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The Darko-est Timelines

What if the Pistons hadn’t taken Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh? We follow the possibilities deep down the rabbit holes.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Perhaps no single day influenced the past two decades of professional basketball more than June 26, 2003. That evening, then–NBA commissioner David Stern welcomed a handful of what would soon become the most dominant players of the 21st century to the league, all of whom were wearing some of the worst suits ever tailored.

Future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade all heard their names called that night, as did longtime starters and contributors like David West, Kyle Korver, Kirk Hinrich, Boris Diaw, and Chris Kaman. And also Darko Milicic.

There’s a case to be made that Darko’s tenure in the league was as bad as some of his peers’ tenures were (or in LeBron’s case, are) good. Among no. 2 picks, not counting players selected in the past few years or those whose careers were shortened by tragedy, only Hasheem Thabeet posted a worse cumulative win-shares total. Darko was a talented young big man at a time when the ceiling for players of that archetype was limitless. There have been plenty of memorable busts over the years—Anthony Bennett, Andrea Bargnani. Milicic, however, has the unfortunate distinction of being picked between four players who ran the sport for the next decade-plus.

It’s easy, looking back, to wonder what might’ve happened had the Pistons instead taken one of the three future Hall of Famers picked immediately after Darko. Things have moved so slowly during quarantine that the players themselves are asking those questions. Last week, on an Instagram Live with Wade, Anthony speculated that if the Pistons had taken him, he’d have won multiple championships. Ben Wallace, the centerpiece of those mid-2000s Pistons squads, disagreed, saying that Anthony would’ve disrupted the chemistry that carried them to glory, and that with him in the fold, Detroit would’ve missed out on a ring.

Which one of them is right? And how could the course of league history have changed had Pistons general manager Joe Dumars called in another name for the pick? As our podfather Bill Simmons pointed out in his Book of Basketball, it was unlikely that Bosh or Wade would’ve gone second. Wade was a shock at no. 5, and there was wide concern that Bosh couldn’t put on the weight necessary to play in a hyperphysical league. But while we look back at the 2003 draft, it can’t hurt to let our minds wander. For the sake of simplicity in the following scenarios, if a team has the chance to replicate its actual 2003 draft pick, it does. Here are some alternate realities:

Scenario 1: Stay Me7o

2. Detroit Pistons: Carmelo Anthony
3. Denver Nuggets: Darko Milicic
4. Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh
5. Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade

When the Pistons drew the second pick in the lottery, Anthony was prepared to call Detroit home. “At that point I was pretty sure I was going to Detroit,” Anthony told ESPN in 2013. “I thought I was going to definitely be that no. 2 pick if Cleveland was taking Bron as it looked like.”

So what if the Pistons take Anthony? On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Anthony presents an immediate offensive upgrade over starting small forward Tayshaun Prince, and gives the Pistons their most dynamic scoring talent. But this is the early 2000s, and basketball is a little, erm, uglier.

Detroit’s teams of that era are remembered for playing stout defense and bullying opponents in the interior. At one point, they held five consecutive opponents below 70 points, and eight below 80. And while the Pistons were good enough to make six straight conference finals largely with a starting lineup of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Prince, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace, they were truly a starless team. Ben Wallace’s assumption that the Pistons would lack the cohesion that made them dominant with Melo in the fold is a fair one, but not just for the reason he stated.

With Melo’s offense on the roster, the Pistons enter the season with a higher floor than they did in real life, and don’t feel pressed to make a move for Wallace in February; in the seven games before the deadline, Anthony averaged nearly 27 points per game. Without Sheed, the Pistons lack the player Billups once said was the difference between Detroit being a good team and a great one. They experiment with former Sixth Man of the Year Corliss Williamson and future All-Star Mehmet Okur playing in Wallace’s stead, with Anthony starting at the 3 and relegating Prince to sixth-man status. They’re talented enough to win 50 games for a third consecutive season, and reach the Eastern Conference finals against the conference-leading Pacers, but with Anthony playing late in the game over Prince, the lanky Kentucky product isn’t there to send away Reggie Miller’s would-be game-tying layup in the final seconds of Game 2.

