Darko vs. Carmelo debate lives on

Updated: June 4, 2004, 1:07 AM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Detroit Pistons made it to the NBA Finals without drafting Carmelo Anthony. So the whole "What if 'Melo?" saga is a dead issue with the Pistons, right?

Carmelo Anthony
The Pistons sure could use a scorer like Carmelo Anthony.
Well ...

"No. There wouldn't be nothing else to talk about if they do [forget about it]," Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars said. "They wouldn't have nothing else to talk about, so they have to keep talking about it."

The whole 'Melo argument has been going rampant for nearly a year now and will continue as the Pistons continue to have trouble firing offensively.

It was just over a year ago that 'Melo became 'Melo as he led Syracuse to its first national championship. He was the greatest thing since, well, high school phenom LeBron James. And after the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted James first overall, the Pistons could have brought 'Melo's headband and scoring prowess to the Motor City.

Dumars and the Pistons' brass, however, had different plans. There was this little-known big kid named Darko Milicic from Serbia and Montenegro. Like Anthony, he was just 18. But, Milicic stood 7-foot tall, had a wingspan wider than Yao Ming's and an inside and outside game that left Dumars drooling after a workout at John Jay College in New York City prior to last year's draft lottery.

As soon as the Pistons won the second Ping-Pong ball, a pick that came from a Vancouver Grizzlies trade years ago, word soon ran wild that Detroit's selection would be Darko and not 'Melo. While there was initially a workout setup between the Pistons and Anthony, Anthony's agent, Calvin Andrews, opted not to go through with it after he felt the Pistons' mind was made up to take Darko. So with Milicic gone to Detroit with the second pick, the Denver Nuggets gladly snatched Anthony.

Now nearly a year later, Anthony is one of the NBA's budding young stars and the biggest thing since the arrival of John Elway and snow to the Rocky Mountains. He led the Nuggets to their first playoff berth since 1995, had the second hottest selling jersey in the NBA, averaged a rookie-best 21 points per game and took part in commercials with the likes of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

Darko? He was the typical rookie and had a courtside seat to enjoy one of the greatest seasons in Pistons history as a deep reserve behind the likes of All-Star Ben Wallace, the multi-talented Rasheed Wallace, rising star Mehmet Okur and long-time veteran Elden Campbell.

"If I had a chance [to play] earlier this season, maybe I could do something," said Milicic, who played 159 minutes during 34 regular-season games. "But for now, I really can't say. I didn't play no games. Zero. But if I had a chance this season, maybe I would know."

While much of the blame for passing on Anthony is placed on Milicic, another big reason why the Pistons went for Darko was forward Tayshaun Prince.

Although he played sparingly as a rookie during the regular season, Prince showed so much promise in the 2003 playoffs that the Pistons didn't believe another small forward was necessary. Prince also had a solid second year, averaging 10.3 points, and he made one of the greatest clutch defensive plays in NBA playoff history when he blocked a potentially game and series altering layup by Indiana's Reggie Miller late in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.

But with 'Melo's scoring ability, maybe the Pistons wouldn't have been a team fighting to score 70 points each game against the Pacers. The Nuggets' explosive scorer once dropped 41 on Seattle and scored at least 20 in 16 of the last 19 regular-season games and in 32 of his last 38. And he did all of this before turning 20 years old, which he did just last week.

With Anthony, Prince could have been a NBA Sixth Man Award candidate and a key defender off the bench. With Anthony, it would have been easier for Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace to get good looks at the basket. With Anthony, the Pistons' defense may not have been as strong but his offense would have made up for it. With Anthony, the Pistons would have had their most exciting player and explosive scorer since a healthy Grant Hill. And with Anthony, the Los Angeles Lakers would have to make the tough decision on whether to use star Kobe Bryant to guard either Hamilton or Anthony in the Finals.

And with all that talk about 'Melo in mind, Prince understands why the "What if?" talk won't end.

They feel that Carmelo could have come in here and pretty much played right away. It's something I look at as you go out there and not really pay any attention to. I just got to go out there and play how I can play.
Tayshaun Prince
"They haven't forgot about it," Prince said. "Especially, a situation where Darko is not playing. They feel that Carmelo could have come in here and pretty much played right away. It's something I look at as you go out there and not really pay any attention to. I just got to go out there and play how I can play.

"I've heard questions about that all season long. Definitely, he's a great player. ... My approach is to go out and play and not worry about what everyone else thinks."

The Nuggets know what they got in Anthony and feel blessed that his arrival changed the face of the franchise. What kind of influence Milicic has on the future of the Pistons probably won't be known for at least two more seasons. Until then, Pistons fans will keep wondering what might've been in these NBA Finals.

Sorry Darko, that's just the American way.

"I don't worry about things I have no control over," Pistons coach Larry Brown said. "We made a decision to draft the young big kid. It was for the future. I'm confident it is going to be a great pick.

"I'm not going to worry about what I don't have. I'd like to have Shaq."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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