Brian Windhorst put together a thrilling oral history of the 2003 NBA Draft on that seminal event's 10-year anniversary. The main takeaway from it all is that Jerry West is a total badass, but you already knew that. The lesson for general managers everywhere, though, obviously had to come from Joe Dumars, the Pistons boss who passed up Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh to select good ol' Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick.
Here's what Dumars says in Windhorst's piece (which was taken from a 2012 interview).
Absolutely, it was a mistake. I could give a dissertation on [background research] now. After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that. The background on Darko was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn't know half of the stuff you needed to know. With Darko, we may have had two sources of information. That was it. We may have talked to a couple of guys over in Europe. That was it.
Dumars clearly got burned by his heart. He saw Darko give two wonderful workout performances in the heat of the Euro Invasion, and he fell in love with that version of Darko. That wasn't the real Darko. That was Ideal Darko. Ideal Darko would only be seen one more time in recorded history. (That would be in a David Kahn fever dream circa 2010.)
But here's the thing: all the background research in the world can't prevent you from blowing the NBA Draft in a million other ways.
Dumars blew the 2003 draft by trusting two workouts and some cursory research. But the Portland Trail Blazers blew the 2007 draft because of terrible luck. The Memphis Grizzlies blew the 2009 draft because of ... egotism by the owner and a crush on elite size? The Sacramento Kings blew the 2011 draft because of an ill-timed peyote purchase. The Atlanta Hawks blew the 2005 draft because Billy Knight came before his time.
During the Finals, we talked about the overwhelming presence of luck in the sport. Nowhere is that more evident than in the draft. Heck, even the order of the first 14 picks is decided primarily by luck! Once we have that order, luck plays an extraordinarily role. Teams base draft choices on a plethora of things, including things that are pretty static like college production, physical measurements and athletic markers.
But they also base choices on personality. And do you really think you can learn much useful info about someone's personality based on a meeting or two, chats with his previous coaches and teammates and by reading newspaper profiles?
They base choices partly on workouts. These kids are traveling thousands of miles in May and June, trying to give their best every day in foreign situations with new voices and limited understanding of what they'll be asked to do. And you're deciding whether to pull the trigger on the kid based on how many top-of-the-key threes he hits out of 20 in that situation?
They base choices partly on what other people think. Not even their own other people. From Windhorst's piece, here's Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover on Pat Riley's decision in '03:
[T]he day of the draft, Pat Riley called me. He said, "All right, Tim. Wade or Kaman: Who would you take?" I had worked with both of them and I was honored he called me to ask my opinion. I was thinking about it, and the 1984 draft flashed in my mind when Portland took Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan. I told them to take Dwyane.
There's no indication that is what set the Heat to pick Wade, who would of course alter the trajectory of the franchise for a decade and counting. But that such a factor came into the equation on the day of the draft.
There are ways to separate wheat from chaff. There are ways to research. There are ways to make sure that if you pick the teenager from Serbia you know roughly what you might be getting. But by and large, because of how it is structured and its very nature, the draft is one massive crapshoot. There are a million ways to go bust.
So Dumars shouldn't take it too hard: Darko very well could have been legit, but had Greg Oden's knee, and everything would have turned out the same.