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What if the Detroit Pistons had drafted Carmelo Anthony

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Melo lost no time in telling folks that had the Detroit Pistons drafted him in 2003, he would at least have two or three rings. I couldn’t leave that hypothetical untested, so I took to solve the unanswered questions.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

If you have followed the news during the past few days—which you have, because what else could you be doing these days?—you know LeBron James saved Carmelo Anthony from drowning in the Bahamas and also that Melo seems to have never liked Denver that much. As a lifelong Nuggets fan, I’m sad about how Anthony has and is still dealing with his legacy in Denver. He forced a trade out of town—we can’t complain about that as his brute stubbornness allowed us to fleece the Knicks—spent some mediocre years in New York playing for the team of his heart, wandered around the league for a while, and was now squeezing his last drops of talent in Portland.

I don’t remember Melo never criticizing Denver to a super large extent (I might have missed something) in the years leading up to his trade, but it seems clearer by the day that he never was happy at the place, not even when he pushed the Lakers to a Game 6 back in the 2009 WCF, when he shared court with GOAT Allen Iverson, etc. It sucks, but it is what it is. At least we got to enjoy peak-Melo back then in the rockies.

Now, Melo has said that ““[he doesn’t] know what [he] would have been if [he] had went to Detroit. [He knows he] would have maybe two or three rings.” Sure, mate. If you remember, the Pistons got the no. 2 pick in 2003 via Memphis (which would have gotten the actual no. 1 pick had they gotten it, thus getting no less than LeBron James playing as a Grizzly!) and drafted Euro big Darko Milicic. Ugh. Melo then fell to Denver at no. 3, Chris Bosh to Toronto at no. 4, Dwyane Wade to Miami at no. 5, etc.

So, what would have happened had Detroit opted for Melo instead of Darko? I needed to answer that question to see if the ex-Nugget was right or wrong with his words.

The Setup

This one is very simple. I’ve used free-to-play BasketballGM—go play that game if you want your quarantine to go by flying, believe me—to simulate Carmelo Anthony’s career in this alternate universe. I put myself at the start of the 2003-04 season with a downloaded roster, and just flipped Melo and Darko from Denver to Detroit and the other way around.

This is Detroit’s roster with Melo already part of it, who in this world would have slotted as the starting small forward (over Tayshaun Prince). Keep in mind that by the start of the 2003-04 season Rasheed Wallace was still part of the Trail Blazers, so he never made it to Detroit in this universe.

I realized there was a thing in the roster I used that was about to make the simulation go bonkers, but I didn’t care about it that much: every player was signed to a two-year deal, so basically every player would enter free agency in the second summer. No problem for our man Anthony, who I locked into a 25-year deal with Detroit so I was sure he wasn’t going anywhere.

The First Season as a Piston

Melo entered the NBA as one of the best rookies to ever made it as part of a great class of freshmen led undoubtedly by LeBron James. I remember rooting for Melo to get the ROY back in 2004 over James and of course I did in this alternate universe too, but there was no chance he could beat Bron.

Virtually the same amount of games, around six fewer minutes per game for Melo, better shooting efficiency numbers, an edge on rebounding... but lesser numbers in assists (by a mile), steals, blocks, and points killed his chances. I’m pretty sure he had his truthers like those of us who did bet on him back in 2004, but it wasn’t mean to be. Bad luck.

Not that it meant a lot to Melo, I guess, considering what came next during the playoffs. LeBron put Cleveland in the postseason thanks to reaching a 38-44 record that was good enough to get the Cavs the 7th seed in the East picture, facing the Indiana Pacers (46-36). Had Cleveland lost three more games, they would have been the 8th seed... and faced Detroit!

That’s correct. The Pistons drafted Melo and went all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference thanks to a sweet 54-28 record on the 2004 season. That wasn’t overly great, though, as two teams from the West (Phoenix and Sacramento) won 55+ games that year. In fact, the Kings lapped the field with a scary 63-19 win-loss record in 2004 and a back-to-back-to-back sweeps of Portland, Seattle, and Dallas in the playoffs en route to meet the Eastern Conference champ. That is, obviously, your Detroit Pistons.

In a battle of no. 1 seeds, Sacramento and Detroit squared off. It hadn’t been as easy for Detroit, who swept Miami in the first round but then could only go 4-3 against Milwaukee and beat Indiana 4-2 in the conference finals to reach the actual NBA Finals... which went all the way to a decisive and final Game 7!