The Pacers take a commanding 2-0 lead heading back to Detroit, and eventually advance over the Pistons to the Finals, where they similarly best a fraying Los Angeles Lakers team. One season after being ousted from Detroit, Rick Carlisle topples his former team to win his first title. In Atlanta, Sheed, Stephen Jackson, and Jason Terry form a contender based on the trio’s love of headbands. In 2004-05, they win 60 games, but being the Hawks, still lose in the second round.

Wade and Bosh still flourish on their respective teams, and eventually still join up in Miami with LeBron, forming the superteam that would set the table for the next decade of professional hoops. In Chad Ford’s 2003 redraft 10 years later, he reported that multiple sources told him the Nuggets preferred Milicic to Anthony. Here, they get their wish. In Denver, just as he did in Detroit, Darko struggles to carve out space for himself behind a cabal of talented bigs. Nene, Marcus Camby, and pre-tattoo-sleeves Birdman make it difficult for Milicic to capitalize on his potential. As his peers succeed elsewhere, Darko is still labeled a bust. Meanwhile, Melo’s career goes as it did in Denver, and after challenging for a scoring title, the Pistons flip him to the Knicks for a similar package to the one the Nuggets procured. They are better without him.

Scenario 2: Dwyane County

2. Detroit Pistons: Dwyane Wade
3. Denver Nuggets: Carmelo Anthony
4. Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh
5. Miami Heat: Darko Milicic

Get it? Like Wayne County, which is where Detroit is? Jokes are always funnier when you explain them. With Wade in the fold, the Pistons become an early prophet of small ball. Well, sort of. They still love the midrange jumper, Ben Wallace is still the centerpiece down low, and they still suffocate games with hard-nosed defense and glacial pace. But now they do it with three guards.

In Miami, Wade hit the ground running, with nearly identical first- and second-half splits, finishing his rookie season averaging 16.2 points, four rebounds, and 4.5 dimes. There’s a chance he spends his first year in Detroit as a supersub, spelling Billups and Hamilton, but also that his presence creates a proto–Death Lineup, with Wade, Billups, and Hamilton in the backcourt, Prince at the 4, and Wallace at the 5. In the real 2003, when asked about Wade’s fit next to Eddie Jones and Caron Butler in Miami, Pat Riley said he expected to play all three together for significant stretches. Indeed, the trio started around 40 percent of their games that season. The same could be true in this scenario in Detroit.

This supercharged small-ball five propels Detroit to the top seed in the East. Wade—a three-time All-Defensive team selection—fits in perfectly on that end of the floor. The Pistons win the championship in 2004, and then again in 2005, despite not landing Rasheed at the deadline. With Wade leading the charge, the Pistons never try to trade for Kobe Bryant, and never flip Billups for Allen Iverson, instead letting Hamilton walk in 2010 when his deal expires. In Miami, Darko’s poor play infuriates Riley to the point that he retires. He stays home with his family and watches reruns of Heat on TNT. He is happy.

Sheed still ends up in Atlanta, where his teams continue their march through mediocrity. Anthony’s Nuggets tenure unfolds just as it did in reality, only with Wade helping the Pistons extend their dominance of the East, Melo’s unfavorable comparison to LeBron is slightly less significant in the early parts of their careers. Bosh, meanwhile, has the same rookie year he did in real life in Toronto. With a championship contender out of the picture now that Miami is without Wade, the Raptors—not the Heat—secure Shaq’s services in the summer of 2004. Together, they make a bunch of bloopers and challenge for a handful of rings. Blessed with such success in Toronto, Bosh never leaves to join the banana boat crew. With Wade comfortable in the Motor City, LeBron doesn’t have a superteam to form. He joins the Knicks, and doesn’t win his first title until much later, after he’s already left New York. Jordan stans won’t shut up about it.

Scenario 3: Twin Towers

2. Detroit Pistons: Chris Bosh
3. Denver Nuggets: Carmelo Anthony
4. Toronto Raptors: Darko Milicic
5. Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade

This might be the best-case alternate reality for the Pistons. While they miss out on Melo’s scoring or Wade’s upside, in Bosh they get the perfect partner for Ben Wallace in the frontcourt. Bosh’s rebounding ability pairs well with Big Ben’s, and his offensive abilities at the 4 render a potential trade for Rasheed useless. On real-life draft day, ESPN’s experts proclaimed that Bosh might have the highest upside of the non-James, Anthony, and Milicic prospects. (They also suggested Chris Kaman was the most NBA-ready of that same group. You win some, you lose some.) And Ford, in his retrospective, suggested that Bosh—not Anthony—was Detroit’s most likely alternative at no. 2. With Bosh in the fold, the Pistons hit the ground running, bullying their way to the 2004 NBA title. They win the 2005 Finals as well, when Bosh explodes, dominating Tim Duncan and Robert Horry to secure Detroit’s second consecutive ring, and fourth overall.

