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Getting Stiffed: the 2003 NBA lottery stiff job

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How different would the Nuggets future had been if they had won the 2003 lottery?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to week 2 of our draft lottery odds update. I pondered what to do with this column other than spit out an updated lottery projections table and I figure since the Nuggets get jobbed on virtually every lottery they've been in we'd revisit the bad luck that's been bestowed upon this franchise's lottery balls. To kick it off, let's re-visit what was one of the most impactful lotteries, and by extension drafts, in Nuggets history: 2003.

It's rare to have a player who everyone is 100% on as the #1 pick for the entire year preceding the draft but that was the case in 2003 when a 6'9" kid out of Akron, Ohio who could jump through the roof and had the ball handling skills of a point guard decided to forego college and enter the NBA draft. I speak of LeBron James. Following the 2002-2003 season the Nuggets and the Cleveland Cavaliers tied for the worst record in the NBA (a putrid 17-65) and thus split the chances to draft King James with each team getting a 22.5% chance at the first overall pick.

Cleveland of course went on to win the lottery and drafted the transcendent James with the first pick. In a bit of reverse good luck, the Memphis Grizzlies hit on a 9.7% chance (in comparison to Denver's 20.1%) of securing the second overall pick, which conveyed to the Detroit Pistons, and the Nuggets were unceremoniously dumped to the third pick. The reason that it turned out to be good luck for Denver is picking third saved them from themselves and mega bust Darko Milicic went off the board at #2 leaving Denver to draft Carmelo Anthony.

Its interesting to imagine how different the Nuggets history might be had they landed that first overall pick. Denver by far surrounded Anthony with better talent than Cleveland did with James and perhaps had he been a Nugget they might have secured a championship by now. Still, the 2000s were the heyday of the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers and it's tough to say if Denver would have been able to get over the top in that era. What might be even more interesting is if the Nuggets had got the second pick instead of the third.

If we assume Milicic would still have been a bust with the Nuggets then they likely are drafting top five the next couple of years and perhaps end up with the likes of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard or LaMarcus Aldridge (or on the other hand they could have got Adam Morrison or Andrea Bargnani). Yet what I think is even more intriguing is what would have happened to Detroit had they not drafted Milicic and instead taken any one of the next three players to come off the board (Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh). The Pistons went on to win the title in Milicic's rookie year despite his minimal contributions and if you replace him with the scoring prowess of Anthony, Wade or Bosh you're looking at a dynasty. Imagine that stellar Pistons lineup with Melo in the starting lineup and Tayshaun Prince as a 6th man, or Wade starting and Richard Hamilton providing the scoring off the bench...dominant.

Alas, it's all for not as the lottery fell the way it fell and history wrote itself accordingly. While the 2003 lottery was not the biggest lottery loss in Nuggets history, you can definitely argue it was the most impactful loss.  Next week we'll dive into perhaps what IS the biggest stiff job the Nuggets ever received, the 1998 lottery.

Footnotes:

1. The Philadelphia 76ers own the rights to swap first round picks with the Sacramento Kings (11-30 protected).
2. The Boston Celtics own the rights to the Brooklyn Nets1st rd pick.
3. The Denver Nuggets own the rights to swap first round picks with the New York Knicks.
4. The Toronto Raptors (via the Knicks) and the Sacramento Kings both have a very very minute chance of scoring either the 2nd or 3rd pick in the draft. The Raptors would need both the Nuggets and the Knicks picks to land in the top three, the Kings would need both their pick and the 76ers pick to land in the top 3. Suffice to say neither chance is very good.

5. We hemmed and hawed over p-values and calculating the odds of receiving a top 3 pick pretty extensively in the comments last week and after all of it I decided to keep going with the method we've been using. Bottom line, I got the baseline P-values from NBA.com and I assume they have far smarter people than me working for them.