[Moderated by Matt Jones]
You may be wondering what the draft decision of the Detroit Pistons in 2003 has to do with the career of Tayshaun Prince, but the two are actually connected more than you may realize. Prince, the former Kentucky SEC Player of the Year and creator of this awesome moment, had just been drafted by Detroit the year before with the 23rd overall pick. Prince played sparingly his first season with the Pistons, but it was his breakout performance in the playoffs that caught everyone’s attention and helped propel him into the starting lineup for the 2003-2004 season. Before that season could begin, however, the NBA Draft took place, and it was there that one decision was made that sealed the fate of a franchise and placed Tayshaun Prince in an opportunity that could have easily never been given to him.
To understand the entire situation, we have to go all the way back to 1997 and the Team Formerly Known as the Vancouver Grizzlies. Looking to add veteran experience to a young lineup, the Grizzlies traded away a future 1st round pick for Otis Thorpe, who had averaged 13 points a game with the Pistons the year before. That pick, which was protected should the Grizzlies receive the first pick in the draft, came to fruition for Detroit in 2003; the Cavs had won the top pick, followed by the Grizzlies with the 2nd, who immediately had to give up their pick to the Pistons. It was a pleasant surprise for an already powerful Pistons team that had just lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Nets the previous year. It was during those 2002 playoffs, that Prince, having been inserted into the lineup by Coach Rick Carlisle as an act of desperation, (seeing as how they Pistons were down 3-1 to the Orlando Magic and on the verge of elimination) started to show signs of his ability to be an effective NBA player. Back to 2003; the incoming draft class was loaded and it was certain the Cavs were taking hometown product LeBron James. Still, the Pistons had their choice of players such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. Who, then, did they ultimately choose with their second pick? Serbian center Darko Millicic.
Before we get started, lets debunk some of the false reasoning as to why the Pistons selected Millicic to begin with. One of the arguments was that the Pistons front office saw what Prince did in the playoffs and decided to hold off on drafting another forward. This seems like a plausible excuse, except Pistons GM Joe Dumars was openly letting anyone who would listen know that he was planning on taking Darko Millicic. Others claim that at that time, Darko was a better prospect than Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, two players coming off of Final Four runs with their respective schools, and a championship to boot in Melo’s case. It seems odd that two premier college players would be overlooked after runs to the Final Four, seeing as how a player like Kemba Walker played his way into a Top 10 draft pick and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson were all selected in the Top 5 of last year’s draft following an appearance in the national title game. Whatever the reason, Dumars was intent on taking Millicic from the outset, a decision he would later readily admit he regretted. (We’ll get back to that.)
Suppose, however, the Pistons had taken Carmelo Anthony, the versatile forward from Syracuse who wound up at #3 to the Denver Nuggets? Coming in to the draft, Anthony was just wrapping up an historic freshmen season in which he won a championship and him and LeBron were being hyped as the “new” Magic/Larry rivalry that would help the popularity of the NBA to soar once again.
Let’s reverse history and take a look at what could have happened if Melo was chosen second overall.
Following the draft day festivities, the Pistons get down to business in terms of getting ready for summer training camp and the media scrutiny that comes with having taken LeBron’s “nemesis.” Seeing the writing on the wall, Tayshaun Prince goes to the front office and asks to be traded; he realizes he has a small amount of leverage due to his playoff production (Prince was the first player in NBA history to score more points in the playoffs (141) than the entire regular season (137) of that year.) so the Pistons decide to grant him his wish. Knowing that one of Carmelo’s weaknesses, and the Pistons unit as a whole, is outside shooting, the organization shops Prince around while asking for a shooter in return. Dumars would never trade him to a contender in the East; the Nets had just swept them the year before in the Finals and the Pacers were gearing up for another deep run with Reggie Miller and Jermaine O’Neal. Finally, the Pistons find a team that meet the criteria: a Western conference team willing to depart with an effective shooter. That team is the Dallas Mavericks, and the player is Michael Finley, the 30-year old forward coming off a season in which he shot 37% from behind the arc. (Finley would go on to shoot a blistering 40% during the 2003-2004 season.)
For the Pistons, this would have created a dominant Eastern team for years to come who would have contended for title after title instead of the one-and-done championship they did win. A core group of Melo, Mehmet Okur, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups (all under 27) would have been a formidable opponent well into the 2010s. More importantly for UK fans, however, is what it would have meant for Tayshaun Prince. At the time, the Mavericks had taken the poor man’s Prince in the form of Josh Howard, who was drafted in the second round of Prince’s draft class but had a history of questionable behavior that would later be the reason he was shipped out of Dallas. The Mavericks at the time had a great veteran lineup featuring Antawn Jamison, a still effective Antoine Walker, and was anchored by superstars Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Bringing Prince in would have added length needed on defense to stop the juggernauts that had become the Spurs, Lakers, Kings and (for one season) Timberwolves. He wouldn’t, however, have been looked at to score as much considering the company he was keeping on the court.
We could discuss the impact of these decisions well into the present day NBA and the repercussions it would have had, but in the short-term, the Mavericks could have had a very different history the last 10 years. It’s possible that Nash would have decided to stay in Dallas and play with that group of players; with the Lakers imploding following that year (shipping Shaq to Miami), and the Kings fading in the sunset, the Western conference would have been theirs for the taking. Meanwhile, the Eastern conference would have witnessed the domination that a Melo-led Pistons would create, and it could have been a situation where Prince and the Mavericks met his former team, the Pistons, in multiple Finals for years to follow.
Joe Dumars would admit in 2012 that drafting Millicic was a mistake. It is easy to look back now and consider all the options, and it’s not like Prince hasn’t had a very stellar career. If Prince had been shipped out of Detroit, he may never had reached the 10,000 point club, played on the 2008 USA Gold Medal team, or won the championship he was an integral part of in 2004. Everything here is obviously speculation. It does go to show, however, that any decision (or non-decision) made in the NBA can affect a player’s career and an organization’s future success.
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