The 2003 NBA Draft, which took place on June 26 of that year, proved to be one of the most significant drafts in NBA history. Four of the top-five picks, LeBron James (#1), Carmelo Anthony (#3), Chris Bosh (#4), and Dwyane Wade (#5) are either already Hall of Fame selections (in the case of Mr. Bosh and Mr. Wade) or will certainly (Mr. James) or very likely (Mr. Anthony) be inducted when they are eligible. My interest in this article lies with the second pick – which the Detroit Pistons used to select then 17-yearold Darko Milicic. Mr. Milicic would have a 10-year career, but his performance fell well short of what would be expected of a top-five pick, much less a top-five pick in the 2003 draft. It goes without saying that the Pistons erred with the second pick (granting the possibility that Mr. Milicic would have done better in a different situation). In this article, I will examine the argument that the Pistons, who went on to win the 2003-2004 NBA Championship, should have drafted Mr. Anthony with the second pick. Many commentators say yes. However, for reasons I explain below, I think that the unique circumstances of the Pistons in 2003 defy an easy answer to the question of what they should have done with the second pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.
- A note before starting
- The Pistons’ path to the second pick in the 2003 draft
- Examining the Detroit Pistons going into the 2002-03 NBA Draft
- The Pistons in the 2003 NBA Draft
- Framework for the question
- The 2003-04 Pistons championship team
- What should the Pistons have done with the pick?
Please note that my purpose in writing this is not to diminish the careers of any players mentioned, including the oft-maligned Darko Milicic. I think the Pistons’ 2003 draft decision raises interesting questions about management and priorities in light of the fact that they made an objectively poor draft choice in hindsight and yet then proceeded to win the Championship that same year. I think that there were probably numerous draft scenarios where Mr. Milicic would have had a better career than he did being drafted by the Pistons, and regardless of whether Mr. Anthony would have been the correct choice for the Pistons, he was one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history.
The Pistons’ path to the second pick in the 2003 draft
In May 2003, the NBA held a draft lottery comprised by the 13 teams that missed the playoffs in 2002-03. The Pistons were not among those teams, having finished the 2002-03 season with a 50-32 record, which was best in the Eastern Conference and tied for fifth best in the NBA. The Pistons’ run in 2002-2003 ended in a four game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the defending conference champion New Jersey Nets.
As I explain in my companion article, the Pistons had the rights to the draft choice of the Memphis Grizzlies provided that the Grizzlies’ own pick fell between spots 2 and 18. This was the result of a short-sighted trade between the teams back in August 1997. Leaving the details to the companion article, it is precisely because the Pistons were a very unusual team to find itself near the top of the draft lottery that there is an interesting question regarding what it should have done with the draft choice.
Examining the Detroit Pistons going into the 2002-03 NBA Draft
The Pistons posted back-to-back 50-32 records going into the 2002-03 NBA draft. In both seasons, they advanced in the playoffs for the first time since 1990-91, losing in the Eastern Semifinals in 01-02 and the Conference Finals in 02-03.
The Pistons’ offensive and defensive rating stats (which are adjusted per 100 possessions) were generally consistent with their records in 01-02 and 02-03.
|Year||Record||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
|01-02||50-32||104.8 (12th)||102.4 (8th)||+2.4 (9th)|
|02-03||50-32||104.1 (15th)||99.9 (4th)||+4.2 (5th)|
The Pistons featured one of the NBA’s best defenses, anchored by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace, and a generally league-average offense.
The Pistons would bring back three of five starters in 2003-04: Ben Wallace and guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Tayshaun Prince, who had been the Pistons’ first round draft choice in 2002, would move into the starting lineup at small forward in 2003. The Pistons began the season with veterans Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur splitting time starting alongside Ben Wallace at center.
It is often said of the 2000s Pistons teams that they did not have a single superstar player. This is true in the sense that the Pistons, for all their success, did not have a top-five or even top-ten player, although Mr. Billups rated as one by some advanced metrics in his best seasons in the latter half of the 2000s. But despite lacking a Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, or Shaquille O’Neal (to use some of the best names of 2002-03), the Pistons were loaded with several All Star caliber players (Wallace, Billups, and Hamilton) and a fairly deep bench behind a strong starting five.
The biggest change the Pistons made in 2002-03 was in coaching. Despite having led the Pistons to back to back solid seasons, the team fired Coach Rick Carlisle (who was promptly hired by the Pistons’ chief division rival, the Indiana Pacers) and replaced him with Larry Brown, who had accrued many accomplishments throughout his career and coached the Philadelphia 76ers to an NBA Finals appearance in 2001.
The Pistons were relatively young, returning their three best players from the previous two seasons, and made a coaching change which suggested that they were looking to win immediately. That is, the Pistons were very much looking at how to maximize their chances in 2002-03 rather than lay the groundwork for some season in the distant future.
