What could’ve happened with certain tweaks in the historical timeline of professional sports. What if Mickey Mantle hadn’t crashed head on into Joe DiMaggio, ending the latter’s career almost instantly? What if the Lakers never traded for Kobe, allowing him to remain with the Michael Jordan owned Hornets? What if Tony Romo had been traded to the Saints in 2006?
Without further ado, here’s the 4th installment of what I like to call, Into the Multiverse:
In all of the hype surrounding Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony finally joining forces this past year, their 19th professional season, there was something of a minor slip up. A commentator during a pre-season game mentioned that the pair had gone first and second respectively in the 2003 NBA Draft. Revisionist historians might say that sounds accurate, but in reality Carmelo Anthony actually fell to the third pick in that draft, because of an often forgotten man named Darko Milicic.
Bron and Melo very well could’ve and should’ve been selected first and second, but the Detroit Pistons fell in love with a very young European big man who they projected as the next Dirk Nowitzki (as every European prospect gets labeled). Needless to say those comparisons didn’t hold up too well as Darko, while a decent role player for 10 years in the NBA, never materialized into a starter let alone a star.
The Detroit Pistons likely should have been bitter had it not been for the fact that they marched their way to the NBA Finals the following season and won it all. In the interim, Carmelo became a star in Denver, moved to the Mecca of Basketball, and has spent the last couple of season pin-balling between contenders in search of his illusive first championship.
If the Pistons were to do it all again, I’m not sure that they’d elect to change very much considering the fact that they won a ring, but I have to believe Carmelo would be more than happy to hit the reset with himself in Detroit during the early stages of his career. So let’s oblige the future Hall of Famer, with a trip into the multiverse to see what happens if Carmelo Anthony becomes a Detroit Piston:
SUMMER OF 2003
The Cleveland Cavaliers take their hometown savior, Lebron James, with the first overall pick. It’s not only the exciting pick but also the right pick, as you bring an undisputed Top 3 All-Time player to your then-abysmal franchise. With the second selection, the Detroit Pistons decide to forgo recent reports and leaked draft board data, and select Carmelo Anthony out of Syracuse University.
The Denver Nuggets are slightly taken back by this, but see a young mold-able big man sitting a top the board, and they scoop up Darko Milicic. Why is he still going so high, you might ask? Well because the Pistons’ brass weren’t the only ones enamored with the Serbian Center, the basketball world all believed he had tremendous upside. ESPN’s Draft Analyst, Chad Ford, even went as far as to say: “I think Carmelo is a distant third to LeBron and Darko.” So it was never really in doubt that Milicic would come off the board in the top 3, the only question was whether the Pistons viewed he or Melo as having the higher ceiling in the NBA.
So Carmelo goes two to Detroit, Darko goes three to Denver, and the rest of the draft plays out identical to our universe (i.e. the Raptors draft Chris Bosh fourth and the Heat take Dwyane Wade fifth) with one small exception. Since the Pistons took a wing at the top of the draft, they’ll now be looking instead to pad their big man depth for the future with their late-first round selection. Rather than draft Carlos Delfino at 25, the Pistons select Kendrick Perkins with the understanding that he’ll one day be the heir to Ben Wallace’s thrown down low, with the proper tutelage of course.
The change of scenery does wonders for Darko Milicic in year one. Rather than getting buried on the bench of a team with championship aspirations and playing for a coach who isn’t the friendliest to youngsters, he gets to join a team with no immediate expectations and a coach who’s psyched about having a shiny new toy to play with.
The Nuggets under Jeff Bzdelik, give Darko a lot more time to shine in his rookie campaign than he received with the Pistons. With Milicic, his perceived upside was everything, but nobody expected an immediate contributor for a contender. In his own words regarding why his career didn’t pan out, Milicic said: “[The NBA] system is cruel and I don’t like it. If a young player doesn’t succeed, they don’t look after him. That sucks. You have players who are first or second in the draft that get a chance to play. I didn’t get the chance.” Perhaps with the more future-friendly Nuggets that Melo got, Darko doesn’t have the same gripe about the league as a whole.
