What If Detroit Did Not Draft Darko
Updated: May 29
The 2003 NBA draft is one of the most loaded draft classes in NBA history. There were plenty of teams looks for a superstar, such as the league-worst Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets, the Toronto Raptors, and the Miami Heat. Now all of those teams drafted well. Cleveland landed Lebron James at number one. Denver landed Carmelo Anthony at pick three. Toronto landed Chris Bosh at pick number four. And Miami drafted Dwayne Wade at pick number five. Now if you are following along or know how this all panned out, there was a team called the Detroit Pistons that had the second overall selection. And they did not get it right and instead went overseas selecting Darko Milicic. So what would have happened if Detroit stayed in America and passed on Darko? Let us take a deep dive into what could have been for Detroit
Why Detroit Drafted Darko
Before I begin I want to make it clear that Darko Milicic was not a terrible NBA player. Now by no means did he live up to his number two pick potential, but he was still productive. Darko Milicic played 468 NBA games, averaged six points and four rebounds per game for six NBA teams. Not mind-boggling stats but at least he hung around for a few years.
Anyways let's look at why Detroit fell in love with this kid. Heading into the draft, Detroit was coming off a season where they finished with a 50-32 record and won the Central division title. They were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs but were swept in the conference finals by Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets. That team had Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, and defensive player of the year Ben Wallace. Detroit had a hole at power forward. And during the draft process, many teams viewed Darko as possibly the next Dirk Nowitzki and was viewed as the best power forward there. He turned out not to be so they addressed the power forward issue at the 2003-2004 trade deadline acquiring Rasheed Wallace.
Now were the Pistons pretty set at small forward? Yes, they had an emerging Tayshaun Prince and sixth man Corliss Williamson. But my question is why take a shot on an unproven Euro because he might be like Dirk? Carmelo had just won a national title and showed that he was an elite scorer of the basketball in college. You were solid defensively with Ben protecting the rim so why not add some much-needed scoring. Detroit was 26th in the league in scoring the year prior at 91.4 PPG. Darko can say all he wants that he didn't develop because of a lack of playing time, but he had no business being drafted second overall.
What Would It Mean For Carmelo & The Pistons
Carmelo Anthony had a phenomenal freshman year at Syracuse. Averaged over twenty-two points per game, won a national championship over Kansas, and was the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Now despite this incredible year, Carmelo Anthony was never going to be considered for first overall in the upcoming NBA Draft. That honour was reserved for high school senior, and hometown kid, Lebron James. He was deemed the Chosen One very early on and Cleveland made it well known that Lebron would be drafted first. Now when Darko Milicic was selected, I am sure it shocked many people as Carmelo seemed pro-ready from day one. But instead, he slipped to the Denver Nuggets and made All-Rookie first team, leading his team to twenty-six more wins and the eighth seed in the West.
Now looking at how Carmelo Anthony's career has panned out, he really could have benefitted from playing in Detroit. While making the playoffs in Denver every year that he was there was impressive, he did not make it out of the first round until the 2008-2009 season. He only made one conference finals in his entire career and a single scoring title in 2012-2013 with the New York Knicks. Carmelo was always great, but his teams often failed to put the right pieces around him to win championships. Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire are just a few of the stars he played with, but they could never get over the hump.
Now keep in mind that the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA title. Not only did they win the title, but they did so over the Los Angeles Lakers in five games, despite drafting Darko. So there is no doubt in my mind that Carmelo would have won a championship his rookie season. But Detroit never won another championship with that cast of players. They lost in the 2005 NBA finals to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games, but what if they had a sophomore Carmelo on that team? Would that have been enough to put Detroit over the top for the repeat? I think that it would have and by drafting Darko over Carmelo Detroit was robbed of one, if not multiple, NBA titles.
What Would It Mean For Wade And Lebron
Detroit would lose out in the Eastern Conference finals the next three years in a row, once to Dwayne Wade, once to Lebron and once to the Boston Celtics. All of these were six-game series, but Detroit once again lacked the scoring needed to overcome those teams. But what if Carmelo Anthony was on that team? Would he have been an x-factor and given them enough to put them over the top? Perhaps.
The other draftees in this class could have had vastly different careers. Dwayne Wade would go on to win the championship in 2006, which catapulted him into NBA stardom. But if Detroit had Carmelo and knocked them out in the conference finals would the narrative around Dwayne Wade be different? (And Shaq too with one less championship) Dwayne would not even make it out of the first round of the playoffs until he teamed up with Lebron in Miami.
Then look at Lebron James, who also made the NBA finals in 2007. Yes, he would get swept, but what if he did not make an NBA final until he teamed up with Wade and Bosh in Miami? He would now be 3-5 in the NBA finals and the narrative of him being unable to "win the big one" would have gone on much longer in his career. Lebron would still be an all-time great, nothing could have changed that minus injuries, but Carmelo could have been held in the same breath as Lebron had he won titles just like him.
The NBA landscape was drastically changed due to one team's major mistake in the 2003 NBA draft. Detroit won just one championship, Carmelo went ringless and other stars in his class saw championship success. Detroit would dismantle their team over the coming years, bringing in players like Chris Webber and Ben Gordon to try and fill the void. But all of this could have been avoided if they made one decision: Carmelo over Darko.
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