As we know, the Pistons would go on to win the 2003-04 NBA Championship behind a historically dominant defense and an all-in mid-season trade. However, going into the season, I do not recall the Pistons having been high on peoples’ championship radar. Before looking it up, I guessed that the teams viewed as the main championship contenders were the Los Angeles Lakers (having added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a core of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant), the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, and fellow Western Conference contenders Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks. The Eastern Conference was largely viewed as an afterthought, but I ventured that the New Jersey Nets, which had represented the East in the Finals in the previous two seasons and which were returning their best players, would have been viewed as the best team in the East pre-season. According to basketball reference’s 2003-04 preseason betting odds, my recollection was right on and in the correct order. The Pistons were given the seventh best championship odds along with the Indiana Pacers. That sounds about right.
Before discussing hypotheticals, I will first describe the choice that the Pistons actually made in the 2003 NBA Draft.
As I explain in my companion article, there was a 93.6% chance that the Pistons would receive the Memphis Grizzlies’ draft pick, with the 6.4% chance representing the probability that the Grizzlies would win the number one pick, the only scenario in which the Grizzlies’ pick would be protected. The most likely scenario was that the Pistons would have the sixth pick (which was Memphis’ pre-lottery draft position), but in theory the Pistons could also receive the pick at 2, 3, 7, or 8. Expecting the sixth pick before the lottery, the Pistons had a best-case scenario when the Grizzlies moved up to 2, the highest draft position that could convey to the Pistons.
I note this all to highlight that the Pistons had plenty of time to prepare for what they would do with a high pick.
The 2003 draft class was headed by a certain high school senior by the name of LeBron James. Mr. James was, however, of little concern to the Pistons since he was almost certainly (I will say certainly) going to be the first pick regardless of who won the lottery, and the scenario in which the Grizzlies won the first pick was the only scenario in which the pick would not and did not go to the Pistons. That Mr. James was going to be the first pick was such a foregone conclusion that the Cavaliers reportedly did not receive any trade offers for the selection, with teams having determined that it would have been a waste of time to inquire.
Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars reportedly watched an amazing workout by Mr. Milicic just hours before he learned that the Pistons would unexpectedly be picking second in the Draft. The workout inspired longtime Pistons scout Will Robinson to compare Mr. Milicic to Wilt Chamberlain and declare that he would own the game. Pistons players who watched, including Mr. Ben Wallace, Mr. Billups, and Mr. Hamilton, were reportedly impressed with the workout (albeit that was before they knew the Pistons would be picking second). My impression from having read numerous accounts is that the Pistons were likely to take Mr. Milicic from the moment they had the second pick, but there are some contrary accounts.
Mr. Tony Ronzone, who was a Pistons executive from 2001-2010, made clear that the Pistons were inclined to take Mr. Milicic from the beginning:
Teams kept calling us about the No. 2 pick, offering us all kinds of packages. We had a couple of conversations about Carmelo [Anthony]. Chris Bosh had a great workout with us, and we really liked him. But we were focused on Darko.Tony Ronzone
Mr. Milicic’s agent stated in 2013 that he was “pretty sure” the Pistons would select his client as soon as they received the second pick.
According to Chris McCosky, who was then a Pistons beat writer, the team was not high on Mr. Anthony, and he believes that had the Pistons would have selected Mr. Bosh over Mr. Anthony absent Mr. Milicic. Mr. Chris Tomasson, a Nuggets beat writer, stated that it was his impression and that of the Nuggets brass (note the Nuggets had the third pick) that the Pistons would select Mr. Milicic second.
The Nuggets, who ultimately selected Mr. Anthony third, reportedly had Mr. Milicic ranked second on their draft board. According to Mr. Chad Ford in 2006, the Nuggets had tried to trade up to swap picks with the Pistons in order to draft Mr. Milicic, but their efforts were unsuccessful. (Perhaps this is one of the trade offers Mr. Ronzone referenced.) Mr. Dumars, who had the final decision-making authority for the Pistons, has not to my knowledge said anything to suggest the Pistons leaned away from selecting Mr. Milicic at any point in the process.
For his part, Mr. Anthony has stated that he was under the strong impression that the Pistons would take him at second, going so far as to say that he had been promised and was hurt when the Pistons passed on him.
Larry Brown, who officially became coach of the Pistons between the lottery and the June 26 Draft, stated that he was told when he took the job that the Pistons would draft Mr. Anthony. Mr. Brown stated that while Mr. Milicic was skilled in workouts, he preferred Mr. Anthony and was disappointed that the Pistons did not work them out against each other. While Mr. Brown’s stating that the Pistons said they would select Mr. Anthony does not seem consistent with some of the other evidence, the fact that Mr. Brown seldom played Mr. Milicic in his two seasons as Coach of the Pistons does support that he was not on board with the Pistons’ decision at the time it was made.
