2003 NBA Draft Class (4 out of 5 Ain’t Bad)



THE highlight of Darko Milicic’s career

Synopsis: Something was amiss with the selection of Darko Milicic as the 2nd overall pick by the Detroit Pistons in the 2003 Draft. The top five overall picks that year included four likely Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade), and Milicic. While Milicic certainly was a disappointment, much of the negative press he received was caused by the success of the other four more so than his own failure. Regardless, this post will look back at that draft and explore the circumstances that led to Pistons President Joe Dumars making the pick in the first place.

Darko Milicic is one of the most well-known busts in NBA history. Many rankings of draft busts will include his name with an overreaching comment such as, “No all-time bust list would be complete without the inclusion of Darko Milicic.” As support, the writer will usually state that Milicic was selected before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. While I would agree that the statement qualifies him as a really bad draft pick (Milicic is ranked as this site’s #2 all-time worst NBA Draft pick), it does not necessarily make him a Top 10 Bust.  At this point, some of you may have an open mind about my claim regarding Milicic, while many of you are steadfast in your belief that he was an all-time bust regardless of the circumstances. If you fall in the second group, all the support you need can be found in the following table.


Draft Pick

Team Player Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG

Win Shares


CLE LeBron James 850 23,392 6,137 5,844 27.5 7.2 6.9 169.8
#2 DET Darko Milicic 468 2,813 1,971 405 6.0 4.2 0.9



DEN Carmelo Anthony 801 20,221 5,236 2,463 25.2 6.5 3.1 83.9
#4 TOR Chris Bosh 806 15,455 6,979 1,603 19.2 8.7 2.0



MIA Dwyane Wade 727 17,639 3,633 4,352 24.3 5.0 6.0


With four likely Hall of Famers in the first five overall picks, the 2003 NBA Draft is often considered one of the greatest in league history. The only other comparable drafts with four actual or likely Hall of Famers occurred in 1985 (Hakeem Olajuwon at #1, Michael Jordan at #3, Charles Barkley at #5, and John Stockton at #16) and 1996 (Allen Iverson at #1, Ray Allen at #5, Kobe Bryant at #13, and Steve Nash at #15). One big difference between the three draft classes is the concentration of the star players by the order in which they were taken (i.e. the Class of 2003 was loaded at the top; the Class of 1985  was packed mostly at the top with one outlier in the middle of the first round; and the Class of 1996 was spread throughout the top half of the first round). Whether the 2003 draft class ever eclipses the other two will depend on how much LeBron closes the gap with Jordan and Bryant (e.g. bringing two NBA Championships to Cleveland will certainly go a long way), and whether Anthony can lead the Knicks to some sort of playoff success for as long as he lasts in New York.


With a quick review of the five players from the previous table, even a kindergartner would be able to correctly identify that Milicic doesn’t belong. However, if NBA Finals appearances and Championships were included, the answer might change.

Player Finals Appearances


LeBron James 5


Darko Milicic

2 1
Carmelo Anthony 0


Chris Bosh

4 2
Dwyane Wade 5


Of course, the table is skewed for two reasons. First, Darko barely came off the bench (35 minutes in 17 games) and only contributed a total of 6 points and 7 rebounds (that’s total and not per game averages) during the 2004 and 2005 playoffs combined. Second, almost all of the success experienced by James, Bosh and Wade came after they joined forces in Miami so there’s a lot of overlap in their numbers. Regardless, Melo still has some work to do.

In large part due to the excitement surrounding King James, there were more than a few whispers about teams tanking to improve their odds at winning the draft lottery in 2003. Coming down the homestretch of the 2002-03 regular season, the Cavaliers and Nuggets had separated themselves from the pack as the worst two teams in the league, so they had already secured the top two seeds (i.e. the teams with the best odds of winning the 1st pick).  At the same time, the 3rd-7th seeds were still wide open with only eight games to go. The odds of winning the lottery were 4% as the 7th seed and 16% as the 3rd seed so there certainly was an incentive to tank. Well, let’s see if any team did.


