Darko Milicic Over Carmelo Anthony: Detroit Pistons Made the Right Pick

Leo FlorkowskiAnalyst IIIFebruary 10, 2011

Darko approves of his selection #2 overall
Darko approves of his selection #2 overall

First, let me say this article is not satirical in any way, shape or form.  Let me also clear up several more things.  I am not a Pistons fan.  In fact, I am a Cavaliers fan and have as much reason as anyone to bash the Pistons.  I am not related to Darko Milicic or even Serbian.  I also do not have a major beef with Carmelo Anthony.  With all that said I can see the hate mail and messages questioning my intelligence and or sanity rolling in wave after wave.  Just like The Joker's sanity was questioned in The Dark Knight, my response conveys the same message: I'm not crazy, unless you mean crazy like a fox.
The goal of each and every team is to win a championship for a given season.  When selecting a player in the draft a number of factors need to be considered.  What position(s) do we need the most help at?  Who is the best player available and what is the talent drop off behind said player?  What character concerns exist for a given player that could affect team chemistry, result in future suspensions or expulsion from the league?  What incentives are other teams offering to trade for the rights to your pick?  Those are not the only questions to be asked, but certainly the biggest ones.
Before we answer those questions for the 2003 NBA Draft, we need to look at the state of the Detroit Pistons heading into the draft.  The previous year the Pistons had won 50 games and went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.  They only had the No. 2 pick in the draft from a previous trade they had made involving Otis Thorpe.  Teams that are coming off a trip to the Conference Finals almost never have a draft pick that high.  The team had a young core that played great as a team and relied heavily on defense.

  • Chauncey Billups was the starting PG.  After bouncing around the league he was starting to come into his own.  He was a great floor general, decent outside shooter, and above average defender.
  • Rip Hamilton was the starting SG.  He was the primary scorer on the team and got most of his points running off of ball screens.
  • Tayshaun Prince was penciled in as the starting SF.  He had just finished his rookie season and had all the makings of a defensive stopper with a decent offensive game to boot.
  • Ben Wallace was the starting PF.  He was the straw that stirred the drink.  He didn't have much of an offensive game, but he could guard multiple positions, rebound, and block shots with the best of them.  He had already won two of his four Defensive Player of the Year awards at this point.
  • Mehmet Okur was the starting C.  He had just finished his rookie season and had shown some promise as a big man with range.
  • Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson was the Sixth Man.  He was one of the better sixth men in the league as he had won the award for such just two years earlier.  He provided toughness, defense, and scoring off the bench at SF.  He could play a little undersized PF in a pinch.

The only part of that core that couldn't be considered young was Wallace.  The best chance the Pistons had for long term success was finding Wallace's long term replacement.  In addition to needing Wallace's long term replacement, the bench was thin on quality big men.  Drafting a quality big man was the logical move.
Going into the 2003 NBA Draft two players were seen as locks to make multiple All-Star teams: LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.  Every now and then players come along who need to start right away in the league.  LeBron and Carmelo were two such players from the 2003 NBA Draft. 

Asking either one to come off the bench would not only have been a dumb move from a talent perspective, but it would also cause major chemistry issues and create unrest among the fanbase as well.  LeBron was The Chosen One, a franchise savior who improved the moribund Cavaliers from the moment he stepped foot on the court.  Carmelo had just led Syracuse to a National Championship as a true freshman.  He had too much cachet to come off the pine. 
The Pistons had to have asked themselves the questions outlined above.  These answers followed:

  • They needed the most help in the post, so either a PF or C should be targeted.
  • The best available player (the most sure thing) was Carmelo.  The drop off was decent from Carmelo to Chris Bosh, the next closest sure thing.  However, some scouts including Chad Ford thought Darko was the second best player in the draft.  His combination of size, youth and skills tested off the charts.  He was not the sure thing, but he was a potential home run pick if he panned out.
  • Darko didn't have any major red flags in terms of character concerns.  Carmelo posed one huge red flag.  He needed to start right away or chemistry would have been torpedoed.
  • In terms of trade offers, only the Pistons know for sure.  This is the biggest area I am potentially giving them hell for.  They knew the Denver Nuggets wanted Carmelo.  If they were dead set on Darko, they should have flipped picks with the Nuggets and picked up something in return.  Even if they had netted only the Nuggets second round pick in exchange, current NBA players Mo Williams, James Jones, and Kyle Korver were still on the board.  Trading down and picking up assets is something teams do very well in the NFL draft, but fail to do more often in the NBA draft.

Taking all of those factors into consideration the Pistons made the right decision in not picking Carmelo.  They were a team built on chemistry and defense.  If Carmelo had been told he was coming off the bench, he would have sabotaged team chemistry.  If Prince had been relegated to the bench, the team defense would have taken a nose dive.  That chemistry and team defense enabled them to win the championship in Darko and Carmelo's rookie years.  The team they beat?  The star studded Los Angeles Lakers that featured Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. 
Chemistry is such an underrated aspect of the game.  I contend the Pistons would not have won the title that year had they drafted Carmelo Anthony for that very reason.  In fact, I'll argue they never would have won a title with Carmelo. 

It really isn't that outrageous of a claim.  Carmelo has never even taken a team to the NBA Finals, let alone won a championship.  Also, the Pistons would have lost their defensive identity and would not have been as dangerous of a team.  Chemistry and fit are the same reasons some people don't think it is a good idea for the Lakers to pull off the rumored deal where they send Andrew Bynum to the Nuggets for Carmelo.  The Lakers are dangerous because of their depth of big men.  Losing Bynum would be huge.  Plus, the Kobe versus Carmelo alpha dog struggle for shots could end in disaster.
Every Pistons fan should ask themselves this: If you could draft Darko and get a championship because of it, or you could draft Carmelo and roll the dice that you may win a championship, which option would you pick?  Personally, I take the sure thing.  I don't think Carmelo would have won a title with the Pistons. 

I am in no way, shape or form suggesting Darko ended up as a better player than Carmelo.  Carmelo is a multiple time All-Star while Darko is only now becoming a decent starting center in the league.  My point is that I would rather have the guaranteed ring then roll the dice. 
Remember from the 2003 star studded draft class only one player drafted in the top four has a ring, that player being Darko Milicic.  In fact the only other player drafted in the top 20 with a ring is Dwyane Wade.  Say what you will about Darko, but he has more rings than LeBron, Carmelo and Bosh combined.  Hopefully, I have opened some eyes and have not just kicked a hornet's nest.