However, granting that the Milicic selection did not work out on its own merits, Mr. Brown noted that the same people who made the choice also built the 2003-04 Pistons championship roster:
It is what it is because the same people that drafted Darko were smart enough to trade for Ben Wallace,” he said. “Smart enough to draft Tayshaun Prince, smart enough to trade for Rip Hamilton, smart enough to trade for Chauncey Billups, smart enough to trade for and believe in Rasheed (Wallace). So you know, it is what it is.Larry Brown
This is a fair point. Mr. Dumars made a series of moves over several years which yielded a championship and six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals (beginning in 2002-03). Not only was he not the only General Manager who would have taken Mr. Milicic number two, but the general consensus appears to be that most teams in the lottery would have selected Mr. Milicic in the same position. However, there were exceptions. Mr. Chad Ford wrote that Mr. Jerry West, whose Grizzlies surrendered the second pick to the Pistons, did not understand why teams were so high on on Mr. Milicic. Mr. Ford, who admits he was Mr. Milicic’s biggest promoter in the media, stated that he thought Mr. West was “xenophobic” at the time. For his part, Mr. West stated that “[t]here’s no way we would’ve taken Darko at No. 2.” In hindsight, Mr. Milicic himself stated that the Pistons wasted the pick by selecting him and then not giving him playing time.
I introduced the article as asking whether the Pistons should have selected Carmelo Anthony with the second pick in 2003. Before we dig in, we need to establish the framework for this discussion.
Firstly, we are considering the what if scenario against what actually happened. I describe what actually happened as follows:
The Detroit Pistons selected Darko Milicic with the second overall selection in the 2003 NBA Draft. Mr. Milicic played a total of 159 minutes in his rookie season. The Pistons completed a trade for Rasheed Wallace mid season, slotted him into their starting lineup between Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace, and went on to win the NBA Championship behind a dominant defense in the playoffs. The Pistons lost in the NBA Finals in seven games in 2005 and in the Conference Finals in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Mr. Milicic barely played in his second season and a half before being traded in 2006.
That is, we know that in the scenario where the Pistons draft Mr. Milicic, they win one NBA Championship. Moreover, I will accept as fact that the Pistons’ mid-season trade for Rasheed Wallace was necessary to their winning the Championship.
In our what if scenario, I want to restrict the inquiry to things that had a realistic probability of happening in 2003. For example, with perfect hindsight, my opinion is that the Pistons should have selected Dwyane Wade in the 2003 NBA Draft, either with the second pick or after having traded down to three or four. However, there is absolutely no evidence that the Pistons had Mr. Wade on the radar for the second pick, and Mr. Chad Ford reported in 2006 that no team in the lottery had Mr. Wade rated above Mr. Milicic. Thus, opining that the Pistons should have drafted Mr. Wade when there is no evidence that they considered the possibility is not particularly interesting.
While there is some question as to how much the Pistons realistically considered drafting someone other than Mr. Milicic in 2003, we know for a fact that they worked out both Mr. Anthony and Mr. Bosh, and that there are some people in the know who have reported that they were both considered by the Pistons.
Finally, in considering the question, I will grant that the Pistons should not have selected Mr. Milicic, which is now the opinion of Mr. Dumars and Mr. Milicic. While I doubt that there was any likely scenario where Mr. Milicic would have matched the career output of Mr. Anthony or Mr. Bosh (much less Mr. Wade and even much less Mr. James), I in no way mean to discount the possibility that he would have had a more successful, perhaps lottery pick-caliber career, had he been drafted into a different situation. While the Milicic hype was clearly based in part on an early 2000s trend toward favoring European players and a lack of information, I am disinclined to disregard the myriad contemporaneous accounts from scouts and observers that he was legitimately talented, especially for someone who was playing professionally at 17. Even granting his rocky start in Detroit, Mr. Milicic stuck in the NBA for 10 seasons and showed flashes of above-average performance, notably in his brief stint in Orlando in 2006 after being traded from Detroit. Perhaps he would have had a better career had the Nuggets succeeded in swapping picks with the Pistons. But regardless of Mr. Milicic’s what ifs, he barely played in his two seasons and change with the Pistons before being traded for a future first round pick.
Thus, in asking what the Pistons should have done, we are left with the following possibilities:
- Draft Carmelo Anthony second
- Draft Chris Bosh second
- Trade down to the third pick and select Mr. Bosh or Mr. Anthony, assuming arguendo the Nuggets took Mr. Milicic second
- Trade out of the draft entirely or trade the pick for an established player
This bears another question, however: What is our criteria?
The Pistons case is interesting because in their unique situation with the second pick, they were tugged by two prerogatives.
When making a high draft pick (let us define “high” as lottery), an NBA team will ordinarily decide whether to draft the best player available regardless of position or draft the best player available based on need. When drafting very high, let us say top five, a team will (and should) ordinarily draft the best player available regardless of position. In theory, picks at the top of the draft should be potential stars, if not a clear franchise changing player such as Mr. James, a potential All Star and perhaps second best player on a championship team. The Blazers drafting Sam Bowie with the second pick in 1984 one spot ahead of Michael Jordan is often cited as an example of the dangers of drafting for need over the best player available when a team has a top-three pick.
Another reason the best player available rule works well at the top of the draft is because most teams with high draft picks have high draft picks for a reason – their records the previous season were bad enough to be in the lottery.
Of course, the Pistons were not a bad team in 2003. They had been one of the best teams in the NBA in 2002-03 and were returning their three-best players, all of whom were close to their peak. This brings us to a rule that does not often need to be invoked by teams with the second pick in the NBA Draft, Mr. Daryl Morey’s (now General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers) 5 percent rule:
If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title.Daryl Morey
Mr. Morey’s position is that if your team has a five-percent chance to win the NBA Championship in a given season, you go all in, meaning you make decisions from the perspective of improving your immediate championship chances rather than playing a long game.
