Oh boy, not this again.
It’s become one of Detroit’s favorite hypothetical sports queries over the years, right alongside, “What if Isiah didn’t sprain his ankle in ’88?” and “What if the Lions actually won a Super Bowl?”
Still, despite being over 12 years removed, people are still asking, “What if the Pistons had used their No. 2 pick in 2003 to draft Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic?”
Most recently, the debate has briefly sprung back to life on the heels of Bleacher Report journalist Howard Beck’s thorough deconstruction of Anthony’s career-long friendship with LeBron James. Predictably, the controversial happenings of the 2003 Draft creep back to the forefront, when Detroit opted to bypass on the star freshman coming off a championship season at Syracuse in favor of a seven-foot prodigy out of Serbia.
What if Anthony—who was later mentored by Billups in Denver and Rasheed Wallace in New York—had the benefit of their veteran wisdom from day one? As teammates over the years will attest, Anthony has always been at his best when paired with a strong point guard and seasoned veterans.
“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.”
Typically, there’s been two schools of thought on the notion of Anthony ending up in Detroit.
On one hand, there’s a faction that believes Anthony’s star power and skill set would have melded well with a budding Eastern Conference super power, perhaps turning one championship into a plural endeavor.
On the other hand, there have been many who believe Anthony’s longstanding iso-centric, defense-secondary approach would have been at odds with Pistons head coach Larry Brown and the team’s defining ethos.
Do the Pistons still trade for Rasheed Wallace with Anthony in tow? Does Tayshaun Prince suddenly become expendable on the heels of Anthony’s budding stardom? Do the Pistons still grind their way through Indiana in the 2004 conference finals? Would Larry Brown have limited Carmelo’s role on account of his youth, eventually leading to his departure at the end of his rookie deal?
It’s not that complicated, according to former Pistons point guard and 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups:
“That ball-stopping mentality that Carmelo has? He wouldn’t have had that if he was a Piston,” Billups said. “We wouldn’t let him play like that. He would have been a much better player than he is now—and he’s a great player now.
“This guy would have been,” Billups said, pausing to chuckle for a moment, “he would have been an absolute icon, because winning takes you there.”
The gears keep turning in Billups’ head, and the alternate endings keep unfurling.
“Who even knows if LeBron would have ever gotten through us?” he said. “We probably would have had three championships…What would LeBron have been at this point? Great player, but at what point would he have been able to get through the Pistons, if Carmelo had the supporting cast of us, of this team?”
As it stands, the Pistons made six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2000’s, winning an NBA championship in 2004 against the Los Angeles Lakers and falling a quarter shy of winning back-to-back titles the following season in a seven-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Would Anthony have fit within the Pistons’ system? Would the influence of Detroit’s veteran leadership have been as effective as Billups contends? Is there such a thing as having too much talent when it comes to completing the delicate balance that comes with creating a championship contender?
These are all questions that shall forever remain unanswered. In the meantime, Anthony remains two rings behind his primary contemporary (James) and once again, he’s one behind Darko.