He gets to man a sizable role off the bench, pairing well with both incumbent big men Marcus Camby and Nene Hilario because of his wide array of skills. Andre Miller has just joined the Nuggets, which means a steady diet of looks for Milicic that he isn’t being asked to create for himself on offense. It’s at that side of the floor where his game needs the most room to grow, but his length and athleticism play well defensively and on the glass. The veteran Camby acts as a teacher and role model for Milicic, taking an active role in tutoring him in a way that the Pistons big men never really tried to. Camby understands that Milicic will ultimately serve as his replacement in Denver, but that hasn’t stopped him from helping the league’s future stars elsewhere in his well-traveled journey. Darko’s rookie numbers are padded by a few late season starts due to rest for Camby, that coincide with him getting more comfortable in the flow of the offense in Denver: 8.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 3 APG. The assists numbers are a nice surprise, but coincide with the scouting report on Darko heading into the draft, he had a strong passing and play-making ability for someone his size. The Nuggets improve some, but not to the level Melo allowed them to, so they get replaced as the West’s 8th seed by the Utah Jazz and slide into mid lotto territory with a 32-50 record.
On the other side of the spectrum, Carmelo Anthony no longer joins a Denver Nuggets franchise with the Western Conference’s worst record the prior campaign. He’s now a part of a Detroit Pistons squad who only had the second overall draft selection because of a trade with the Vancouver Grizzlies back in 1997. The Pistons were fresh off of a 50 win campaign, which was deemed a failure because it didn’t produce a Finals appearance, and it led to Larry Brown being brought into get Detroit to the promised land. The expectations were Finals or bust, the Coach obviously would rely heavily on the established veterans, and there wasn’t exactly a ton of playing time available for a rookie.
Carmelo doesn’t get to average 21 points per game in his first year, instead being humbled by a veteran presence playing a selfless brand of basketball as opposed to his often favored hero ball. Melo gets a lot more early season minutes than Darko did on this Pistons team on account of him being the superior talent at that time, but sees his playing time dwindle when the Pistons make a move at the trade deadline to acquire Rasheed Wallace. He’s forced to ramp things up defensively by the Pistons and their savvy vets, while taking substantially fewer isolation shots in favor of moving the basketball. His rookie season averages have a different feel to them with less scoring and rebounding (14 PPG & 4 RPG) but a sizable uptick in his assist numbers on account of ball movement (4.5 APG). At year’s end Melo uses his NCAA Championship experience to work his way into meaningful minutes, as opposed to Darko’s garbage time outings in our timeline. The Pistons win the NBA Championship and Carmelo Anthony is still hailed as one of the game’s future stars, but now he gets a ring at age 19 and doesn’t hold the moniker of a one-dimensional scorer.
SUMMER OF 2004
Detroit and Denver are now in two fundamentally different places than one another following the 03-04 campaign. The Pistons are fresh off of an NBA Championship, have an aging but still effective core set to take another run at it, and they have a proven young commodity who can impact the game now and be a superstar for them tomorrow (think about how the Spurs felt with Kawhi Leonard following the 2014 NBA Finals). Their only pick in the ’04 Draft will come in the late second round, and similar to our timeline it doesn’t produce much (Missouri product Ricky Paulding never played a minute in the NBA), but thankfully they didn’t really need it to.
The Nuggets have made significant strides from their prior season because of all-around roster improvements, and they have an intriguing franchise centerpiece to develop going forward. Their record, and no lottery luck, has landed them the 8th overall pick in the draft (owned in our universe by the Raptors). They have an immediate need on the wings since they didn’t draft Carmelo, so they go ahead and draft the best available player: Andre Iguodala. Because the Nuggets already have a pretty deep front court rotation, they don’t trade for New Jersey’s Kenyon Martin, instead hanging tight to three first round selections they had over the next two seasons. Kiki Vandeweghe and the rest of Denver’s front office realize that they’re in a rebuild, looking to win down the road when their youngsters come of age.
The Detroit Pistons have a dominant year yet again, powering their way through the Eastern Conference, grabbing a two-seed, and making it back to the NBA Finals. Ben Wallace does his thing for the Pistons, winning DPOY honors, but he isn’t the only one to earn some solo hardware this year. Carmelo Anthony beats out Ben Gordon for the Sixth Man of the Year Award, on the back of 19.5 PPG. Larry Brown didn’t want to shake up his starting unit after it won him a championship the prior year, so he let Melo lead the scoring brigade off the bench to much heralded success. Despite playing fewer minutes than his fellow Pistons, Melo led the team in scoring with his never-ending green light while paired with the second unit. There’s some mid-season chatter about the sophomore-standout and his coach butting heads over his role on the team but it is hard to argue with a winning formula, so cooler heads prevail and this story goes away quickly…for now.