As I demonstrated with the preseason odds for 2003-04, the Pistons were not viewed as a likely NBA Champion going in to the season. However, while Mr. Morey’s five-percent rule was not yet part of the popular parlance, the Pistons acted very much in accord with it. While the Nets dispatched the Pistons easily in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2003-04, all it would have taken for the Pistons to make the Finals would have been an injury. See Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s articulation of the five percent rule:
One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes.
Moreover, in addition to having been one round short of the NBA Finals in 2002-03, the Pistons promised to be even better in 2003-04 with their coaching change and the growth of two key young players, Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur. On February 19, 2004, the Pistons made their big win now move by trading several role players and two first round picks to the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics in a deal which netted them Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons behaved very much like a team that believed it could win the championship in 2003-04.
In considering what the Pistons should have done with the pick, we must decide which paradigm we are applying. In almost all number two pick cases, I would say select the best player available on your draft board. However, I agree with Mr. Morey’s five percent rule, and I think that the 2003-04 Pistons were one of the best examples of it.
To begin, I concur with the view that drafting Mr. Anthony or Mr. Bosh would not have guaranteed that the Pistons would win multiple championships. Several players on those Pistons teams, including Mr. Billups, Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Prince, have opined that the Pistons would have won multiple championships with Mr. Anthony. However, this entails a great amount of speculation. It is speculation I would be willing to indulge had the Pistons somehow had the opportunity to draft Mr. James. But as terrific a player and scorer Mr. Anthony was, his teams, on which he was most often the best player, won a combined three playoff series in his first 14 seasons. This is not to say that adding Mr. Anthony to an already strong Pistons team would not have yielded something special, but only to note that we should not get carried away with hypotheticals.
What is not hypothetical is that the Pistons won the NBA Championship in 2003-04. That accomplishment means that those players on the Pistons are forever NBA champions. It is the 2003-04 championship that distinguishes those 2000s Pistons teams from similarly strong teams over a long period, such as the 2000s Phoenix Suns and the 1990s Utah Jazz. If one thinks back on the 2000s Pistons, he or she is most likely to first remember their dominant upset of the Lakers in the 2004 Finals, not their close loss to the Spurs in the 2005 Finals or their disappointing exits from the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
Thus, I will apply a special version of the 5 percent rule for our historical revisionist exercise. I will not recommend any 2003 Draft action for the Pistons that I believe would have made it less likely that they would win the championship in 2003-04 from the position they were in as of June 2003 – granting that the Pistons had at least a 5 percent chance of winning the Championship with no production from their high draft pick. It should go without saying that adding Mr. Anthony or Mr. Bosh would have had the potential to make the Pistons better in future years, but we can only consider this if it would not have harmed the Pistons’ prospects in 2003-04.
(Note that having already said that the Pistons should have drafted Dwyane Wade with perfect hindsight, I believe that Mr. Wade would satisfy my criteria.)
The 2003-04 Pistons championship team
As I noted earlier, the 2003-04 Pistons team initially looked like its predecessor, with the most significant change being a new coach and the rise of second-year small forward Tayshaun Prince into the starting lineup. The Pistons were a defense-first team like their predecessors. See their season stats:
- Record: 54-28 (East #2)
- PPG: 90.1 (24th)
- OPPG: 84.3 (2nd)
- Pace: 87.9 (24th)
- Offensive Rating: 102.0 (18th)
- Defensive Rating: 95.4 (2nd)
- Net Rating: +6.6 (2nd)
- Expected Record: 59-23 (2nd)
The 03-04 Pistons were notably better in the regular season than the 01-02 and 02-03 editions, and their margins suggested that they were better than their 54-28 record. Returning stars Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, and Richard Hamilton all improved slightly on their play from the previous season, and Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur provided solid upgrades at their positions. The significant moment came mid-season when the Pistons added Rasheed Wallace, an excellent two-way forward, to their roster on February 19. The Pistons had a record of 34-22 when then made the trade. After adding Mr. Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons finished the regular season on a 20-6 spurt to secure the second seed in the Eastern Conference behind the 61-21 Indiana Pacers.
Regular season counting stats, key players
Notes: Mr. Ben Wallace averaged 3.0 blocks and 1.8 steals. Mr. Rasheed Wallace after 2.0 blocks and 1.1 steals. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Billups averaged 1.3 and 1.1 steals repectively.
Playoff counting stats, starters
(Note: All starters played all 23 playoff games.)
