On this date 15 years ago, June 26, 2003, the Detroit Pistons owned the 2nd overall selection in the NBA draft and were eager to select what should have been the cornerstone of the franchise over the next decade.
After a stellar 2003 season in which the Pistons finished first in the Eastern Conference before getting swept by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was clear that the Pistons were only a few pieces away from a championship. They already had the core of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace. One of those final pieces was supposed to come with that second selection in the draft.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers predictably selected hometown stud and future G.O.A.T. Lebron James with the first overall pick, the Pistons opted to take a little known center from Serbia who stood seven feet tall and billed at 275 lbs. Darko’s Top 10 plays of his career are actually sad. Half of his top plays are standard, ordinary blocked shots.
Former Piston GM Joe Dumars, who led the charge to select Darko, has admitted that he didn’t do his due diligence before drafting the towering European. “The background on [Milocic] was about 20 percent of what we do now,” Dumars said in a 2012 interview after drafting the current franchise cornerstone center Andre Drummond. “I look back on it now and realize you didn’t know half of the stuff you needed to know.”
And that’s probably all you need to know about why Joe Dumars isn’t at the helm for the Pistons anymore. You have the second overall selection and don’t do your research? It’s like getting married after just meeting each other on that dumb new ABC show The Proposal.
I’m highly expecting that show to negatively impact the divorce rate. And what’s likely is that immediately following hastily marrying some stranger is that person will now run into the actual somebody they were meant to be with. But they won’t be able to do anything about it because they’re already tied down. A tale as old as time.
The same thing happened after the Pistons hastily drafted Darko. It became IMMEDIATELY obvious that the Pistons hitched their wagon to the wrong horse.
Four out of the top five picks in the 2003 NBA draft have made at least one All-Star Game and one All-NBA team. Following Darko and passed over by the Pistons were Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. Carmelo is a 10-time All-Star and NBA scoring champion, Bosh is an 11-time All-Star and two time NBA champion, and Wade is a 12-time All-Star with three NBA titles and an NBA Finals MVP.
Subtract Darko and that is the single best top-5 in NBA draft history. After that, the 2003 draft also produced 2006 Most Improved Player Boris Diaw, three-point shooting champion Jason Kapono and James Jones, 2007 Sixth Man Award winner Leandro Barbosa, and three-point specialist Kyle Korver.
So all of this would subsequently make Darko the worst selection in NBA draft history, right? Well, maybe not.
I am a firm believer that if the Pistons select Bosh or Anthony or even Wade with the second pick in the 2003 draft, they may never have pulled the trigger on a trade that was arguably the difference-maker for the 2004 championship run. That trade was for Rasheed Wallace.
After standing pat for the first half of the 2003-04 season, the Pistons realized that Darko was no help. They needed another big man to run alongside The Fro, and had they selected another big forward other than Darko I don’t think Rasheed ever ends up in Detroit. This would have led to a similar situation to Chris Bosh’s tenure as a Toronto Raptor: perpetually in the top 4-5 seed in the Eastern Conference but inevitably never having enough to go all the way. Just stuck in the blender going around and around until eventually we would have had to cut our losses and trade him before he left for greener pastures in free agency.
Selecting Darko second overall in the 2003 NBA Draft might actually have been the biggest blessing of all time. The Pistons, with added flair and grit from the addition of Rasheed coupled with incredible team chemistry, defense, and unselfishness, overcame the Nets and DESTROYED a “dynasty” when they demolished Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Darko set off a string of events without which the Pistons may have never again sniffed the NBA Finals as the Super-Team era of the NBA was ushered in with the Boston Celtics in the 2007-08 season. Without Darko, the Pistons might still be without a championship since the days of the Bad Boys.
So let me officially say thank you to Darko Milicic for being so bad that it turned out good for the Pistons.
P.S. After a failed attempt at kickboxing in 2014, Darko now owns and operates a 125-acre apple orchard in his native Serbia. Keep doing you Darko, Detroit loves you.