Melo didn’t miss a beat. He played—and started—all 21 Detroit’s playoff games in 2004, averaged 20.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 1.6 APG in 29.2 minutes of playing time, and was by far the best Piston on the court during that run. His ORtg sat at 106 and his DRtg at 108, making him a more valuable piece on defense than on offense, and he went on to accrue 1.2 WS in those 21 games.

In a Game 7 for the ages, Melo dropped 41 points, grabbed 13 boards, and dished out an unheard-of 5 dimes to help Detroit lift the Larry O’B. Just like the real-life Pistons did in 2004 thanks to riding one of the most unselfish rosters ever, the alternate-universe, Melo-led Pistons were also able to come out winners in this virtual 2004 re-do. Some things never change, folks. Melo got his ring and he was only 20 years old! What was to come!?

From 2005 Onward

With the chip fresh under his arm, Melo knew he still had a bunch of years left to go rack up titles and fill his trophy case. Just one year in the league had seen him got his first championship and being named to the All-Rookie Team, so everything looked perfectly alright in his new pro-venture.

Sadly, things didn’t completely panned out for Melo. The Pistons drafted Carlos Delfino and Delonte West in 2004 to add to the core of Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Anthony. That team could only finish 40-42 but somehow still made the playoffs, where they were absolutely demolished by Chicago 4-1 in the first round thanks to Jamal Crawford and the efforts of then-rookie Josh Smith, who they drafted fifth-overall.

With the monster-shuffling that the 2005 free agency was, Detroit entered the 2006 season with a bunch of new faces in town. Only Melo and Prince returned along with Delfino and Delonte. A pretty shitty team, that was, with a pretty shitty 28-54 record by season’s end.

Here is a quick recap of how Detroit did in both the 2004 season, and the 20 years that followed the title-winning campaign:

“Two or three rings”, the fool said. Ha!

Detroit only missed the playoffs a couple of times after winning the title and before making them again for eight consecutive years. Yes, they even got into them with a stupid 36-46 record in 2010. They got the eight seed (tied with New York in record, who got the seventh). That team was a beauty, though, featuring a washed-up Kevin Garnett averaging 8-7-3 in 23 minutes, Wilson Chandler, Tyrus Thomas, Eddie House, Dajuan Wagner and our man Melo at his ultimate peak (25-6-4 in 33 min).

The span going from 2007 to 2012 marked Anthony’s best years (WS ranging from 10 to 13.8 in 2009, his career-best), and from that point on he started a decline that lasted quite a while. I haven’t chosen 2024 as the cut-out season at random. I have chosen it because it marked Melo’s last season in this alternate NBA universe. He never stopped shooting the ball and he made it very clear he was going to play to his forties, so there is that.

After a 21-year career, here is the legacy Melo left in the league books:

It took Melo 15 seasons to drop under 15 PPG for the first time in his career, already aged 34 and starting 80/80 games when he could only average 14.3 PPG for his Pistons. He always played more than 20 minutes per game other than in three seasons, two of those his last couple, but he still was part of 75 and 77 games in them at ages 39 and 40. Although assists were never Melo’s mojo he improved his numbers steadily and by the time he reached his peak he had turned into a nice 5-dime guy per game, which he was able to pair with some solid 6+ rebounds per for most of his career.

As a wrap-up, here you have Melo’s accolades. He got his chip perhaps too early, played tremendous ball for 21 years, got himself inducted in the Hall of Fame as soon as he retired, and put his body in six All-Star games during his heyday, including a nod in the All-League teams of the league ranging from the first (in 2009) to the third in a four-year span without fail.

So, yeah, Melo wins a chip in Detroit. He did so in 2004, which coincidentally happens to align with what happened in real-life, diminishing the feat and not leaving him in a very good position as that team already got the championship without his help almost 16 years to this date.

This simulation was nothing serious, nor tells us anything about what could have really happened. There are a tons of variables that could have changed the outcome, and just re-running the simulation would yield a 99% different set of results. But hey, if we have to go with this one-off what-if solution, I’m glad this fool has to at least eat some of his words and acknowledge that even leading his own Pistons he wouldn’t have done much more than he achieved in Denver, let alone New York and the rest of teams he has been part of.

I will always love Melo. But Melo, brother, watch your mouth a bit.