Advanced stats, key players
|Stat||B. Wallace||Hamilton||Billups||Prince||R. Wallace||Okur|
Playoff advanced stats, starters
|Stat||B. Wallace||Hamilton||Billups||Prince||R. Wallace|
On-Off stats, key players
Playoff on-off stats, starters
The Pistons cranked their defense, which had already been among the NBA’s best, to another level in the 2003-04 playoffs. 2003-04 was the last season in which hand-checking was allowed as a defensive tactic, and the offensive nadir that season marked both the peak and end of an era (consider the offensive output somewhere between basketball’s olden days and what is happening in the 2020s). Some of the low score totals in the 2003-04 playoffs would be unthinkable in the 2020s. Below, I present a table showing the scores in all of Detroit’s games in its 2004 playoff championship round.
|Series||Game 1||Game 2||Game 3||Game 4||Game 5||Game 6||Game 7|
|EQF vs Bucks||108-82||88-92||95-85||109-92||91-77|
|ESF vs Nets||78-56||95-80||64-82||79-94||120-127 (3OT)||81-75||90-69|
|ECF vs Pacers||74-78||72-67||85-78||68-83||83-65||69-65|
|Finals vs Lakers||87-75||91-99 (OT)||88-68||88-80||100-87|
The Pistons held opponents below 70 points six times in their last 18 playoff games. For the playoffs as a whole, the Pistons posted a league best 92.0 defensive rating, significantly better than their 95.4 regular season mark (unsurprisingly, the Nets and Pacers were tied for second best defensive rating at 93.7). No team scored more than 94 points against the Pistons in regulation in the entire playoffs (the Nets scored 88 against the Pistons in regulation of its 127-120 triple overtime win in game 5 of the Eastern Semifinals and the Lakers scored 89 in its 99-91 overtime win in game 2 of the Finals). The defining moment of the Pistons’ playoff run was Tayshaun Prince’s spectacular chase-down block of Reggie Miller in game 2 of the series, which prevented the Pacers from tying game two late and possibly taking a 2-0 series lead. (The rest of that series, which saw the Pistons average 75.2 points and the Pacers average 72.7, has likely been wiped from the memories of those who watched it.)
While Mr. Prince delivered the Pistons’ defining moment in the 2003-04 playoffs, the team as a whole is remembered for its demolition of the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. While it is clear in hindsight that the Lakers were running on fumes, they had defeated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves (led by NBA MVP Kevin Garnett) in six games each en route to the Finals. In those six-game series wins, the Lakers posted an offensive rating of 101.0 against the Spurs (who had the NBA’s to-ranked regular season defense ahead of the Pistons, per defensive rating) and 107.3 against the Timberwolves. The Pistons held the Lakers to an offensive rating of 96.1 in the five games of the Finals, aided in large part by their ability (thanks to Wallace) to hold up against Shaquille O’Neal. While Mr. O’Neal still had a decent series statistically, the Pistons held his co-star, Mr. Kobe Bryant, to 22.6 points per game on 38.1% shooting (45.6 true shooting percentage), and every starter on the Lakers save for Mr. O’Neal to below 50% true shooting.
We must also consider how close the Pistons came to exiting the playoffs in the second round. The two-time defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Nets came back from an 0-2 series deficit to take a 3-2 series lead (and in so doing, became the only team to score more than 100 points against the Pistons in the 2004 Playoffs). The Pistons won a close game six on the road (81-75) to force a game seven, which they then won in dominant fashion. The Nets series and Mr. Prince’s potentially game-saving block in game 2 of the East Finals highlight how championships can be decided by thin margins.
Now that we understand in broad strokes how the Pistons won the 2003-04 NBA Championship, we have the framework to consider what the Pistons should have done in the Draft.
What should the Pistons have done with the pick?
Let us begin with Carmelo Anthony since this is usually suggested as the alternative to the Pistons’ drafting Darko Milicic.
Mr. Anthony’s main NBA position early in his career was small forward. He played 88% of his 2,995 minutes at the three in the 2003-04 season with the Nuggets. The Pistons started Tayshaun Prince at the three in 2003-04, and he played 95% of his 2,701 minutes at the position. Many of the Pistons spare small forward minutes were played by starting shooting guard Richard Hamilton, who played 11% of his 2,772 minutes at the three.
Mr. Anthony would not have been added to the Pistons in a vacuum. Any minutes he played would have come from somewhere else. In this case, it is likely that his minutes would have come at the expense of some of Mr. Prince’s minutes. I will venture from the top that there is no scenario in which Mr. Anthony would have barely played, which is what actually happened with Mr. Milicic.
Neither Mr. Anthony nor Mr. Prince see a problem with this scenario in hindsight. Mr. Anthony stated that he was told by the Pistons that he would share time with Mr. Prince (recall Mr. Anthony asserts the Pistons promised they would select him) and that he had no problem with the scenario. Mr. Prince concurred, although he suggested that it would have been best for Mr. Anthony to play a sixth man role off the bench in his first couple of seasons, while stating that he would have also been fine if the Pistons decided to start Mr. Anthony.
Mr. Anthony played the leading role for the Denver Nuggets in his rookie season. He averaged 36.5 minutes per game and posted the NBA’s 10th highest usage rate (28.5%), en route to averaging 20.7 points per game on 17.6 field goal attempts per game. The Nuggets, however, were a very different team than the Pistons. They were coming off a 17-65 season, and the addition of Mr. Anthony in conjunction with several other roster upgrades helped the Nuggets finish 43-39. However, while the Pistons were known for their defense, the team had more offensive weapons, notably with Mr. Billups and Mr. Hamilton, than did the Nuggets sans Mr. Anthony.