          Lottery Odds  
Reverse Finish Team Record Last 8 Games Last 3 Games #1 #2 #3

Lottery Finish


Cleveland 17-65 3-5 2-1 22.5% 20.3% 17.6% 1
T-1 Denver 17-65 0-8 0-3 22.5% 20.3% 17.6%



Toronto 24-58 0-8 0-3 15.7% 15.8% 15.7% 4
4 Miami 25-57 2-6 1-2 12.0% 12.7% 13.4%



L.A. Clippers 27-55 4-4 3-0 8.9% 9.8% 10.8% 6
6 Memphis 28-54 2-6 0-3 6.4% 7.2% 8.2%



Chicago 30-52 4-4 2-1 4.4% 5.1% 5.9%


* Since Memphis didn’t win the #1 pick in the lottery, its selection went to Detroit based on a 1997 trade for Otis Thorpe.

With respect to the worst teams in the league, it appears that Denver and Toronto might have let up on the throttle a bit before crossing the finish line. More interestingly though, Cleveland hurt its chances by winning two of its last three games (including one win against Toronto), as did Miami by winning two of its last four games (with both wins against Toronto).

Toronto, you’ve got some splainin to do!

Anyway, Cleveland got LeBron and Miami did ok after taking Wade so neither team hurt itself despite inexplicably winning at the end of the season. On the other hand, Chicago might have been the biggest loser by finishing with a better record than Memphis. Assuming the same lottery outcome, Chicago would have won the 2nd overall pick, which could have been used to select Carmelo. If so, could he have attracted Wade, Bosh and LeBron to create an unstoppable Big 4 in the Windy City? Well, back to reality.

After Cleveland won the lottery, Cavs owner Gordon Gund was asked if the team would take the local hero. Gund gave the proper response of keeping all of his options open, but his smile gave it away. After all, LeBron’s 2002-03 high school team was able to sell out Cleveland’s Gund Arena (capacity: 20,562) while the Cavs finished last in the NBA in attendance and only sold an average of 11,500 tickets per game (with a lot few that that showing up). According to Forbes Magazine, the team was worth approximately $220 million in 2003 but Dan Gilbert bought it for $375 million two years later.  Even after adjusting for the average 20% appreciation in NBA franchise value from 2003-05, taking LeBron in the lottery might have been worth over $100 million to Gund

In addition to business reasons, there were plenty of basketball reasons to take LeBron with the first pick. He was the first high school player to be named to USA Today’s All-USA First-Team three times (only O.J. Mayo has done it since) or National Player of the Year twice (only Greg Oden has done it since). James even made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school while averaging 28.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 3.0 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game.


LeBron only got better as a senior and averaged 30.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.9 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game for a team that played and beat some of the best high school teams in the country. He certainly didn’t suffer the SI Jinx.

As an example of one of those draft stories that get told over and over again by agents drinking Grey Goose at a Ritz Carlton bar, Milicic just happened to be practicing in the same Manhattan gym as the Pistons while the team was in New York getting ready to play the Nets in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals. Somehow, ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Chad Ford was also there so he alerted Pistons President Joe Dumars that Milicic was working out in the building. Apparently, Milicic had the one-on-none workout of a lifetime because Dumars thought the Serbian phenom would be even better than Dirk based on that one encounter. According to an article by Brian Windhorst on ESPN.com written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 2003 Draft, Dumars told Jon Barry during the workout that Milicic was “going to be an absolute stud.”

For clarification purposes, Jon Barry is the one with the Pistons’ jersey:

jonbarrybrent barryrick-barry_331734

Pictured from left to right (or top to bottom): Jon Barry (then NBA player, now NBA announcer); Brent Barry – brother of Jon and 1996 NBA Dunk Champion (no really, he won); and Rick Barry – Jon and Brent’ dad, and NBA legend (no sarcasm, he was great).