The Denver Nuggets also see a big improvement from their ’03 selection, as Darko Milicic takes on a much heavier minute load with alternating injuries for Nene and Camby. Milicic gets to show an improved offensive repertoire in year two, and his averages begin to reflect just how exciting the prospect hype was: 13 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5 APG. Andre Iguodala pairs well with Andre Miller in the back court, and starts to give the Nuggets a pretty clear identity as a team who can move the ball well offensively while preventing you from doing the same when they’re defending. Iggy gets an uptick in his scoring averages because of his starting role and more pass-happy teammates, to the tune of 12 PPG.
The Nuggets were by no means world beaters in the ’04-’05 season, but their stronger defensive identity and steady ball movement were enough to nab them a 7th seed in a Western Conference devoid of a mid-tier. They get the unenviable assignment of facing the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the opening round, but the youngsters get some beneficial playoff exposure.
SUMMER OF 2005
The Denver Nuggets have a pair of selections in the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft, and an obvious choice to make. They can either cling to their current picks (16th & 20th) or capitalize on a team looking to trade out of the top ten for depth like the Toronto Raptors. Nobody viewed the ’05 draft as having clear cut stars outside of the top 5, so Nuggets choose to pad their depth by making their pair of selections.
At 16, they need another wing who pairs well with Iggy defensively without requiring too many offensive touches to be effective. Conveniently, Danny Granger is sitting on the board with the kind of 3 & D potential that the Nuggets will salivate over. At 20, they’ll seek a high-octane offensive point guard who’ll allow them to rest the aging Miller for spells…enter Nate Robinson.
The Detroit Pistons walk into the ’05 Draft with the 26th Pick. They’ve now gone to consecutive NBA Finals winning one, they have Carmelo Anthony emerging as a star in the league, and their veteran core has yet to start breaking down on them. There’s no cause for concern or glaring needs for this team, they’re just looking to draft a project prospect a la Perkins in ’03 (don’t worry we didn’t forget about him). An offensive minded forward who can lead a dominant interior attack alongside Anthony seems ideal, so the Pistons pickup would-be Knickerbocker, David Lee.
The playoffs this season were marred with speculation that Larry Brown was going to leave Detroit and join the division rival Cavaliers as their team president. So when the postseason did wrap, and the Pistons lost the NBA Finals to the Spurs, Joe Dumars and the rest of the Front Office decided Brown’s tenure was over in Detroit. They parted ways with their Head Coach and opted to have the late Flip Saunders replace him.
The Denver Nuggets built up a bit more expectation for themselves with a strong finish to the ’05 season which netted them a playoff berth (the franchise’s first since 1995). When they don’t get off to a strong start the following year, they pull the plug out of fear that they’re taking a step in the wrong direction, parting ways with Jeff Bzdelik as their head coach. The Nuggets promote assistant coach Michael Cooper to the role, but he is quickly replaced by George Karl (just like in our universe, only one year later). Karl makes it a point to reward the youth in the organization with Darko Milicic and Danny Granger joining Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup. Most notably, bumping the now 31 year old Marcus Camby to the bench (which actually stops him from accumulating wear and tear that costs him nearly 30 games at seasons end).
