketable and most unattractive uniforms in all of sports; an ugly bluish-teal blend that was not much to look at.
Despite all that, probably the No. 1 reason the Grizzlies never experienced success in Vancouver is that the the team never received the first overall pick in the draft, despite having the worst record in the NBA three times in six seasons and no better than the fourth worst record the other three years.
The NBA lottery was not introduced until 1985, when the Knicks were rewarded with the first overall pick and drafted Patrick Ewing. Prior to 25 years ago, only the teams with the worst record in the East and West could receive the first overall pick of the draft.
In 1995, the Grizzlies received the sixth overall pick and drafted center Bryant Reeves from Oklahoma State University. The Grizzlies had an NBA-worst 15-67 record in their first season, including an NBA-record 23 straight losses at one point from February to April. Despite having the worst record, Vancouver received just the third pick of the draft, in one of the best draft classes ever. The Grizzlies selected Shareef Abdur-Rahim with the third pick, but could have instead selected Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, or Steve Nash, all of whom were selected after Abdur-Rahim.
Had the Grizzlies received the first or second overall pick in 1996, they could have chosen Allen Iverson or Marcus Camby. Abdur-Rahim was solid for the Grizzlies, averaging over 21 points in his five seasons with the team, but one of the other available superstars in the 1996 draft could have really jumpstarted the Grizzlies franchise in a way that Abdur-Rahim could not. The 1996-1997 Vancouver Grizzlies had one less win than the the team's first-year record, winning an NBA-low 14 games.
Once again, in 1997, Vancouver failed to receive the first overall pick, earning the fourth pick instead. Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups were selected in the 1997 draft before Vancouver even had a selection. They eventually chose Antonio Daniels with the fourth overall pick, but Vancouver could have instead chosen Tracy McGrady, who was picked after Daniels with the ninth overall selection.
The Grizzlies went just 19-63 in 1997-1998 and received the second overall pick in 1998, selecting Mike Bibby. Bibby was solid for the Grizzlies, but Vancouver went just 8-42 in 1998-1999, the least wins in history for an NBA team, before selecting Steve Francis with the second overall pick in 1999. After being selected by Vancouver, Francis publicly wished to play for a team closer to his hometown in Maryland and and was eventually traded to Houston in a three-team, 11-player deal before the next season started.
Vancouver went 22-60 in 1999-2000, then selected Stromile Swift with the second overall pick in 2000. Swift proved to be somewhat of a bust, never scoring as many as 12 points per game in his NBA career. During the 2000-2001 season, the Grizzlies last season in Vancouver, the team won a franchise-high 23 games, finishing 35 games back of first place. The following summer, after just six years in Vancouver, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis.
The team would eventually make the playoffs in Memphis, winning at least 45 games and making the postseason every year from 2003-2004 until 2005-2006.
Despite the beauty and optimism in Vancouver, the Grizzlies proved to be better while out of Canada. While the Grizzlies struggled in Vancouver, the Toronto Raptors enjoyed success on the court from 1999-2000 until 2001-2002, making the playoffs each of those three seasons. Vince Carter evolved into a superstar during that time, being selected to six straight All-Star games for Toronto and winning the Slam Dunk Contest in 2000, all while also repping the nickname "Vince-sanity".
While the Grizzlies are now nine years removed from playing their home games in Canada, the Toronto Raptors are still popular and playing in Toronto. Although the Raptors have not won consistently throughout the last eight years, the city has built a strong fan base that will likely lead to plenty of success in future years.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies won 40 games in 2009-2010 and appear to be turning into a real threat in the West with young players like Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, as well as veteran forward Zach Randolph.
Vancouver failed to keep the Grizzlies in their city, but we have seen cities lose a franchise, but obtain an NBA franchise later on. One example is Charlotte, which lost the Hornets to New Orleans, but were later rewarded with the NBA's newest franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats. Unfortunately for Vancouver, the lack of an inner city, the distance from other NBA cities and the Grizzlies' failures, could prevent the city from ever hosting an NBA team again.
However, if and when the Grizzlies enjoy success in the future, it will not have been without the influence of the city of Vancouver, which got its chance to be an NBA city, but could not hold on to their young Grizzlies.