Thursday, April 30, 2020

LeBron, Darko, and 2003’s great what-iF questions

LeBron

James entered the league with a seemingly impossible amount of hype, and somehow managed to live up to it. At the tender age of 18, he became just the third rookie ever to average more than 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game, joining all-timers Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. He was an instant game-changer for the Cavs, who more than doubled their win total in his first season and finished one game behind the Celtics for the East’s final playoff spot.


By Year 2, LeBron was already finishing in the top five in the league in scoring—he wouldn’t fall out for 12 years—and the Cavs were back above .500 for the first time since before things really started to get away from Shawn Kemp. James led Cleveland to the playoffs in each of the next five seasons, tied for the longest postseason streak in franchise history. He delivered four 50-win seasons, including back-to-back 60-win campaigns, and carried the Cavs to their first NBA Finals appearance in 2007.


Obviously, the King’s crowning achievement in Northeast Ohio came only after a four-year interregnum in Miami. Even if he never came back, though, and his entire Cleveland career consisted solely of those first seven seasons, James would still have been the greatest Cavalier of all time by a galaxy-spanning distance—the franchise’s first Rookie of the Year and league MVP, its most decorated All-Star (six appearances) and only multiple-time First Team All-NBA selection, and its all-time leader in minutes, points, steals, and just about any advanced stat you can conjure. He still would’ve been the best pick of the ’03 class, too; LeBron logged nearly as many win shares in those first seven seasons alone as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in their entire careers, and more than Carmelo Anthony has in his.

I don’t really like doing this. It feels like a hack bit—a too-easy choice to single out a player who, for all the slings and arrows sent his way through the years, did wind up sticking around the NBA for a decade, and who showed at a few different junctures (Orlando in 2006, Memphis in 2008, Minnesota in 2010) that he could be a serviceable NBA big man, especially on the defensive end. It’s just that … well, he was the second pick, you know?

Thanks to a 1997 trade for Otis Thorpe, who was retired for two seasons by the time the pick finally conveyed, a Pistons team that had just made the Eastern Conference finals lucked into one of the best assets in one of the greatest drafts of all time. But all Detroit got out of that no. 2 pick—one then-Pistons personnel chief Joe Dumars was dead set on using on Milicic, whose pre-draft hype and workout-prompted superlatives would become the stuff of legend—were 152 points and 114 rebounds in 96 total games in three seasons. Plus, eventually, Kelvin Cato and a pick that became Rodney Stuckey. Making matters worse: picks no. 3, 4, and 5 all went on to careers that will land them in the Hall of Fame. (Before you start: Chris Bosh is one of 30 players ever to make 11 or more All-Star Games; the other 29 are all in. He also has two rings and an Olympic gold medal, and was the unsung hero on a team that made four consecutive Finals. He’ll get in.)

There were many reasons things broke bad for Milicic in the NBA. He was an immature teenager suddenly thrust into the big time half a world away from home, admittedly unwilling to put in the work required to succeed at the NBA level. He was also shunted to the back of the line in a crowded Detroit frontcourt that featured established veterans like Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Corliss Williamson, Elden Campbell, Mehmet Okur, and Antonio McDyess.

“I’ve said it 10,000 times, the best way for me to improve is to play,” Milicic said during the 2005 NBA Finals, after his second quiet season in Detroit. “All the work in practice and individual workouts can only help me so much. I can’t say how good I am or how bad I am because I haven’t played to show myself, or anybody.”

Some head coaches might have gone out of their way to feed minutes to a young player whom the franchise had invested so much in. Milicic, however, ran into the legendarily prickly Larry Brown, who had neither the time nor the inclination to coddle a kid as he pursued a title; as he told ESPN’s Sam Borden in 2017, “I don’t have any regrets about how we treated Darko. I have regrets that he couldn’t have been more mature and patient.”

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Adding injury to insult, Milicic capped his washed-out rookie season by breaking his shooting hand in a token garbage-time appearance—the kind that earned him the nickname “The Human Victory Cigar”—during the Pistons’ title-clinching Game 5 win against the Lakers, which cost him a summer of development. Things in Detroit never got on track after that for Darko, who admitted years later that he’d turned pro (at just 13 years old) more because it offered him a way out of his war-torn homeland than because he really loved basketball.

I’m open to the argument forwarded recently by Ben Wallace that drafting someone like Anthony, a collegiate superstar who was ready to play right away and who justifiably expected a major role, could have had a negative impact on the chemistry and rotational balance of a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts team in Detroit. But I’m equally open to the counter that’s been advanced in the past by the likes of Tayshaun Prince—which is kind of fascinating, since it’s his minutes that Melo would’ve been taking—that the Pistons could have won multiple championships had they taken Anthony (who went third) rather than chasing the Myth of the Next Dirk.