The Nuggets’ young core does take a step forward in their development, with Darko Milicic becoming something of an anomaly in the NBA at the time as a Point-Center of sorts. The team is built to feed Darko in the post, and let him make plays for the wings on the perimeter or cutting to the basket. Their lines read as such: Milicic (16 PPG, 9 RPG, 7 APG), Iggy (15 PPG, 5 RPG, 5 APG), and Granger (10 PPG, 5 RPG). Their greatest impact however, is being felt on the other side of the ball. The Nuggets’ trio is able to effect the game defensively in a huge way, with all three being able to change shots and harass ball handlers at multiple positions. This means that while the Nuggets aren’t the offensive juggernaut we saw, they’re a well balanced team with a special emphasis on ball movement, and they’re defending opposing teams to the tune of a top 10 finish in opponent points per game (something they were abysmal at in our universe). They finish the season with 44 wins, and due to the new standings format, are awarded the Western Conference’s 3rd Seed. In the playoffs, they aren’t hampered by a rough shooting patch from Melo, instead they’re a more free-flowing offensive system that plays to whoever has the hot hand. Their three-big rotation slows down Elton Brand and they outlast the Clippers in round one, only to get run out of the building by an elite Phoenix Suns team and league MVP Steve Nash in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons pace the entire NBA with 64 wins this season. Carmelo Anthony has another strong scoring year, aided by Saunders promoting him to Detroit’s starting unit, and averaging 25 PPG. Now there are some rumblings of the Detroit veterans and their new head coach butting heads over Carmelo’s role on the team and how the offense flows, but all is pushed aside as the wins continue to pile up throughout the season. Also of note for the Pistons this season, we finally get some meaningful minutes out of Kendrick Perkins who has up till now been buried on the bench. He’s spent the past few seasons learning how to impact the game as an enforcer and rebounder from Ben and Rasheed Wallace, and his strides in both areas have been rewarded with meaningful minutes. He doesn’t add much in the way of scoring, but his rebounds per-36 minutes are gaudy to say the least, and while his defensive presence isn’t reflected in the box score it’s definitely being felt by the opposition on post-ups and drives to the basket. It also helps that when he comes onto the floor, he’s doing so alongside rookie forward David Lee who offers more on the offensive end than Perk but lacks the defensive fortitude to impact the game the other way. Their ying-yang approach is a welcomed change of pace while giving much needed rest to the Wallaces on a nightly basis.
The Pistons handle the Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, and Melo wins his first ever playoff meeting with Lebron James in round two. Then the Pistons run into the Miami Heat tandem of Dwyane Wade and Shaquielle O’Neal for the Eastern Conference Finals. With Wade scoring profusely in the opening few contests, Flip Saunders opts to remove Carmelo Anthony from the starting lineup in favor of the more defensively capable Tayshaun Prince. Not much changes from what transpires in our Universe, except for the fact that some obvious seeds of dissension have been planted here, as the Heat move on to the NBA Finals and Flash’s first championship.
SUMMER OF 2006
The Denver Nuggets have two draft picks available to them in the first round again this year (because of not trading for Kenyon Martin); with another draft devoid of perceived stars, and no timeline-fitting pieces available to them via trade, the Nuggets elect to make their pair of draft choices in this one. They have two decided needs which can be filled with these later selections: a point guard who better fits their team’s style of play and a scorer who can add to their wing depth.
They like the spark that a young Nate Robinson is able to provide for their offense off of the bench, but they don’t see him as someone who meshes well with the defensive-oriented starting unit. They want someone who can distribute the ball effectively to their established core on offense, while shutting down some of the league’s high-profile lead guards on the other end (remember this is a team who just got run out of the playoffs by Steve Nash). Their 20th overall selection in the draft is used on a lanky Kentucky guard who seems to fit that need: Rajon Rondo (originally taken one spot later by Phoenix). Their next pick is a couple of spots later at 22, where Michigan State’s Shannon Brown is the obvious choice.
Detroit’s only draft pick is 2006’s Mr. Irrelevant (a title given to all 60th selections), but they have much bigger issues to focus on. Ben Wallace signed with the rival Chicago Bulls, still upset about the direction the Pistons were headed in and their firing of Larry Brown the previous summer. ’04 Finals MVP, Chauncey Billups is entering the final year of his contract, and with the championship roster seemingly starting to crumble the likelihood of his resigning with Detroit is growing increasingly unlikely. So two maruqee moves happen within a very short window of eachother:
- The Pistons sign veteran big man, Chris Webber, in the hopes that he can be plugged into the starting lineup immediately to alleviate the loss of Ben Wallace.
- The Detroit Pistons trade Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, and both of their first round picks in 2007 to the Philadelphia 76ers for superstar guard Allen Iverson and rookie big Ivan McFarlin.
The inevitability of a Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson team-up is bizarre, but like kindred spirits, these offensive aficionados were destined to share the stage at some point or another. The roles here are defined quite differently than we saw it in our Universe, Iverson is the perceived 1A, with a young and relatively-unproven Anthony operating as his 1B. This is a situation where AI is being asked to come into a Detroit Pistons organization, only a few years removed from winning a championship, and take them right back to the mountaintop. Carmelo’s role isn’t changing too much from the prior year, the biggest difference at this point is that he’s not getting the star treatment he might’ve started receiving in the prior campaign. He gets to fly a bit more under the radar and be the unsung hero when AI shoots himself out of the game or misses time late in the season.