Wade and Anthony see their careers play out similarly to how they did in reality. Bosh a two-time champion at such a young age, stays put in 2010, choosing instead to play his mid-career in the Motor City. Without Bosh in the fold, Miami instead turns to the next-best power forward on the market that summer: Carlos Boozer. And it also re-signs an aging Jermaine O’Neal for depth. As a result, Mike Miller never joins the Heat, and LeBron never shouts out his son for this wild high school dunk. He doesn’t know why, but deep down, Mason Miller is devastated. The Wade-James combo is so strong that the Heat still win a pair of titles in the early 2010s, but Boozer and O’Neal’s drop-off is extreme, and James bolts back home to Ohio at his first opportunity.

In Toronto, Darko’s only real competition for minutes comes from Donyell Marshall and Antonio Davis. He never reaches his once-thought potential, nor does he match what his contemporaries did in real life, but he’s not a total disaster. Like the Raptors’ franchise for the majority of its history, his 10-season career is unremarkable.

Pistons v Raptors Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

Scenario 4: Reality

2. Detroit Pistons: Darko Milicic
3. Denver Nuggets: Carmelo Anthony
4. Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh
5. Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade

The Pistons’ selection of Darko at the no. 2 pick is rightfully seen by many as the worst draft pick of all time. But Milicic’s selection wasn’t without reason. The way it’s been retold, Darko was destined to land in Detroit. Milicic, eventually nicknamed the Human Victory Cigar since his presence on the floor indicated his team was up big late, was a tantalizing prospect; a 17-year-old 7-footer with quick feet, an impressive handle, and an enviable stroke, Darko was, Dumars supposedly told then-guard Jon Barry, “better than Dirk,” and was “going to be a stud.”

The day of the 2003 lottery, the Pistons were practicing at a college gym in Manhattan to prepare for Game 3 of their Eastern Conference finals showdown with Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets. Just feet away, Milicic was participating in a workout. The way ESPN draft expert Chad Ford tells it, he walked over to Dumars and asked whether the GM knew a prospective top pick was practicing just behind a curtain separating the two courts. Dumars didn’t, and he and a handful of Pistons brass went over to scout him. What happened next was, supposedly, one of the best workouts in NBA draft history.

“Darko was just phenomenal,” Ford told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst in 2013. “It was literally the best workout I’ve ever seen. ... When you have a 7-foot-1 kid, who is 17 years old, doing the things he was doing, it was a ‘wow’ moment, especially for a team that needed a big man. There was just a buzz afterward.”

The rest, as we know, is history. The Memphis Grizzlies won the no. 2 pick later that evening, but because of a 1997 trade for then-35-year-old Pistons big man Otis Thorpe, the selection went to Detroit. The Pistons lost to the Nets that night, and again a few days later to end the series. Darko was taken second, followed by Anthony, Bosh, and Wade.

The Pistons, now under the stewardship of Larry Brown, looked poised to make another deep run in the playoffs, and traded for Rasheed Wallace at the midway point to bolster their chances. It worked and Detroit won the 2004 title, lost in seven games to the Spurs in 2005, and completed a run of six consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances. Darko, of course, never factored into the team’s success. Stuck behind All-Star forwards Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, and even a rookie Jason Maxiell, Milicic was traded to Orlando halfway through the 2005-06 season.

In two and a half years in the Motor City, Darko played just 553 minutes in 96 games. He had almost as many fouls and turnovers (133) as he did points (152), and either because of his attitude and work ethic, Brown’s notoriously prickly demeanor and hesitance to trust rookies, the difficulty in breaking into a lineup filled with seasoned veterans, or some combination of the three, Milicic never amounted to more than a punch line.

Meanwhile, the three players selected immediately after him—Anthony, Bosh, and Wade—combined for 34 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA selections, and five rings. At least Darko won a title. It’s more than Charles Barkley can say.