Since 1947, 73 players have been selected no. 2, 71 of whom have actually played in the league. (George Kok, 1948’s second pick, chose not to play in the BAA, the NBA’s predecessor; Len Bias died two nights after the 1986 draft.) Of those 71, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the average no. 2 pick has produced 47.7 career win shares. When Darko left the league, he’d accounted for only 7.1—59th out of those 71, and 32nd among all players in the ’03 class.

There’s just no other spot in the ’03 draft where the choice made feels more disastrous, given the other options on the board and the gap in productivity between what could have been and what was. I looked for one, in the interest of zagging and writing about something different. But making a stink about, like, Reece Gaines not panning out in Orlando, or Zarko Cabarkapa fizzling in Phoenix feels a little too much like hearing hoofbeats and thinking “zebra.” Again: Sometimes the right answer is pretty plain to see.

Plenty of teams through the years have made mistakes by drafting toolsy youngsters without established track records, only to find out that a hyper-athletic 19-year-old who can’t read defenses or remember his rotations can quickly become a 24-year-old who still has the same struggles. West stands as an example of the potential virtues of going the other way by betting on an older prospect who has already shown what he can do, and how he’d project to the next level.

West was a four-year college player, entering the draft only after graduating from Xavier with a degree in communications, which made him one of the oldest options on the board. But it also made him one of its most decorated—a three-time Atlantic-10 Player of the Year, and a consensus first-team All-American and the AP’s National Player of the Year as a senior. Some teams balked at using a first-round pick on a player who would be 23 by the time he made his NBA debut; New Orleans, however, thought West’s combination of defensive toughness, rebounding, back-to-the-basket scoring, high-post passing, and perimeter touch would translate.

By his third season, West was leading the Hornets in scoring and rebounding, pairing with a dynamite young point guard named Chris Paul to push the franchise back toward relevance. From 2006 through 2011, West averaged 19.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game, earning a pair of All-Star berths and playing a major role on teams that made three playoff appearances—most notably the 2007-08 Hornets, who won 56 games and pushed the Spurs to the limit in a seven-game slugfest in the second round.

West’s tenure in New Orleans ended on a down note, with an ACL tear cutting his 2010-11 season short; he’d go on to sign with the Pacers after the 2011 lockout, and become one of the linchpins of a perennial playoff team in Indianapolis. He retired in 2018 after winning two NBA championships with the Warriors, concluding a 15-year career in which he routinely made teams better and earned respect across the league as a smart, honest, tough, and dependable contributor. It’s pretty close to a dream scenario for a pick in the bottom half of the first round.

Also, a special shout-out to the 76ers landing Kyle Korver at no. 51 in what would become an infamous draft night trade. As Zach Lowe wrote at Grantland in 2014: “With none of their preferred choices on the board, the Nets brass selected Creighton forward Kyle Korver with the 51st pick—and immediately sold his draft rights to the Sixers for $125,000. That covered [the cost of New Jersey’s] summer league [team]. With the leftover cash, the Nets bought a new copy machine.” Korver would go on to shoot just under 41 percent from 3-point range in parts of five seasons in Philadelphia—just the opening chapter in a 17-year NBA career that was continuing in Milwaukee when the NBA suspended play.

My first thought was what’s far and away the most discussed alternate timeline from the 2003 draft: What if the Pistons took anybody but Darko? We’re covering that elsewhere, though, so here’s another one I’ve wondered about a bunch over the years:

As the 1996-97 season neared its conclusion, “The sour relationship between Pistons forward Otis Thorpe and coach Doug Collins [had grown fractured] beyond repair,” wrote Jackie MacMullan of Sports Illustrated. Citing team sources, MacMullan reported that Thorpe, a veteran power forward who was a key piece for the Rockets through their first championship season, would “most likely be traded this summer.” Stu Jackson, desperate enough for a stabilizing veteran presence for his Grizzlies, shipped out a future first-round pick to take a flyer on the 35-year-old.

It didn’t go so hot: After 47 games, the Grizz sent Thorpe and Chris Robinson to the Kings for Bobby Hurley and Michael Smith. And it really didn’t go so hot down the line, as a selection protected from nos. 2 through 18 just kept rolling over and over without conveying; “by 2003,” as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote in an oral history of the ’03 draft, “the only way the Grizzlies would keep their pick was if it was no. 1 overall.”

Memphis entered the lottery with the sixth-best odds of picking first. But when NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik opened the envelope to reveal the no. 6 pick, the card inside featured the Clippers’ logo, not the Grizzlies, meaning that Memphis had leapt into the top three. And then, at no. 3: the Nuggets.

“It was devastating to the franchise to not have that pick,” West told Windhorst. “We were able to build a respectable team after that, but just imagine having a player like Mr. James playing for your team. It was unbelievably disappointing.”

