Carmelo Anthony has been an integral piece of Denver Nuggets franchise history from the moment he was drafted in the summer of 2003. LeBron James went first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Melo went third to the Nuggets. Chris Bosh went fourth to the Toronto Raptors, and Dwyane Wade went fifth to the Miami Heat. Four of the top five draft picks will go on to be Hall of Famers, and three of them, save for Melo, played together for four years on the Miami Heat, winning two championships together.
Of course, Anthony didn’t play with the Heatles. He was in Denver, winning games but struggling to get out of the first round in a far superior Western Conference. Ultimately, Melo decided to leave for what he believed to be greener pastures with the New York Knicks, and the Melo era was done in Denver after eight years. Still, Anthony did a lot for the Nuggets in helping them get back on the map. The Nuggets were a lost franchise until they picked Melo third overall in the 2003 draft, and it’s difficult to say what the Nuggets would have done if Melo had never come to Denver.
But what if Melo was never available for the Nuggets to draft?
There’s one player selected in the top five of the 2003 draft I’ve neglected to mention thus far: Darko Miličić of the Detroit Pistons, drafted second overall ahead of Anthony, Bosh, and Wade. Darko spent ten seasons in the NBA, but he averaged starter minutes once during his career. With career averages of 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds, it’s safe to say that Miličić was one of the biggest busts in NBA history, especially considering the Hall of Fame talent drafted around him.
That brings us to the ultimate question: What if Carmelo Anthony was drafted second overall in 2003 over Darko Miličić?
The championship Pistons
The 2002-03 Detroit Pistons were already an elite team. They won 50 games the year prior and made the Eastern Conference Finals behind Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. There were other pieces on that roster, including a 36-year-old Clifford Robinson, but the most important pieces of Billups, Hamilton, and Wallace were locked in.
Despite having the DPOY as their starting center, the Pistons grew infatuated with Miličić during the draft process. The foreign seven-footer was entering his 18-year-old season, and he looked to have the possible skillset that teams craved in their big men during the 1990’s and 2000’s. Post offense still ruled the day, with Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan dominating during the post-Michael Jordan era.
Carmelo Anthony was considered the much safer, realistic pick for the Pistons at the time. Coming off of a National Championship with the Syracuse Orange as a freshman, Anthony was considered the college prodigy, while LeBron James emerged straight out of high school. Both players were considered elite, franchise changing small forward prospects, and with the Pistons securing the second overall pick, they were guaranteed at least one of them.
In hindsight, the Pistons drafting Darko over Melo appears to be an even more egregious mistake. The Pistons had their backcourt of Billups and Rip Hamilton locked in. Ben Wallace already had two DPOY awards to his name. The positions Detroit should have been trying to fill were small forward and power forward. They ultimately settled on Tayshaun Prince at small forward, but during the 2002-03 season, he had averaged 10 minutes per game as a rookie. Anthony (or even Chris Bosh) made infinitely more sense as pieces to complement Detroit’s current roster.
But, what if the Pistons drafted Melo? What if they did the right thing and added an elite small forward scoring prospect to a roster already loaded with defensive talent?
The lineup possibilities in Detroit would have been ridiculous. With Billups, Hamilton, and Melo ultimately carrying the scoring and Wallace locking down the paint, the Pistons could have thrown Rasheed Wallace out there with the starters for additional size and shooting. They could also use Tayshaun Prince as even more of a Swiss army knife than he was for that roster, coming off the bench and replacing either Hamilton to offer more size or Anthony to offer more wing defense. Backups Mehmet Okur and Lindsey Hunter were the only other Pistons to average over 20 minutes per game, but the above eight would have made for a ludicrous playoff rotation.
The Pistons ultimately won a ring during Melo’s rookie season in 2003-04, so it’s clear they didn’t need him to get over the hump; however, could Melo have kept their championship window open for longer? Of course. The year after Detroit’s championship run, they made it back to the Finals in the 2004-05 season and lost to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in seven games. The final score of Game 7 was 81-74. Melo certainly could have offered some scoring punch during that series to give the Pistons a boost.
It was more of the same for the Pistons for the rest of the joint tenure of Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Wallace, and Wallace. They consistently played elite defense but could never find that extra gear offensively. For all of his weaknesses Nuggets fans have lamented about before, Carmelo Anthony never lacked for scoring. He was productive, efficient for his time, and added the 1-on-1 element those Pistons teams generally missed. Billups and Hamilton were great players to be clear, but they weren’t as talented scoring the basketball as Melo was.
How many more championships would the Pistons have won with Melo in the fold? It’s hard to say, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have added at least another to their collection while their core was intact. The one thing Melo never did in his prime was get a ring, but with this Pistons group? I think he may have accumulated at least two, maybe three.
Where does that leave Denver?
The player above is Nikoloz Tskitishvili. The Nuggets drafted in fifth overall in the 2002 draft, and it didn’t work out very well. Skita played in 81 games during Denver’s 17 win season in 2002-03, but after Denver selected Anthony in 2003, he barely played again and was out of the league after 2006.
It was safe to say, the Nuggets were clearly in a bad place before getting Melo, but what if Melo was taken with the second overall pick? How would Denver have handled that?
The biggest question is whether Denver would have selected Miličić third overall in 2003 had the Pistons not selected him. After it was looking pretty bad with Skita, I would have been surprised had the Nuggets taken another foreign prospect, especially one that played a position at which Denver was relatively strong. Denver had centers, or at least several bigs, with Juwan Howard, Marcus Camby, and Nene on the roster. What they needed was a playmaker, a scorer to get the offense rolling. That wasn’t Darko, and it probably wasn’t going to be power forward Chris Bosh either.
The player most affected by Detroit drafting Melo instead of Darko was probably Dwyane Wade.
The Nuggets probably would have selected Wade, a dynamic guard that played two years of college at Marquette. He was an elite athlete, strong with the ball in his hands, and lightning fast on the court. In reality, he was selected fifth overall by the Miami Heat, but in this scenario, the Nuggets take him third and center their entire organization around the young guard. Could he have led the Nuggets to an immediate playoff appearance like Melo did during his rookie season? It’s possible. The supporting cast of Nene, Camby, and Andre Miller during that season was underrated, and Wade would have added an immediate scoring and playmaking element in much the same way Melo did.
Of course, Wade won several championships in Miami, primarily because he had assistance in the form of several other All-Stars at various times. In 2006, he and Shaq united to take down Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks for his first ring. In 2010, he recruited James and Bosh to South Beach, in which the Heatles won two rings and appeared in all four Finals while LeBron called Miami home. Could Wade have had a similarly magnetic pull while in Denver? It seems unlikely but not impossible. If anything, Wade probably would have departed Denver during the 2010 offseason, much in the same way James and Bosh left their respective cities. In all likelihood, those three (or at least Wade and James) go to the Chicago Bulls to join a young Derrick Rose and company, leaving Denver in a very vulnerable position.
Whether it was Melo, Wade, Bosh, or even Darko, the scenarios are endless. Melo being drafted by the Pistons is certainly the most fun to think about for Pistons fans than any other fanbase. They were the franchise that botched the 2003 draft most egregiously, and while they won a championship, they had the opportunity to win several and missed. The Nuggets probably don’t win a championship in any scenario, but that’s more a product of Denver not being able to have nice things. Even as close as Denver got in 2009, would Wade replacing Melo on the Nuggets have ultimately made the difference in a series like that? It’s possible, but certainly up for debate.
Either way, the ramifications of Detroit selecting Darko are vast, and they are certainly fun to think about.