In considering whether the Pistons should have drafted Mr. Anthony, we must consider whether (A) Mr. Anthony taking minutes from Mr. Prince would have been a good thing, and (B) assuming that this is not a good thing , whether Mr. Anthony would have worked in a role smaller than what he played for the first decade-plus of his career in Denver and later New York.
It is difficult to compare Mr. Prince and Mr. Anthony, notwithstanding the fact they primarily played the same position early in their careers, because they were very different players. Mr. Anthony was a big small forward and a spectacular scorer capable of consistently generating his own offense and making difficult shots. Mr. Prince was more of a role player who was an above average shooter and passer and made excellent use of his long arms on defense. Mr. Prince was a far better defensive player than Mr. Anthony but lacked Mr. Anthony’s ability to generate his own offense. There is little question that if one were starting a team from scratch, Mr. Anthony’s ability to generate his own offense and score with decent efficiency at extremely high usage is a rarer commodity than what Mr. Prince brought to the table. That is, in the context of the Denver Nuggets, where Mr. Anthony actually ended up, Mr. Anthony had more value than a player such as Mr. Prince. However, the Pistons were, after the addition of Mr. Rasheed Wallace, a championship-caliber team even without Mr. Anthony’s shot creation, and Mr. Prince was an essential part of their offense and defense. Thus, our question is not whether Mr. Anthony was better than Mr. Prince in a vacuum in 2003-04 or any later season, but whether the Pistons would have been better with a non-insignificant number of Mr. Prince’s minutes being played by Mr. Anthony. We must also consider the possibility that the Pistons would not have traded for Mr. Wallace in the Anthony scenario.
Let us compare Mr. Anthony and Mr. Prince in 2003-04, granting that Mr. Anthony would have necessarily played a different role in Detroit than he did in Denver. First, their regular counting stats (both players appeared in all 82 games):
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Anthony posted better looking stats than did Mr. Prince. Now let us look at some of their “advanced” stats (description of stats in the table footnote). One worthwhile note is that Mr. Anthony actually had a lower turnover percentage than did Mr. Prince (accounting for minutes played and usage) despite the fact that he averaged 3 turnovers to Mr. Prince’s 1.5.
Mr. Anthony was a much higher usage player than Mr. Prince and provided unique value to a rebuilding Nuggets team. However, Mr. Prince was a significantly better defensive player than Mr. Anthony, which was important to the defense-first Pistons. What is not captured by the stats is that Mr. Prince had the ability to defend all perimeter positions and some smaller power forwards with his foot speed and wingspan. In the context of the Pistons, we must consider that even in a limited role, Mr. Anthony would have had a much higher usage rate than Mr. Prince (Mr. Anthony never had a usage rate of less than 20, even in his twilight seasons as a role player), and thus would have taken possessions used by others. One could argue in light of the fact that the Pistons had close to a league average offense that this would have been a good thing, but we must note it regardless. Finally, let us look at their on court vs off court stats:
The raw on court and off court stats are interesting, but must be read in context. For example, because the Pistons were a significantly better team than the Nuggets, there is no surprise that the Pistons were better with Mr. Prince on the floor (+6.8) than the Nuggets were with Mr. Anthony on the floor (+0.8). The Nuggets were slightly worse with Anthony on the floor than off, whereas the reverse was true for the Pistons, but this too needs context. For example, we must consider what lineups were used when they were off the floor vs on. ESPN’s real-plus-minus tries to account for this, but I was never too sure how much stock to put in it. RPM was very negative on Mr. Anthony’s 2003-04 rookie season, particularly his defense (RPM was relatively unkind to Mr. Hamilton, although less so than it was to Mr. Anthony’s rookie season), whereas Mr. Prince was viewed as a slight negative on offense and a positive on defense.
(For whatever it is worth, I think RPM is way too negative on Mr. Anthony as a rookie, even granting his early-career flaws. I do not think the Nuggets would have been a better team without Mr. Anthony. I similarly do not think Mr. Prince was a drag on the Pistons offense in 2003-04.)
Interestingly, Mr. Anthony actually slightly regressed from his rookie season by most metrics in 2004-05 before posting one of his best individual seasons in 2005-06 and generally improving from there on (Mr. Anthony’s best season was, without much question, 2012-13 with the Knicks, in which he won the scoring title and finished 4th in MVP voting). Mr. Prince’s best individual season came in 2004-05, but he generally maintained a consistent high level of play in a similar role through 2008-09.
However, taken together, it is my opinion that the Pistions should not have drafted Mr. Anthony because drafting Mr. Anthony would have made it less likely that the Pistons would have won the 2003-04 championship. Mr. Anthony was already an impressive scorer as a rookie in 2003-04, but he was not yet a particularly efficient one, and he was definitely a negative on defense, both in a vacuum and relative to Mr. Prince. Adding the 2005-06 version of Mr. Anthony to that Pistons team would have potentially made a decisive difference, and it is entirely possible that the Pistons would have maintained their success for longer (they dropped off in 2008-09) with Mr. Anthony. But again, this is dealing in vague hypotheticals. We have to focus clearly in 2003-04 because we know that the outcome of not drafting Mr. Anthony was a championship.