The Pistons also won’t actually end up starting Chris Webber. They’ll lift Kendrick Perkins into the starting unit to take Ben Wallace’s place as enforcer, allowing Rasheed to remain at his more natural power forward spot, while Webber and Lee provide an offensive boost from the bench. This also helps to keep the ball in the hands of three supreme scoring talents: AI (28 PPG), Melo (26 PPG), and championship holdover Rip Hamilton (19.5 PPG). They’ll hold a bulk share of the scoring and offensive touches while Wallace and Perkins act as punishers for anyone who dares enter the paint on the other end. In a league not yet ready to fall in love with the three ball, having a pair of old school physical bigs on the interior will do wonders to help a team that has lost its defensive identity with the departure of Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups.
The Denver Nuggets, obviously won’t be trading for AI, instead keeping their methodically paced rebuild intact. Their defensive identity is bolstered when a fast-developing Rajon Rondo usurps Andre Miller’s starting point guard spot by mid season. Rondo, Iguodala, and Granger provide a perimeter defense more formidable than anything else in the league at the time. Additionally, their starting power forward, Darko Milicic is able to help with his improving shot-blocking ability and mobility when pushing the ball up the floor. This team has created the type of fast-paced offensive attack that we’d see from Nuggets teams almost a decade later, and it’s aided by so many transition buckets stemming from defensive takeaways. Imagine any combination of Rondo, Iggy, Granger, and Darko picking off a pass or swiping a dribble while the others takeoff down court to have their way with the basket. And when the offense seems stagnant in a half court set, in comes Miller and Nate Robinson to light up opposing defenses at a moment’s notice.
George Karl is being heralded as a savior in Denver for utilizing the superstar-free roster to such great success. In a league with big names becoming the norm, there is no real face of the Denver Nuggets. Darko and Iggy likely get All-Star nods; the former for being something of a household name in the already glorified ’03 Draft Class, the latter for pacing a playoff team in scoring (20 PPG).
We hit the playoffs with two very different dynamics in play for these teams; the new-look Pistons are a favorite once more with the franchise eager to reclaim their throne and a desperate AI willing to do whatever it takes to get a ring; the upstart Nuggets are a lower seed with upset potential in any conceivable matchup.
The Nuggets draw the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round, and push the polished veteran team a lot further than we see in our universe. The Spurs have to go deep into their bag of tricks to pull out a Game 7 victory and advance, but the Nuggets come away as victors in the eyes of the basketball world: heralded as a team of the future. The Pistons are on the other side of the bracket, bulldozing the Magic and Bulls (now with Ben Wallace) in the early rounds. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they meet with Lebron’s Cavaliers. In our universe, this series is Lebron’s arrival, proving he alone can pull an entire team to the Finals for the first time (something we’d see again years later). But that isn’t how it shakes out for this series. The Pistons aren’t lacking defensive stoppers for Lebron’s frequent drives to the basket, and the offense is too potent to be contained by one individual’s poor shooting night. Detroit is moving on to the Finals yet again, for an ’05 rematch with the San Antonio Spurs. This series doesn’t end in a sweep, instead it goes a solid six games, but the Spurs prove to be the superior squad by winning their second championship in three years, and proving they have the Pistons’ number in any iteration.
SUMMER OF 2007
Another draft, another pair of first round picks for the Denver Nuggets (they didn’t ship these two to Philadelphia for AI). They’re turning the corner now and feel momentum moving in their favor, so they’re in the market to angle for a higher pick who can join their wing rotation and contribute to a contender. The Boston Celtics are putting together the pieces of what is to become their big three (Pierce, KG, Ray Allen) but with Rondo now a member of the Nuggets, they need a defensive oriented facilitator on a minimal contract to come aboard. The Nuggets and Celtics team up to send both of Denver’s picks in 2007 (21st & 30th) to Boston along with Andre Miller, in exchange for the 5th pick in the draft. With that pick, the Denver Nuggets select Jeff Green out of Georgetown (just as the Celtics would have).
