The 2003 NBA Draft is arguably the greatest in league history (the 1984 draft and 1996 draft would also like a word). Teen phenom LeBron James was always going to be the No. 1 overall pick after blossoming into the most hyped prospect of his generation out of Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School. Behind James was a group of talented college players and one international standout that helped create one of the strongest top-fives ever.
Carmelo Anthony grew into the second most well-known prospect in the draft after helping lead Syracuse to the national championship in his freshman season. Melo was modern college basketball’s first one-and-done star before the one-and-done rule was implemented a few years later, using college basketball’s platform to build a name for himself before he ever turned pro. The rest of the top five was made up of Marquette guard Dwyane Wade, Georgia Tech big man Chris Bosh, and Serbian 7-footer Darko Miličić.
The Cavs won the lottery and the rights to the James. The Pistons landed the No. 2 overall pick in the draft thanks to a 1997 trade that sent Otis Thorpe to the then- Vancouver Grizzlies for a protected pick that eventually paid off in a big way. Detroit was coming off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, and now had the opportunity to land a young star in an all-time great draft.
We know how it ended. The Pistons took Miličić at No. 2 overall, while Anthony, Wade, and Bosh all went to become Hall of Famers. Detroit went on to win the NBA championship the next season anyway, and got back to the NBA Finals again the next year before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games.
Anthony is now 37 years old and in the twilight of his NBA career. Melo signed with the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason where he’ll finally team up with LeBron, but he’s still thinking about what might have been if the Pistons took him No. 2 overall.
During an interview on the All the Smoke podcast, Anthony said that the Pistons “promised” him in the weeks leading up to the draft before taking Miličić. Anthony also said he believed Detroit would have won back-to-back titles if they selected him. Here’s a clip of the show:
Anthony said during the episode:
“To this day, I still think about that. I’m like, they promised me,” Anthony said. “You know what I’m saying? ‘We taking you.’ I’m talking about all the way up to draft day, you understand? ‘We taking you.’ So, in my mind, I’m like, ‘I’m going to Detroit.’ …They won it and I’m like, ‘Ah, my luck.’ If I’m there, I think they win another one. I think we go back-to-back if I’m there.”
Would the Pistons have gone back-to-back in 2004 and 2005 if they drafted Anthony? It’s certainly possible, but it’s more complicated than it may seem.
After losing the New Jersey Nets in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals, Pistons GM Joe Dumars fired head coach Rick Carlisle and replaced him with Larry Brown. Brown had a veteran team that was trying to win a championship, and he didn’t see any point in trying to develop an 18-year-old rookie like Miličić. Darko played only 159 minutes in his rookie season, and only 254 in his second year.
Meanwhile, the Pistons swung a mid-season trade for another sweet-shooting forward when they acquired Rasheed Wallace in February. Wallace joined a starting lineup that already included Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince. That five-man group would go on to a six-game conference finals win over Carlisle’s Pacers, and then a shocking five-game victory over the heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Would the Pistons have swung the trade for Rasheed Wallace if they drafted Anthony? Would Prince have ascended into the starting lineup as a second year player who became the wing stopper on the defensive end that Detroit needed? Would the presence of a high volume scorer like Anthony — who averaged 21 points per game as a rookie — disrupted some of the cohesion?
These are questions worth asking, but in the NBA, it always comes back to star power. It’s likely Anthony would have been best used as a sixth man early in his career if the Rasheed trade was still made (the days of Melo being used as a power forward wouldn’t arrive for 10 years). If he bought into that role — or if Prince was just as effective coming off the bench — Detroit could won multiple championships.
Yes, the Pistons came one win away from the championship in the 2005 NBA Finals during a year that opened with the Malice in the Palace. What people forget is that the team went to the conference finals for six straight years. Detroit’s runs were ended by Shaq and Wade’s Heat, LeBron’s Cavs, and the Big Three-era Celtics along the way in series that each went six games. It isn’t out of the question that the Pistons could have won back-to-back titles in 2005 and then made another trip to the NBA’s biggest stage in subsequent years if they took Melo.
How did the Pistons’ great run come to an end? Glad you asked. There’s a Secret Base video for that.
The Pistons have struggled since their championship core broke up. In the last 12 years, Detroit has only two playoff appearances and zero playoff wins.
It’s okay, Pistons fans. Cade Cunningham is here now and he’s going to be awesome.