Okay, let me preface this by saying that I typically hate these types of articles, although I do enjoy talking about hypotheticals in sports.
But recently, someone on this site floated the idea that Kobe Bryant nearly became a Piston a few years back, and it got me thinking.
What if Detroit did what many analysts thought they should have done at the time and selected Carmelo Anthony with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft?
What makes this question relevant is Anthony's career trajectory. Despite making the playoffs sooner than even LeBron James, he has never had sustained success there. And since being traded from Denver last year, the Nuggets have surged while the Knicks have plummeted.
This has called into question whether or not Anthony is a winner. It also brings into question not only his development as a player, but also whether or not he is the type that makes those around him better.
For all intents and purposes, Anthony is now being lumped in with prolific scorers that never really won. Those include David Thompson, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin, Alex English and Adrian Dantley, among others.
Those players never really even sniffed playoff greatness (Dantley excluded), and will have their names mentioned as also-rans in the annals of basketball history.
So what would have happened had Anthony been taken by Detroit?
First, let's take a look at that Pistons team. They were a team comprised of humble and hard-working players. The core of the team was Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace.
They were just coming off of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance against New Jersey, so they were just dipping their feet into the winning pool.
The argument at the time for selecting Darko over Carmelo was the fact that Detroit already had Prince, and when all things are equal, you draft for size. So they took a chance on Darko since they were essentially playing with house money.
So where would Anthony have fit in Detroit?
Well first, he probably would have displaced Prince as the starter fairly quickly, although new coach Larry Brown was not a huge fan of rookies. But since Prince was far from a seasoned veteran and Anthony is such a talented scorer, this opens the door to the Pistons inserting their new talented wing player fairly quickly.
The Pistons during that era were considered a very talented defensive team that struggled sometimes scoring in the half-court set.
Anthony is a subpar defensive player who excels at scoring in the half-court set.
It appears to be the perfect fit. Anthony would have infused offensive skill and talent into a sometimes stagnant offense. His penchant for stopping the ball on offense would have actually been okay for Detroit, since they could have designed plays for Anthony later in the shot clock once the first option was drying up.
Imagine this scenario: the Pistons call for a pick-and-roll initially to free up Billups. Chauncey then looks for Hamilton on his patented curl move on the baseline, but he has not been freed by the back cut. Billups instead reverses field and dumps the ball on the wing to Anthony, who now has five seconds to create his own shot.
Not only does Anthony have the option of taking it to the hoop or popping a jumper, but he also has enough time to swing it back to Billups for a three.
Defensively, Anthony certainly would struggle, but I am confident that the system would win out in the end. Instead of Carmelo pulling the rest of the players down to his level defensively, they would pull him up to their level, allowing Anthony to use his athleticism to become a solid team defender.
Remember, the Pistons were about to swing a trade for Rasheed Wallace. And while Wallace himself turned into a very strong defensive presence on this team, this deal also included Mike James, who paired with Lindsey Hunter to form one of the most dominant one-two punches of on-the-ball defense.
The Pistons, toward the end of the 2004 season, became a stifling defensive unit the likes of which has not been seen since. They began instituting a trap defense that created backcourt violations as well as steals and easy buckets.
The Pistons players had an absolute blast doing this, and defense became infectious. They ended up having a long string of games in which they held opponents under 70 points per game.
This infectious brand of defense brought up the level of supposedly defensive-challenged players like Hamilton and Corliss Williamson, and helped foster the careers of Prince and Memo Okur.
Given this group, I am confident that Anthony would have developed this part of his game, something that really was not required of him at other stops. Could you imagine him blowing assignments and approaching defense in a lackadaisical fashion with the Wallace boys waiting to pounce on him?
Furthermore, Prince would have been chomping at the bit to get back in the lineup, and that certainly would have supplied coach Brown with all the motivation he needed.
Oh, you don't want to focus on defense? Well I have a young guy on the bench who loves playing defense.
The fact that the Pistons already had Prince on the roster would have not hindered either player's development. Instead, it would have fostered it, allowing both players to become complete NBA players.
So what would Anthony's inclusion on this team done to his offensive prowess? Would he still be a high scorer?
Well, yes and no. If Anthony completely bought into the system and became the starter, he probably would average around 15 points per game his first year, and that figure would certainly go up to around 20-22 in subsequent years.
The Pistons had too many options for Anthony to hover around 25-28 points per game, but most importantly, the team would have kept winning.
Sure, there is always the chance that he would have bolted for New York or some other venue after his rookie deal was done, but that decision would likely have at least been harder due to the fact that the Pistons likely would be coming off of multiple titles.
Furthermore, Anthony's legacy likely would be much different, and certainly in a good way. Right now, he is considered a prolific scorer that couldn't win.
With a couple of titles under his belt as the second option offensively, his legacy instead would be more similar to James Worthy.
Heck, he could bail after a few years and still get his scoring numbers.
But Anthony would never be questioned as a winner. Not with titles in both college and the pros.
Sure, this is all hypothetical, and a million and one things could have gone wrong. The Pistons might not have dealt for Wallace and became the dominant force they were. And Anthony could have bristled at the Pistons system and flamed out of the league.
But there is a real chance that a player's surroundings really do matter, and nurture has more bearing than nature in a player's development.
That certainly is worth exploring, even with a hypothetical article.
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