While a majority of the Pistons starting line up believe that Mr. Anthony would have fit in perfectly, there is one dissenting voice: the anchor of the Pistons’ defense, Ben Wallace.
Mr. Ben Wallace articulated his position:
If we would’ve drafted Carmelo, I honestly don’t think we would have ever won a championship, Melo would want to play right away. That would have the potential to disrupt the team chemistry.Ben Wallace
He added some qualified praise for Mr. Milicic:
By drafting Darko, he came in and said that he is not ready to play on this team. Who I am going to play in front of. I’m not ready, and by him doing that and accepting his role, it allowed us to build and grow and get stronger and eventually win a championship.Ben Wallace
Mr. Ben Wallace’s quotes are interesting. He notably did not deny the possibility that the Pistons may have won if they drafted Mr. Anthony. Note that he said Mr. Anthony would have had “the potential to disrupt the team chemistry.” Mr. Wallace praised the choice of Mr. Milicic in a specific context, implicitly citing to a version of the 5 percent theory. In his mind, the Pistons were already an excellent team ready to compete for a championship. He does not think that adding a player who would have wanted minutes and shots right away, regardless of fit, would have helped the Pistons that season. While the other Pistons starters I quoted were focused on what could have been in later seasons, Mr. Wallace focused only on 2003-04, the season in which the Pistons actually won the championship.
I think Mr. Ben Wallace is correct. Perhaps Mr. Anthony would have thrived, at least for a season or two, a sort of sixth-man role. Perhaps he would have been a better defensive player had he developed in the Pistons culture, something suggested by then-Coach Larry Brown. (Note: Both Mr. Anthony and Mr. LeBron James were not pleased with their lack of playing time under Mr. Brown in the 2004 Summer Olympics. While that was a non-NBA event, it does not necessarily support the conclusion that Mr. Brown would have had a special rapport with a rookie Mr. Anthony. Note that this should not be read as a commentary on Mr. Brown’s minutes management at the 2004 Olympics.) There is little evidence that Mr. Brown Moreover, the positive opinion of the idea from Mr. Chauncey Billups, who led the Denver Nuggets to the 2009 Western Conference Finals alongside Mr. Anthony, merits special consideration since it comes from the perspective of the Pistons’ 2004 Finals MVP and someone who personally played with Mr. Anthony. But none of this vitiates the points raised by Mr. Ben Wallace. The evidence does not strongly support that the Pistons would have benefited from allocating a significant number of Mr. Prince’s minutes (and even minutes played by Mr. Okur and Mr. Hamilton) to Mr. Anthony, which would have at best added shot creation in exchange for defense. While it is easy to say looking back and knowing how little Mr. Milicic played that everything would have gone smoothly with no issue, I am inclined to accept Mr. Wallace’s concern that Mr. Anthony may not have been inclined to take on a small role as a rookie (this was notably a point of contention later in his career).
Adding Mr. Anthony would have raised chemistry concerns and questions about whether it would have actually improved the Pistons in 2003-04. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the Pistons would not have made the trade for Mr. Rasheed Wallace in the Anthony scenario (e.g., perhaps Atlanta and Boston would have had different trade demands in that case, which is possible even before considering all of the other potential moving parts), which was a necessary condition for the Pistons’ winning in 2003-04.
Had the Pistons not won the championship in 2003-04, I would say without question that they should have drafted Mr. Anthony over Mr. Milicic (if those were the only options) and worked the rest out. However, because the Pistons did win the championship in 2003-04, I agree with Mr. Ben Wallace that there are too many variables at play to conclude that the Pistons should have drafted Mr. Anthony, all for uncertain future gain.
I think the question of whether the Pistons should have drafted Mr. Chris Bosh is a closer call. I am personally a big fan of Mr. Bosh, and I think his willingness to accept a diminished role when he was a star player later in his career with the Miami Heat speaks well to the possibility that he may have fit in in such a role early in his career with the Pistons. Moreover, while certain teams (including Detroit according to one account) viewed Mr. Bosh as a better prospect than Mr. Anthony, he was not entering the NBA with the same fanfare and expectations. One notable point about Mr. Bosh is that he also played a smaller role as a rookie than did Mr. Anthony. In his first season in Toronto, he averaged 33.5 minutes per game and 11.5 points while posting a usage rate of 18.3%, notably closer in terms of usage and minutes to Mr. Prince than to Mr. Anthony. Moreover, at least going into the season, Mr. Bosh fit a bigger need for the Pistons in the front court than did Mr. Anthony on the perimeter.
Bosh 03-04 counting stats
Bosh 03-04 advanced stats
Bosh 03-04 on-off stats
In theory, Mr. Bosh would have been a decent fit and less likely to disrupt the Pistons’ chemistry or move the needle significantly one way or another than was Mr. Anthony. His production also increased gradually, averaging 20 points for the first time in his third season, which was when the Pistons lost in the Eastern Conference Finals after back-to-back Finals appearances. However, there are a few reasons why I am also skeptical that the Pistons should have drafted Mr. Bosh.
