What if the Detroit Pistons picked Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic in 2003?

(Photo by David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

By @EvanPetzold

Everyone was expecting Carmelo Anthony to the Detroit Pistons.

After LeBron James went No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he turned to Anthony, smiled and said, “You up next.”

Then, NBA Commissioner David Stern stated, “With the second pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons select, Darko Milicic from Serbia and Montenegro.”

“I was told that Detroit was going to take me,” Anthony said to Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. “Once Cleveland made the pick, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to Detroit.'”

In the 2003-04 season, Detroit featured a starting lineup of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Elden Campbell and Ben Wallace. At midseason, the Pistons traded for Rasheed Wallace and made him the everyday power forward instead of Campbell.

Milicic sat the bench as the Pistons went on to win the 2004 NBA championship. Despite playoff appearances for the next five years, Detroit never secured another title.

Averaging 1.4 points in 34 games played, Milicic was virtually useless for the Pistons. In Anthony’s first season for the Denver Nuggets, the team that achieved the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, he started all 82 games, averaging 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

The future would have been different if Detroit had selected Anthony. Plain and simple, the Pistons failed to build a dynasty.

During the mid-2000s era, super teams were practically irrelevant. The closest example of a super team was Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal playing side-by-side for the three-peat Lakers from 1999-2002, but players with the caliber of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green on the same team never existed.

If Anthony would have been selected by the Pistons, the first super team in history may have developed. Instead of LeBron saying, “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” after joining the Miami Heat with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, it would have been Anthony.

A core group of Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace easily could have secured a title in 2003-04, like the Pistons did with Milicic on the roster.

“That’s why I was a little bit disappointed,” Anthony said, “because I really wanted to go to Detroit. You had Chauncey, you had all those guys over there… Detroit, they had something going over there.”

Now, take a look at the 2004-05 season.

(Photo by Allen Einstein/Getty Images)

The Pistons, aiming to repeat as NBA champs, lost to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7. Milicic scored two points in six minutes during the series and did not play in the finale. Meanwhile, Anthony was off scoring 20.8 points per game in the regular season for the Nuggets, who finished third in the Western Conference.

Staying in the 2005 Finals, Detroit lost Game 5, 96-95, in overtime to the Spurs. Anthony would have been a game-changer in Game 5, along with others in the series. Instead of Robert Horry hitting the game winner in Game 5, it could have been Anthony stopping him on defense. The Pistons might not have even needed seven games to secure the title, which would have been Anthony’s second in his two-year career.

By the 2005-06 season, Anthony developed himself into one of the top players in the NBA, averaging 26.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.

In the 2006 NBA playoffs, the Miami Heat took down the Pistons in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, capping the series off with a 95-78 victory. Milicic was no longer on the roster.

With Anthony’s young playmaking abilities surrounded by the veteran presence of the Pistons, Detroit would have topped the Heat and blew past the Dallas Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Josh Howard.

Earning a third-straight NBA title, Detroit, with Anthony starring, would have been an empire. However, an empire can fall in the blink of an eye.

Back when the Pistons won back-to-back titles in the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons, they were classified as a dynasty. Leading the way in the prime “Bad Boys” years were Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards and Mark Aguirre. With a 1991 Eastern Conference Finals sweep by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the continuation of championships came to a close.

Ben Wallace, a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, agreed to a four-year, $60 million dollar deal to leave Detroit and join the Bulls after the 2005-06 season. The Pistons core was getting older and more expensive to retain.
Even without Wallace, the Pistons would have marched to the 2007 NBA Finals with Antonio McDyess holding down the defensive end and Anthony dominating on offense.

The Pistons, who lost in Game 6 to the Cavaliers in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, would have defeated James with Anthony on the roster, sending Detroit to its fourth-straight NBA Finals.

On the Western Conference side, San Antonio defeated Utah in five games to set up a rematch of the 2005 NBA Finals. The Spurs would not have won in 2005 if Detroit selected Anthony, however, San Antonio would have successfully earned revenge over the Pistons in Game 7 of the 2007 NBA Finals.

Four seasons and three titles later, Detroit’s regime would have slowly come to a close, much like it did without Anthony on the roster.

In the 2007-08 season, the Pistons finished second-best in the Eastern Conference and skated to the conference finals against the Boston Celtics, which Detroit lost in Game 6. Even with Anthony on the roster, the Pistons still would have lost against Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett at the helm of the Celtics.

If the Pistons would have acquired Anthony in the draft, the team never would have dealt for Allen Iverson. Detroit also would not have gone on a six-year playoff drought. Everything would have been different with Anthony in the Motor City.

Some speculate Anthony never made it to the NBA Finals with the Nuggets, New York Knicks or Oklahoma City Thunder because he lacked the ability to succeed in the clutch. However, as a senior he led Oak Hill High School to a 32-1 record, including a 72-66 win over St. Vincent–St. Mary High School of Akron, Ohio, and won an NCAA Tournament title for Syracuse in 2003. Both feats requiring a clutch factor.

Anthony arrived in Denver and was told to lead as a 19-year-old. James didn’t even make the postseason until he was 21 years old, and he’s a different breed of basketball player – just check the numbers.

(Photo by Paul L. Newby II/The Grand Rapids Press)

Being drafted by the Nuggets ruined Anthony, as he dramatically developed into a superstar overnight, rather than learning from a veteran group like the Pistons or just taking his time getting acclimated to the NBA.

The Pistons made a mistake. Billups agrees.

“We wouldn’t let him play like that,” Billups said. “He would have been a much better player than he is now—and he’s a great player now.

“This guy would have been… he would have been an absolute icon, because winning takes you there. We probably would have had three championships.”

Milicic played 468 career games in the NBA before retiring in June 2003, averaging 6.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 0.9 assists. The Pistons passed up on not only Anthony, but Wade and Bosh.

With the 2018 NBA Draft coming up in less than a month and Anthony turning 34 years old just a few days ago, nobody will ever forget the greatest draft bust of all time and what could have been for the city of Detroit.

Just one pick changed everything.