(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically take a look at some of the great “what if” moments in franchise history. First up: What if the Pistons had drafted Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick in the loaded 2003 NBA draft.)
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Drafting Darko Milicic didn’t go anywhere near as planned for the Pistons. Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would ultimately prove themselves vastly better players.
But let’s also acknowledge this: Adding Carmelo Anthony to the team that would win the NBA title in his rookie season and come within an eyelash of repeating in 2005 – when the Pistons lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals at San Antonio – wouldn’t have guaranteed the Pistons more NBA titles. Or even the one that the Goin’ to Work Pistons won in 2004, for that matter.
Anthony certainly would have been the Pistons pick at No. 2 if Darko hadn’t existed – or NBA draft rules hadn’t been tweaked earlier in 2003 to allow Milicic, 17 at the time he was drafted, to be eligible for the ’03 draft.
The Pistons front office loved Anthony. They were hardly alone. When he led Syracuse to the NCAA title as a freshman less than two months before the 2003 draft, named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in New Orleans, there was some thought he’d surged ahead of LeBron James, then a high school senior from Akron, Ohio, and the presumptive No. 1 pick.
How the Pistons wound up with the No. 2 pick is a story in itself. It started with a trade six years earlier that sent Otis Thorpe, then 35, to the Vancouver Grizzlies for a protected first-round pick. By the time the 2003 draft lottery rolled around, Thorpe had been retired for two years, the Grizzlies had changed cities and the protections on the pick had all but evaporated.
The Memphis Grizzlies went into the lottery in the No. 6 spot, but when the Los Angeles Clippers came up at six in the lottery order, it meant Memphis had moved into the top three. Since the Grizzlies would only keep the pick if they came in at No. 1, the Pistons were suddenly very much in the mix to land an impact player in a draft that all NBA teams had long anticipated.
Back story: The Pistons also happened to be playing in the Eastern Conference finals at the time. They trailed the New Jersey Nets 2-0 and the lottery was held – for the first time as a prime-time TV event – just prior to tipoff of Game 3 hosted by the Nets at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. The Pistons had held shootaround that morning at John Jay College. There were two gyms at the Manhattan law school separated by a heavy curtain. On the other side of the partition, Milicic was holding a workout for NBA teams.
It was, by all accounts, a jaw-dropping display put on by the Serbian teen. At 7-foot-1, Milicic had deep shooting range, phenomenal explosion and nimble feet. The Pistons were gobsmacked by the workout. Everybody who saw it was. Chad Ford, then ESPN’s draft expert, called it the best of the hundreds he’d seen.
When the Pistons lost to the Nets that night to go down 3-0 to Jason Kidd and Co., virtually assuring the end of their season, it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm the organization felt for their future.
Two off-season moves made the summer earlier – the free-agent signing of Chauncey Billups and the trade for Rip Hamilton – gave the Pistons the best backcourt in the East. Ben Wallace, the deft recovery from Grant Hill’s free-agent exit as a sign-and-trade return, gave the Pistons the backbone of a great defense. And rookie Tayshaun Prince had emerged during the first-round comeback from a 3-1 deficit to Orlando as a rising star.
Now they had a chance to add an impact talent in the draft.
In retrospect, the ideal pick would have been Wade. What a devastating weapon he would have proven to be off of Larry Brown’s bench as a rookie, giving the second unit the dimension it lacked even as the Pistons were winning or challenging for NBA titles in the middle part of that decade. As Wade’s star rose, he would have played starter’s minutes and finished games. Eventually, the Pistons might have had to make a decision, but those first few years would have been something.
Would Anthony have fit as seamlessly? Three questions need to be asked: