Recently, TMZ.com caught up with Carmelo Anthony, who candidly proclaimed that of all the NBA draft classes in league history, the 2003 edition, in which he was selected third overall, was the best of all-time.
Four of the first five picks included Anthony and the recent NBA champions LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, better known as the Miami Heat's "Big Three." Yes, the second pick, Darko Milicic, was a complete and utter bust, but there is little denying that the 2003 draft year certainly pointed towards the future of the NBA, at the time.
So what of 'Melo's claim? The three best draft classes of all-time are widely considered to be 2003, 1996, and 1984.
Let's compare two most recent ones, '03 and '96. Now, let's pretend that a time machine existed, and we could pluck every member of the draft at their primes, and throw every single selected player on a single court.
There's now a Space-Jam style death match. Each class must construct their best team to play the other for bragging and trash-talking rights.
We'll do a starting lineup for each, a sixth man, and compare benches. Then we'll determine who has the edge in each. Each class boasts multiple All-Stars and several all-time greats, but who will prevail in this hypothetical matchup?
Let's preface this slide by clearing up a couple of things. I am trying to build a team for each, one that fits a specific identity and playing style and one that I think would logically work and not neccesarily the best individual players. Both teams, coincidentally, although being from different eras, have stars that make them fit the run-and-gun, small-ball style that dominates the NBA.
'03 Bench: Josh Howard, Kendrick Perkins, Mickael Pietrus, Nick Collison, Travis Outlaw, Leandro Barbosa
Kendrick Perkins would provide the requisite muscle to give this team a little bit of toughness, coming off the bench to spell Chris Bosh in a Joel Anthony-type role. Josh Howard is the best athlete at the 3, backing up LeBron and Carmelo. Mickael Pietrus comes in and provides shooting like he did with the 2009 Orlando Magic team that made the Finals. Ditto for Outlaw and Barbosa. Nick Collison is the 12th man; he works hard and can relieve Perkins or Bosh if either ever picked up quick fouls. Collison could easily come in and play the same role he does for his current team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he mucks up rebounds and plays solid defense.
'96 Bench: Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Kerry Kittles, Derek Fisher
Allen is the seventh man; he feeds off of Iverson and Nash's play-making while doing nothing but shooting threes. Camby is the second big man off the bench, while Abdur-Rahim and Marbury are insurance policies at the forward and guard spots. Kerry Kittles is another shooter for the run-and-gun system, while Fisher is the 12th man who provides leadership and shooting.
Both benches are deep and have the shooters and rebounding big men who can play defense to compliment the star players on each side. It's a draw, and the effectiveness of each bench can only be determined by the coach that would coach them.
The No.1 pick is on the bench?
'03 Sixth Man: David West
'96 Sixth Man: Allen Iverson
Iverson was the first overall pick, while West was the 18th. Iverson is a combo guard, while West is a power forward and possibly a center in the system that the '03 team would run (small-ball).
Although it would appear that the this is a no-brainer win for the '96 squad, digging deeper, I'm not so sure. West served as Chris Paul's sidekick in New Orleans for eight seasons, playing the second fiddle role on a decent playoff contender and understanding his role. He plays a leadership role for the Indiana Pacers that took the Miami Heat to a Game 7 in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. He's made two All-Star teams, puts up a solid 16 points and seven rebounds per game for his career and would know exactly how to thrive as a sixth man on a team that clearly has bigger superstars than he.
Iverson, on the other hand, was forced into a bench role when he was with the Pistons, immediately lost his coach's trust and caused a myriad of locker room issues. Sure, his career was on the decline, but he couldn't adapt to it. We've seen Iverson succeed in exactly one role, and that was being the primary ball-handler, taking every big shot while gambling a lot on the defensive end. There is zero evidence that Iverson can be integrated into a system and overwhelming evidence he would clash with the other stars on the team, insisting he'd be a reserve and sulking on the bench.