Just hours after the supposed impromptu workout and right before tip-off of Game 3, Detroit found out that it would get the 2nd overall pick in the upcoming draft. Any excitement from winning the pick didn’t last long, however,  as the Pistons lost the game to go down 0-3 in their best-of-seven series. Two days later, the Pistons were eliminated after being swept by the Nets in the conference finals. One week after that, Pistons Head Coach Rick Carlisle was fired. Huh?

During his two years as head coach with the Pistons, Carlisle was the 2001-02 NBA Coach of the Year, won two division titles, and led the team to the conference semi-finals and conference finals in successive seasons. Despite these accomplishments, Carlisle (who later won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks) got kicked to the curb. In an article for ESPN The Magazine, Ric Bucher tried to justify the firing by bringing up some concerns about Carlisle’s relationship with the front office (think Mark Jackson with Golden State) and his handling of rookies Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur (presumably they should have gotten more playing time during the season based on their playoff contributions). However, it didn’t take an NBA insider to realize that Carlisle got fired because a better option (i.e. Larry Brown) was available. Two days after firing Carlisle, Dumars hired Brown showing that he was willing to make bold moves to try to bring a Championship back to the Motor City. Alternatively, Dumars simply was the type of guy who would dump his girlfriend as soon as someone prettier seemed interested.

Dumars had the opportunity to make his next big move later in the month at the draft.  Externally, it seemed the pick would come down to Milicic and Anthony but internally, the Pistons had settled on Milicic after that fateful day in New York. The 2002-03 Pistons were already set with strong players in three spots (Chauncey Billups at the point, Rip Hamilton at shooting guard, and Ben Wallace at center) and had two rookies in the other two spots (Prince at small forward and Okur at power forward). Going forward, the Pistons were more comfortable with Prince than Okur based on their decision to take Milicic (at power forward) instead of Anthony (at small forward). Apparently, the team even had Bosh (also a power forward) ahead of Anthony on their draft board.

I just rewatched ESPN’s coverage of the 2003 draft, which was interesting to see again because of the glowing opinions of Milicic.  Almost unanimously, the pundits thought he had tremendous upside and liked that he would have time to develop because Detroit didn’t need him to start right away. The only dissenter that night seemed to be Dick Vitale. While commenting that Detroit might regret not taking Anthony, Vitale had an expression more akin to being fairly confident in his prediction. As support, he noted that Carmelo (unlike the first two picks) actually proved himself in college and led Syracuse to a National Championship. Way to go Dickie V. because you were 100% correct.

Shout out to Dickie V., the MJ of college basketball announcers

With Milicic off the board, the stage was set for Denver to take Anthony at #3, Toronto to take Bosh at #4 and Miami to take Wade at #5.  As the following table shows, these selections were warranted by how each of them played in college


(Note: Anthony and Bosh played one year while Wade played two years)

Per Game Averages  


School Games Rebounds Assists Blocks Steals Points

2002-03 Recognition / Ranking

Anthony Syracuse 35 10.0 2.2 0.9 1.6 22.2

2nd Team All American

NCAA Champion – MVP of Tournament

NCAA ranking: 4th in points and 9th in rebounds


Georgia Tech 31 9.0 1.2 2.2 1.0 15.6 ACC ranking: 1st in blocks per game and field goal percentage
Wade Marquette 65 6.5 3.9 1.2 2.3 19.7

1st Team All American

NCAA ranking: 7th in win shares

Out of these three picks, the only slight surprise was Wade, who was expected to go at #7 to Chicago. Apparently, Heat GM Pat Riley was uncertain about going small (Wade) or big (Chris Kaman) with the pick. Even though Wade was a 1st Team All American who led his team to the Final Four, Kaman was a 7-footer who averaged 22.4 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game for Central Michigan. Fortunately for the Heat, Riley made the right choice, especially considering that Wade was able to lure LeBron and Bosh down to South Beach six years later.

Overall, four out of the five teams at the top of the 2003 Draft succeeded by taking future Hall of Famers with their picks. The only team missing out was the Pistons. With all the other quality players available, the Pistons had a chance to make a big splash.

Look at the kid in the background practicing his own arms-out technique.

Too bad it was a flop.

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