What If Dumars Didn't Drafted Darko?
Well, here it is. My least favorite time of the sports calendar. The NBA is officially over & that includes the draft, the Summer League & even free agency for the most part. Only a few smaller pieces remain to be filled out by teams. The 2013-14 schedule has been released & NBA TV is left showing reruns of vintage games. I myself have random games on my DVR at home & thankfully MSG Network shows Knicks games from the past season. It was while watching the Knicks vs Pistons game from London this past season that my mind started to drift as I pondered the question: what if Joe Dumars never drafted Darko Milicic?
It's a question I've asked myself many times over the years, but this was the first time I became almost consumed by the what ifs. What if he drafted Carmelo Anthony instead or what if he went with Dwayne Wade or even Chris Bosh? What if he traded out of that spot, moved down & took a guy like David West? That's a lot of ifs but when you stop to think about it, that one decision by Dumars changed the fate of a number of players, franchises & even his own legacy as an NBA executive.
In order to fully grasp everything we have to go back in time to the couple of years before that moment on June 26, 2003 when Milicic was drafted. Dumars had taken over the Pistons before the start of the 2000-01 season. Before he got there the previous regime made a trade in 1997 of Otis Thorpe to the then Vancouver Grizzlies for the rights to their #1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. Dumars himself took over at a time when the team's best player, Grant Hill, was a free agent & would eventually sign with the Orlando Magic. This forced Dumars to work a sign & trade with the Magic in order to get something back for Hill.
At the time the deal seemed to greatly favor the Magic, even though Hill was coming off of a serious ankle injury, since all they gave up was veteran big man Chucky Atkins & a young defensive rebounding monster in Ben Wallace. As things unfolded of course, Hill was never the same & Wallace became the anchor on a perennial Eastern Conference contender. That was significant because it was the 1st of many moves that would garner Dumars Executive of the Year for the 2002-03 season. By the time he drafted Milicic he had built enough of a track record that many attempted to explain the logic behind the pick as opposed to explaining the risk.
What Dumars had done was gone against one of the most basic rules when it comes to the draft: take the best player available regardless to need. The reason being is, when you draft more on need than talent, you can make the mistake of reaching on a player. I think it's safe to say at this point that Milicic was a reach. If you just look at the pick of Milicic on it's own without ever mentioning who immediately followed him, it would still be a bad pick. After being released by the Celtics last year, Milicic's career numbers are: 6 points, 4.2 rebounds & 1.3 blocks per game while averaging 18.5 minutes a game. Not the numbers of your average 2nd overall pick of an NBA Draft.
So while those numbers alone make him as bad a pick as you can get, when you add the players who came directly after him, it becomes one of, if not the worst draft picks in NBA history. You had, Carmelo Anthony, who was coming off of an NCAA Championship in his one year at Syracuse, Chris Bosh, who would lead all rookies in rebounding & blocks in his first NBA season & Dwyane Wade, who had just taken Marquette University to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament highlighted by a triple-double versus the top ranked team in the tourney, the Kentucky Wildcats. Anthony & Wade are future hall of famers & Bosh has been a solid top player at his position his entire career.
The Dumars apologists' logic was, the Pistons were already set at the SF position having drafted Tayshaun Prince just the year before. That same off-season after drafting Prince, Dumars traded Jerry Stackhouse, who was the Pistons leading scorer, to the Washington Wizards for Richard Hamilton. Hamilton was younger & cheaper while Stackhouse wanted a long-term extension that Dumars made clear he wasn't inclined to give.
He also had pulled off some smaller deals that worked well for them as he obtained guys like Corliss Williamson, Jon Barry & Mehmet Okur through trades & the draft. Dumars was well on his way to building a tough defensive minded team by that point & he was doing it with what many considered scraps from other teams. By the time he traded for Hamilton he already had signed his future backcourt mate in Chauncey Billups. Billups was coming off of arguably his best season while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he was about to join his 5th team in six seasons.
It's important to understand the who, what, where & when of Dumars' moves because it may explain why he chose Milicic over those other guys. One has to speculate that he preferred to stay away from big time scorers as any of those three would've been counter to every other player he brought in up to that point. He wasn't just getting defensive minded players, he was also getting guys who could score but didn't need a ton of shots in order to be effective. That's exactly the type of players Billups & Hamilton were while Prince provided both great defense & spot scoring when needed. I have to believe his thinking was that Anthony, Bosh & Wade would've upset the apple cart so to speak.
So we now see what Dumars' rationale may have been in taking Milicic but let's assume from here on out that he still decided to take one of the best players available. The next in line would easily have been Anthony. As I stated, he was coming off of an NCAA Championship & was unanimously seen as the best college player that year since LeBron James was coming straight from high school. Of all the possible scenarios, nobody's legacy is affected by that draft more than Anthony's. By falling to the Denver Nuggets, he ended up on unquestionably the weaker team who was also in the stronger conference.