That said, he is a former league MVP, a four-time scoring champion, has a playoff career scoring average second only to Michael Jordan, and was ranked the fifth greatest two-guard in NBA history. You'd be crazy not to put him in this slot. Put him in when Nash and Kobe are taking a breather and hoping that his resentment from not starting results in him getting angry enough to light up the other team for one of his trademark scoring barrages that men twice his size couldn't stop when he was playing for the Philadelphia 76ers.
'03 Starter: Mo Williams
'96 Starter: Steve Nash
Mo Williams? Really? As star-studded as the '03 group is, the top four point guards chosen were Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford, Marcus Banks, and Luke Ridnour. Yikes. It's abundantly clear that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be the focus of the '03 group, so we're basically trying to recreate the current Miami Heat. We need a point guard who can bring the ball up the floor and make open threes. The good news is that Williams is a career 38.6 percent shooter from deep, and has even played with LeBron before!
Unfortunately, he matches up against a former two-time MVP in Steve Nash. At his peak, Nash can take the '96 squad into what the current Los Angeles Lakers should have been if they weren't old and creaky — a devastating offensive attack led by him and Kobe Bryant that could easily run with the LeBron James-led '03 squad.
'03 Starter: Carmelo Anthony
'96 Starter: Peja Stojakovic
Here's where 'Melo's class starts to measure up. This is the first matchup in which there is a decided advantage for the '03 class. Peja Stojakovic was the 14th pick, in between Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, so it's fitting that he slides right beside them as their premier marksman. Stojakovic enjoyed his best year in 2004 when he averaged 24.2 points and 6.3 rebounds a game and was an MVP candidate on a talented and extremely dynamic Sacramento Kings squad.
He fits perfectly in the Nash-Kobe led system. He's a starter because he can help them build big leads by coming out and nailing a bunch of threes, his specialty throughout his career. He is however, a horrid defender and this is where the rails come off.
Stojakovic would likely be a starter but be relegated to the bench during crunch time because Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are undoubtedly manning the forward spots during that time, and he'd be forced to guard one of them. There might not be two forwards in the history of the game other than Bernard King and Larry Bird better at exploiting one-on-one mismatches than James and Anthony.
Big Edge: 2003
'03 Starter: Chris Bosh
'96 Starter: Jermaine O'Neal
Here are two guys who have both signed max contracts in their career, been cornerstones for extended periods of time for a franchise, been surefire 20-10 guys when they were the first option, and have 14 All-Star selections between them.
Yet I know for a fact that in this game, both of them would disappear. So if we're trying to choose the edge here, we're going with the lesser of two evils.
For Bosh, we know what we're getting. We know when Bosh is the third or fourth option, he gives us the performance we saw in the 2013 NBA Finals; decent defense, a stretch big man who can knock down some jumpers, not a lot of rebounding but ultimately, manages to compliment James and Wade well.
For O'Neal, he's a classic post-up player who excels mostly in the half-court. He's starting simply because he's got way more offensive skill than Marcus Camby, and you hope his mid-range game and proficiency at the pick-and-roll makes him a half-decent compliment to Nash. The argument for him starting also resides in that fact that Bosh doesn't handle pure post-up players well, like we saw with Tim Duncan in the recent Finals.
If he can't do any of those things or play decent enough defense, he'd be replaced by Camby quickly, who would play a role similar to Andrew Bogut on the Golden State Warriors (rebounding, anchoring the defense).
James knows he's the best player on the court in this game
'03 Starter: LeBron James
'96 Starter: Antoine Walker
I love Walker. From the shimmy, to the irrationally dumb threes that somehow go in, to his complete and utter passion for the game. Unlike Stojakovic and possibly O'Neal, he'd absolutely be on the floor during crunch-time.
He has every requisite skill you need from a small-ball front-line player. He can shoot threes, he can get you offensive rebounds, he will run the floor when he wants to, and his biggest weakness (his horrible defense) is masked by the system. In a big game, you need guys who think they can make any shot, any time, any situation and not shrink from the moment, even if they might take a dumb three and shoot you out of the game.