Remember: That Memphis team shocked the league, winning 50 games in 2003-04. Imagine if the Grizzlies had LeBron to line up alongside Pau Gasol, with future Heat teammates Mike Miller and Shane Battier on the wing, all of them 25 or under. Put Jason Williams—not quite as eye-popping as he was during his days in Sacramento, but still an ace table-setter—on the ball, with versatile, athletic, and tough pieces like Bonzi Wells, James Posey, and Lorenzen Wright rounding out the rotation. How good, and how much fun, could that Memphis team have been?

“For some of us, we were filled with anger, because we were thinking, ‘How could we not have this draft pick protected?’” West recalled. “With all the good things that have been done in Memphis and where they are today, that franchise could’ve come so much farther. It hurts to think about. It was a sad day.”

In fairness, the Grizzlies still could’ve come away from the ’03 draft in a much better position than they did if West had hit on the two first-rounders he did have. Memphis owned the nos. 13 and 27 picks, traded them to the Celtics for nos. 16 and 20, and wound up with Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones. Jones spent four largely unremarkable seasons in Memphis’s backcourt rotation. Bell suffered multiple knee injuries that led to him playing just six games in a Grizz uniform before the team waived him at the start of the 2004-05 season.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered that much; maybe Hubie Brown, and Mike Fratello after him, wouldn’t have messed with what was a good young frontcourt. But if Memphis had ended up with, say, David West and Boris Diaw—or a late first-round guard like Josh Howard, Carlos Delfino, or Leandro Barbosa—those mid-decade Grizzlies teams might have had the firepower to get out of the first round of the playoffs and establish themselves as a rising threat in the West, even without LeBron.

If things shake out differently, does Gasol still wind up souring on the situation in Memphis and angling for a trade? If he doesn’t: Does Kobe Bryant ever get his second run of titles in Los Angeles? And if Pau never goes to the Lakers, then Marc Gasol never gets to Memphis, and maybe the Grizzlies don’t wind up with an on-the-fly rebuild around him and Zach Randolph. If this particular alternate timeline shuffles Grit and Grind off the mortal coil, is it really one that Grizzlies fans would choose? If they end up with LeBron, I’m guessing the answer’s still yes. Anything short of that, though? It’s an interesting question.

First, the two guys who were never actually Knicks. The team traded 30th pick Maciej Lampe, an 18-year-old 6-foot-11 Polish forward who had impressed in summer league, just seven months after drafting him, in the deal that brought Stephon Marbury home. (That trade, you may recall, included New York sending out a 2010 first-round pick that would eventually become Gordon Hayward.) Knee tendinitis kept 39th pick Slavko Vranes, a 7-foot-5 project out of Montenegro, on the sideline early in his career. Looking for players who could contribute immediately rather than investing in long-term projects, Isiah Thomas waived Vranes on Christmas Eve, just two days after taking over as New York’s general manager following the firing of Scott Layden.

The more damaging miss, though, came with the no. 9 pick, which Layden used on Georgetown star Mike Sweetney. It was a defensible selection: Sweetney was the latest in a line of quality Hoya big men, averaging just over 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game in his final two seasons on campus, and earning second-team All-America honors as a junior. But while Georgetown forerunners like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo were all legit centers with the size and athleticism to protect the rim, the 6-foot-8 Sweetney was more ground-bound and plodding, and struggled to stay on the floor against NBA length; he averaged 7.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in 16.8 minutes per game in two seasons in New York.

Those problems paled in comparison to what Sweetney was dealing with off the court, though. In 2015, Sweetney said that he had long battled undiagnosed clinical depression; in a later interview with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype, Sweetney said that he attempted suicide after losing his father to a heart attack just before the start of his rookie season. Sweetney turned to food for solace, which led to issues with keeping his weight down and staying in shape; that continued after he’d been traded to Chicago, and played a major role in Sweetney winding up out of the league before his 25th birthday. (On a positive note, Sweetney appears to be in a good place now, serving as an assistant coach at Division III Yeshiva University in New York.)

Sure, the Knicks would’ve gotten more bang for the buck if they’d taken, say, Nick Collison, a similarly decorated collegiate power forward, who went 12th to Seattle and spent 14 seasons with the Sonics and Thunder. In this case, though, it feels hard to cast too much blame on the organization for the way things fell apart. Now, the way they moved on from Sweetney—in the spectacularly ill-fated Eddy Curry trade, which sent Chicago 2006 and 2010 first-round picks that would turn into LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah? That’s a different, and decidedly Knicksier, story.

Using a mix of two all-encompassing statistics—Basketball-Reference’s win shares and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement—we calculated the peak and career value for each player drafted (and undrafted) since 1996. (Peak value comprised the top five seasons of a player’s career.) Then, for each class, we ranked the players in three ways: by peak value, by career value, and by an ultimate blend of the two, using baseball’s JAWS model as an example. The first chart shows the top 13 players according to these rankings, while the second looks at the lottery picks that didn’t make the cut. An important caveat is that all of these rankings address regular-season performance only; feel free to mentally adjust placements based on playoff exploits.