The 2003 NBA Draft will go down as arguably the best draft class in history. It produced four future Hall of Fame players: Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. But a name from this draft that has disappeared from the basketball world rather quickly is Darko Milicic.
Not familiar with his work? The 2nd overall pick of the 2003 draft by the Detroit Pistons, picked between Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, is a NBA champion and that’s really all he has to his name form his career. Aside from being brought up in discussions about draft busts and what if scenarios like this, Milicic is never discussed.
It doesn’t sit right with me that 4 of the 5 top picks are NBA champions and Melo is the one who isn’t. His body of work and tenure in the league is astronomical when compared to Milicic yet he wasn’t lucky enough to land in a championship situation.
Pistons fans will tell you they made the right decision to draft Milicic considering they won the title in his rookie season, but let’s be honest they blew this pick. Milicic had no impact on that championship team. That Pistons team was winning the title regardless of his presence. Shaq and Kobe’s issues essentially handed the Pistons that ring so it would be foolish to say Melo wouldn’t have won a ring with them, and likely extend their championship window for years.
However there is someone who does have that take, and it is Pistons Center Ben Wallace who was apart of that team.
Ben Wallace said that the Pistons would have never won the 2004 NBA Finals with Carmelo Anthony on the team. He explained that Melo would have demanded attention and playing time, therefore messing up the team chemistry that was already in place.
I hear you but bruh we are talking about drafting Darko over Melo?????
I truly believe that not only would have the Pistons have won in ’04, but Carmelo Anthony would have extended their championship window.
So let’s rewind the clock to Draft night 2003 with the Pistons selecting Carmelo Anthony out of Syracuse.
2003-04 NBA Season
Despite being the best college player in 2003, and leading Syracuse to a national title, Melo would be coming off the bench for the championship ready Pistons. But that doesn’t mean he would have adopted the Milicic role of just not getting in the way.
His role and numbers would not have been what they were in his rookie season with the Nuggets but his impact would have been felt. Melo was more than capable of contributing to the Pistons team. He probably could have been a top 3 offensive player on the team that season considering the Pistons won on defense.
There is a thought that went unnoticed by Ben Wallace when he brought up Melo’s fit with the team. The Pistons were a systematic and at the core a defensive team. To get playing time, you had to bring it on the defensive end. While we never associate Melo with the word defensive presence, I do believe a young athletic Melo would have adapted into a capable and willing defender to see the floor.
A drop off from his 21 points per game he averaged in his real rookie season with the Nuggets, Melo would have hovered somewhere around the 15 points per game mark in his limited role in Detroit.
The trade off being a chance to win a NBA championship in his rookie season, continuing his winning ways from his collegiant career. The Pistons were underdogs with zero superstars against the Lakers in the ’04 Finals. But the task wasn’t nearly as high as it was on paper. The Lakers chemistry was a dumpster fire. The Pistons were winning that series with or without Darko and the same goes for if Melo were in that situation.
The only wrench that could be thrown into the situation is if the Pistons didn’t trade for Rasheed Wallace. The whole point they went out and got Sheed was because Darko was a disappointment. Melo would not be a disappointment, so there is no guarantee Sheed ends up in Detroit. And without Sheed, the Pistons don’t even make the finals. But for the sake of making this article fun, Sheed’s experience is something that attracts Detroit and they bring him in anyway.
2004-05 NBA Season
Assuming the ’04 title win, the Pistons are looking to repeat as champions, something they failed to do in reality. They almost pulled off the back to back. It came down to Game 7 and the final minute before the Spurs pulled away.
This is where I believe a second year, explosive Melo could have come up huge for the Pistons. The entire series was a defensive grind and both teams struggled to score. A player of Melo’s offensive caliber could have been the difference maker the Pistons needed to overcome the Spurs.
Sophomore year Melo was giving grown men buckets night after night. In this equation, not being the number one option yet, his efficiency would have been through the roof. Only having to get the Pistons around 15 a night would have been easily do-able.
With Melo, not unless Darko, the Pistons are back to back champions and still years of contention in them.
2005-06 NBA Season
Despite the third year Melo taking a huge leap this season, Detroit would not pull of the three-peat. The Miami Heat were on an insane run throughout the playoffs and would still have made won the NBA Finals. The rise of D Wade and the veteran presence were destined to win it all that season.
While still a defensive oriented team at heart, the increased role for Melo would change the dynamic of the team. Running the offense through Melo would shift Chauncey Billups to the 2nd option, becoming more of a facilitator. There was still light in the darkness of not three-peating this season. Melo’s development into a top offensive threat in the league would bold well for them in the following season.
2006-07 NBA Season
As we know the real 2007 NBA Finals was the Spurs annihilating the Cavs trash can roster featuring a 23-year-old Lebron James. LeBron carried a bunch of average NBA players to the Finals, including defeating the Pistons in the Conference Finals.
LeBron dominated the Pistons. The defensive approach they always relied on couldn’t stop James’ offensive fire power. But if they Melo, maybe they could have responded and stayed afloat. Maybe the best friends go head to head, bucket for bucket in a few games of the series. The pressure of James to both guard Melo and then go on the other end and literally score on every play would have been too much for the 23-year-old.
This would have been an all time classic series if we got the battle a young Melo and LeBron could have produced. And I think the outcome of the series would have been different. It would have been too much for James to overcome with that roster he was running with. Melo would be the answer to all of the Pistons problems in 2007. But would they be able to compete with prime Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker?
The answer to that question would be an emphatic no. That ’07 Spurs team was something amazing to watch. They were deeper than the Pistons and Parker was playing out of his damn mind. It would have been a much more competitive season than the Cavs put up against them. But in the end the Spurs were too good that season.
2007-08 NBA Season
The 2008 season was the last time the Pistons were really seen as title contenders. They did make the Conference Finals and had a competitive series with the Boston Celtics. Would Melo have been enough for the aging Pistons roster to overcome the Celtics Big 3? I’m not confident in that happening. The ’08 Celtics were dominant on both ends of the ball, but more so defensively. They essentially were playing the Pistons game, but better and younger.
The Pistons would still lose the series, marking the end of their reign atop the conference.
2008-09 NBA Season
By now Melo would be the face of the franchise, but the team was heading towards a rebuild. Rasheed Wallace is gone. Billups and Hamilton are now 10 year vets with milage on their bodies. The bench is in shambles. The experience and talent of Melo is enough to get the Pistons to the playoffs, but would be out in the early rounds.
Now that the glory days of Detroit are in the rear view mirror, Melo would want out and head home. Whether the Pistons trade Melo for a haul, or decide to hang on and lose him via free agency is up to them, but without a doubt Melo is out of there by the end.
Melo goes on to New York as a proven champion. The narrative that “is he a winner,” and “he is a me guy,” would be non existent.
The Pistons go full rebuild, much like they did in real life.
Melo be a two time champion. The Pistons would have won one more finals than they originally did. They would have made a third during that era. The window of winning would have ben greater for a little while longer before eventually rebuilding. The Pistons avoid the all time draft bust list.
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