That said, his counterpart is the one, the only, and the current King of the NBA. For how big a mismatch the other forward spot is, this one is about five times bigger.
Big, Big Edge: 2003
'03 Starter: Dwyane Wade
'96 Starter: Kobe Bryant
The two forward spots are completely dominated by the 2003 class. Conversely, the point guard and sixth man match ups are completely dominated by the 1996 class. The center match up is boring because neither of them would be very involved in the game anyway. Both benches are deep and compliment the starters very well, as long as the right coach played the right guys the right minutes.
Easily the most competitive, compelling, and dominating matchup of the game. Neither guy would leave the floor and would probably spend all game trash-talking and going at each other in isolation scenarios reminiscent of Michael Jordan vs Clyde Drexler. Minus the one-sidedness, obviously.
In the 2006 Finals, Wade submitted what the great John Hollinger considers the greatest performance in NBA Finals history, so if we're taking everyone at the peak of their powers for a single game, one might think that Wade would get the edge here. He had a PER of 33.8, shooting over 46 percent from the field while scoring 34.7 points, grabbing 7.8 boards (at 6'4''), dishing 3.8 assists, and pilfering 2.7 steals a game.
He also got to the line about 10-15 times a game in '06, culminating in a staggering 25 attempts in the deciding game alone. So Wade would have a decided edge and upper hand for sure, if Joey Crawford were refereeing the game.
That said, he's had a knack for coming through in the biggest of games in the playoffs, especially when doubters are doubting him, including efforts in Game 6 and 7 of the most recent NBA Finals that can only be described as "beyond gutsy". From 2006-09, when he was the unquestioned leader of the Heat and the leader of a perennial contender, his peak yielded an per-game average of 27.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 7.3 assists. He had a 26.9 PER, over 57 percent TSP (true-shooting percentage) thanks to his double-digit free throw attempts. He's been the best player on one title team, while being the second-best on two and undoubtedly the icon of Miami Heat basketball. He's undoubtedly a top-five two-guard in NBA history.
His counterpart? Kobe Bean Bryant. The most remarkably durable, consistent and hard-working player in NBA history, Kobe has five titles to his name, a league MVP, two Finals MVP's, and has been All-NBA First Team an astounding 11 times. All of these numbers are gaudier than Wade's, perhaps simply because Bryant has played six more seasons as a starter than Wade has been in the league. On the other hand, it's impossible to imagine Wade ever winning another Finals MVP.
Their scoring, rebounds, assists, win-shares, and PER numbers are so eerily similar for their respective five best seasons it's scary.
Here's where we begin to find separation. Wade has had three All-NBA Second Team Defense selections; Kobe has had the same amount, but also been selected to the All-NBA First Team Defense nine times. Wade has never been a good shooter, especially from deep, sporting an ugly 29 percent career three-point average, while Kobe rocks a 34 percent. Kobe might also be the best mid-range jump shooter of all-time; anyone who watched the 2009 Finals knows his 32.9 points per game in that series came just about entirely on contested jumpers.
A big edge for Kobe: unlike Wade, he's proven that he can be the alpha dog of an overly talented team in the 2008 Olympics, when everybody deferred to him in the biggest moments of the gold medal game against Spain. The Black Mamba in his prime will undoubtedly be the go-to guy for his side. Wade will be the second or third option.
In the late game situation, Wade's game reeks of toughness and grit, willing himself to the line when his team needs a two. But, Kobe's late-game chops remind me of a killer with ice in his veins, ready to step back and drop a dagger in anybody's face, even if he'd been shooting horribly all game.
Edge: 1996 (barely)
This is a tough one. The game would be tied throughout, coming down to the last few baskets. It will be hard for any team to stop the sheer three-point shooting potential of the 1996 squad. With Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic, Antoine Walker and not to mention Kobe, this would be a souped-up version of Nash's Phoenix Suns circa 2005-2008.
That said, nobody on that team can guard LeBron or Carmelo. If Wade can play Kobe to a draw and use up his energy on defense, it's too tough not to give this game to the 2003 team. They have the best player on the court, period.