Firstly, while Mr. Bosh was a decent player as a rookie, I am not sure that the Pistons would have found many minutes for him. He would have likely come off the bench, and while Mr. Bosh did eventually become a good defender in Miami later in his career, he would have been below average by the standards of the Pistons as a rookie. Mr. Bosh was not a better offensive player as a rookie than Mr. Mehmet Okur was at that point in Detroit (and despite having a good season, Mr. Okur’s role shrunk after the Rasheed Wallace trade). Moreover, we have to consider the possibility that Mr. Bosh’s presence as a future starting power forward would have made it less likely, for one reason or another, that the Pistons would have traded for Mr. Rasheed Wallace. While Mr. Bosh did eventually surpass Mr. Wallace (his individual statistics were significantly better by 2005-06), one could question whether Mr. Bosh would have been an upgrade in the specific context of the Pistons until 2006-07.
Taken together, I think that the Pistons would have been more likely to achieve the same result that they did in 2003-04 with drafting Mr. Bosh than they were to do so with drafting Mr. Anthony. However, a scenario wherein they drafted Mr. Bosh and did not trade for Mr. Rasheed Wallace would have, in my view, not resulted in a championship. That possibility, combined with the fact that I do not think Mr. Bosh would have improved the Pistons relative to Mr. Rasheed Wallace until 2006-07 (which was the first season after Mr. Ben Wallace departed) makes me reluctant to confidently recommend this pick either, even though it would have been a better fit than selecting Mr. Anthony.
Finally, an alternative possibility would have involved trading the second pick in the draft for a veteran who could help right away, similarly to what Mr. Rasheed Wallace did mid-season. While we would need to know specific trades available to assess the possibilities, one could imagine a scenario where the Pistons brought in an upgrade at power forward or an immediate upgrade over Mr. Prince (who had only played 43 games as a rookie) at small forward and also received future draft picks in a deal for the very valuable second pick. Perhaps such a trade was offered, but alas, we do not know some of the specific offers that were made to the Pistons for the second overall draft choice.
After all of this, I have half-talked myself into the idea that maybe it really was best for the Pistons to unintentionally punt the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft. But this simply cannot be – there has to be a scenario where the Pistons got value out of the second pick and still won the championship in 2003-04. Thus, I propose that the Pistons should have traded down to position 3 (with Denver) or 4 (with Toronto), picked up additional assets (either veteran players or future picks), and then selected Chris Bosh with the pick. Mr. Bosh would have been able to fit in in a small role, and given Mr. Dumars’ aggressiveness that season, I am inclined to think that he would have still pulled the trigger on the Rasheed Wallace trade even after having drafted Mr. Bosh. I suggest as evidence that the Pistons had not given up on the idea that Mr. Milicic would have a future role with the team when they made the deal. So long as the Pistons still acquired Mr. Rasheed Wallace, I do not think that Mr. Bosh would have harmed their 2003-04 prospects. In this scenario, Mr. Bosh would have improved the Pistons’ prospects in 2004-05, when they very narrowly lost to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games in the NBA Finals, and 2005-06 when they were defeated by the eventual champion Miami Heat in the East Finals. He would have helped either with his own improvement or by being amenable to use in a trade to improve the Pistons in some other way in the event he could not win a starting role.
(Note that my position remains in a vacuum remains that the Pistons should have drafted Dwyane Wade, who would have made the Pistons slightly better coming off the bench in 2003-04 without likely affecting the Rasheed Wallace deal. Moreover, Mr. Wade, who won NBA Finals MVP on the 2005-06 champion Heat after leading them past these very Pistons, would have dramatically raised the Pistons’ already high ceiling in future years. But, as I noted, there is no evidence that the Pistons meaningfully considered drafting Dwyane Wade, so this possibility is moot.)
This wraps up my twenty-year retrospective on the case of the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Draft. I dare say the Pistons choice of Mr. Milicic is the most interesting missed high draft pick in NBA history in light of the fact that the Pistons won the Championship that same season. While it is easy to wonder what could have been for the Pistons had they selected a star in the second spot, we (and they) should not lose sight of what was. The sequence of events which followed the draft selection of Mr. Milicic ended with the Pistons winning the NBA Championship that same season, and they were a few unfortunate bounces (and Robert Horry heroics) away from repeating as Champion in 2004-05. The Pistons core remained an elite team through 2007-08, but it is because they won a championship in their six-year run of conference finals appearances that the team is remembered as fondly as it is. One could argue that the biggest loser of the 2003 Draft was Mr. Milicic himself, who for a variety of reasons, was not a good fit with the Pistons and had a rocky start to his NBA career.
Of course, many readers may have a different take. If you are of the view that the Pistons would have more likely than not won multiple championships in the 2010s with Mr. Anthony added to the mix, you may give less weight to my emphasis on not disturbing the 2003-04 championship. While I think Mr. Anthony is one of the finest offensive players of his generation, I do not think his addition to the Pistons would have guaranteed that success, although it would have certainly been possible. If the question involved Mr. LeBron James (imagine some universe where Cleveland took Mr. Milicic), I would have without hesitation said the Pistons should have drafted Mr. James, regardless of its potential effect on 2003-04. One reason the Pistons draft question is interesting is precisely because one’s answer depends on how he or she weighs potential future events against what we know actually happened.
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