People have criticized Anthony for his lack of playoff success, especially when compared to his contemporaries, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade & LeBron James. Granted, he does warrant some blame as the team's best player, but when you dig a little deeper, there were other issues as well that had a big hand in all those playoff losses. For one as I mentioned, the Western Conference was considerably stronger than the East when he entered the league. During his seven years in Denver, only the Spurs, Lakers & Mavericks went to the Finals from the West. While, in the Eastern Conference six different teams went to the Finals during that stretch.
Had Dumars drafted him, Anthony would've wound up in the Eastern Conference on a team that the prior to him being drafted won 50 games for 2 straight seasons & had just lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Nets. They went to 8 straight Conference Finals at one point. The Nuggets meanwhile had won only 17 games the year before they drafted Anthony. He was the lone star on his team while almost all the other powers out west had at least 2 stars. Only the Mavericks won with only one star in Dirk Nowitzki but there is no denying that his supporting cast was much better than Anthony's.
The Truth About George Karl Is...). While Karl is often lauded for his coaching acumen, his career in the playoffs is littered with upsets & huge losses & Denver was no exception. In fairness, you have to include the fact that unfortunately during the 2009-10 season Karl left the team for the second time in his career while he battled Cancer. I'm not pinning all of the blame on Karl, but when you're the head coach of multiple playoff collapses, some of the blame will be put on you also.
It would be hard to argue whether or not the Pistons would've won that title or possibily more if they didn't draft Milicic. One thing's for certain though, Anthony would've given them a dynamic that none of their contending teams ever had: a #1 scoring option. Anthony's presence would've opened up even more shots for Hamilton & Billups. If they still go out & obtain Wallace, Anthony would've also opened up 3's for Wallace as well as allowed him more room on the low post because of Anthony's outside shooting. The fact that him & Billups had success playing together in Denver, (during that time Anthony made his only trip to a Conference Finals) suggests that they would've played well together in Detroit also.
The other interesting what if in all of this is if Dumars had drafted Wade instead. Wade was a little bit of an unknown to many at the time. While his draft stock was high, some of that was based on his NCAA Tournament run in his last year at Marquette. Anthony, James & even Bosh were already highly thought of based on their high school success. Bosh was a highly recruited All-American, whereas Wade was only recruited by three schools including Marquette. That may have had more to do with his grades but the point being, there's no guarantee that Wade, had he been drafted by the Pistons, would've immediately been the starter over Hamilton. In fact because of his scoring ability, it's not hard to speculate that he may have been the sixth man on that team. If so, how long do you think that would've lasted?
Also, do the Miami Heat win any of their championships if Wade doesn't end up there? Pat Riley did a masterful job of putting together not one but two different Heat title teams centered around Wade. Does he make the deal for Shaquille O'Neal without already having Wade? If Wade goes 2nd to Detroit, Anthony still winds up in Denver & Bosh in Toronto so who then would the Heat have taken?
Knowing what we know now, the next best player in that draft was the 18th pick David West. The Los Angeles Clippers took Chris Kaman with the 5th pick but the Heat had so many holes to fill so it's up in the air as to who they would've taken. As deft a GM as Riley is though, it's hard to say he wouldn't have managed to find a way to build that team into a championship contender.
Bosh's fate could've changed but more than likely he still winds up with a couple of titles. When you look at both his style of play & his personality on the court, he probably would've fit what Dumars was building better than Anthony or Wade. While he's not, nor has he ever been a low post threat like Rasheed Wallace could be, Bosh's ability to stretch the floor & his athleticism, were similar to what Wallace brought to that Pistons title team. Wallace was a part of the heart & soul of that team but they had been to a Conference Finals without him once already. Of course, if Bosh is busy contending for a title upon entering the league & possibly already won one, does he feel the need to join forces with Wade & James? Maybe not. When it comes to Wallace mind you, regardless to who they drafted they were still going to be able to make the same exact deal based upon what they gave up to get him.
I know I know that is a whole lotta ifs, but that's part of what intrigued me about the question. So many players & franchises had their legacies altered that night in June when Dumars made that one decision. The most compelling part about Dumars is he can be credited with making one of the best in-season trades in NBA history when he obtained Rasheed Wallace in '04, but he can also be credited with making perhaps the biggest mistake ever in the draft by taking Milicic. Granted not taking Michael Jordan was a huge mistake but at least the Trailblazers had a future hall-of-famer themselves in Clyde Drexler already while the Pistons only had a couple of solid players with Prince & Hamilton in the way of Anthony or Wade.
Since that night, Dumars has had many ups & downs, while of course, Wade has won 3 titles in Miami & now Bosh & James have 2. Anthony is still in a quest to reach an NBA Finals let alone win one & Darko Milicic is currently out of the league & will forever go down as one of the worst draft picks in NBA history. So now you know what happens when I have too much basketball on my mind & not enough to watch. I'm sure I'll have some more what ifs before the summer is done. Stay tuned...