They’re not done there, because while the current wing rotation of Andre Iguodala, Danny Granger and Jeff Green is phenomenal, the Nuggets want to add a star to the mix who can take them over the hump and into title contention as early as next year. They flirt with a trio of free agent forwards who are seeking a pay-increase and playoff success: Vince Carter, Gerald Wallace and Rashard Lewis. They each represent a different school of thought: Carter is the high-profile offensive stud who’ll instantly be a must-see attraction, Wallace furthers the defensive build of this team while adding a level of intensity to the organization that they don’t quite have yet, and Lewis who represents a combination of the two with the ability to play both sides of the ball effectively. The Nuggets make their decision, completing a sign-and-trade with the Seattle Supersonics to bring Rashard Lewis to Denver (not Orlando) sending Camby’s expiring contract to Seattle to create the cap space for this deal.
On the Detroit side of things, they no longer have any draft picks for ’07, which likely leaves Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Afflalo to both be selected by the Philadelphia 76ers at this point in the same order (15th & 27th respectively). With money tied up in Iverson, Hamilton and Wallace; there’s no financial flexibility for this squad to add anything more. They’re going to have to run it back almost as is and hope for better results this time around.
Also of note, Carmelo Anthony is growing rather impatient of feeling like he’s always playing second-fiddle to his teammates (’04 Pistons Core and now Iverson), coupled with the disheartening feeling of being unable to lead the Pistons to another championship in a more prominent role, he is unwilling to sign a lengthy contract extension. Instead, he wants to gauge his market at the same time as the rest of his ’03 draft class when they’re all due to hit free agency in the summer of 2010, in search of a max-contract and a starring role.
The Detroit Pistons appear identical to the year prior with Anthony and Iverson doubling down with their otherworldly offensive outputs. Another 25+ point per game mark for both stars hardly turns heads, but what does make some more noise is how they’re doing it. Seemingly challenging each other with every shot attempt, the two are almost jockeying for position as franchise figurehead with every made basket. There’s a level of animosity growing in this tandem, but it is inexplicably yielding such strong positive results because of their wildly competitive nature.
Elsewhere on the team, Perkins’ defensive output is becoming a staple of their identity, because even though his scoring is still nonexistent, he’s getting a reputation for absolutely punishing guys who dare to drive to the rim. Rasheed Wallace, is still doing his thing, manning the four spot effectively and egging on Perkins’ antics when not engaging in them himself. David Lee is continuing to make strides as a rebounder and offensive punisher inside whenever he’s let loose on the court, even playing his way into crunch time minutes down the stretch when offensive rebounding is needed. Despite the philosophical change in allowing more isolation basketball, their record is almost identical, and they once again clinch a high playoff seed for their efforts.
Out in Denver, something else is happening. Sticking to their guns with the rebuild has enabled the Nuggets to put together a futuristic game plan under George Karl. Their length, active hands in the passing lanes and youthful exuberance has culminated in them being the NBA’s top defensive team; something that feels like a foreign concept for a Nuggets franchise in our timeline. Offensively, their run and gun style is giving opponents absolute fits. When they’re forced to slow the game down in a half-court set, they rely on the veteran leadership of Lewis and the still unmatched-for-a-big playmaking style of Milicic. Granger has been pushed to a bench role, but he’s thriving there, and is still getting extended crunch-time run in Karl’s revolutionary “small ball” lineups that are forcing opposing big men to defend the much more fleet-footed trio of himself, Milicic and Lewis.
With other teams unable to properly game plan for them in the West, they win 56 games to jump the Utah Jazz (division winners in our timeline) and claim a second consecutive divisional crown as well as the second seed in the conference due to the current playoff format. This changes a lot from the playoff bracket we all watched as their first round opponent becomes the Dallas Mavericks. They advance past them in five games and meet the Charlotte Hornets who help to produce an exciting fast-paced series between a young superstar (Chris Paul) and a group of young pseudo-stars (Milicic, Iggy, Rondo and Granger) that the ensemble is able to win in a seven game shootout. They move on to the Western Conference Finals, their highest peak to date, and now get the Los Angeles Lakers matchup. In a battle of the old guard against the new breed, Kobe Bryant’s star power reigns supreme as the Lakers advance to the NBA Finals following a fairly competitive six game set. Once again, the Nuggets look incredibly exciting in defeat and fans of the game are unanimously heralding them as a future juggernaut (a la Oklahoma City in ’11/’12 or Golden State in ’13/’14).
In the Eastern Conference bracket, there’s a very different feel for the Melo/Iverson led Pistons. Detroit rides their back and forth heroics past the 76ers and Magic in rather unceremonious five game series routes. They draw Boston’s new Big Three in the Eastern Conference Finals, now with Andre Miller as the starting Point Guard (courtesy of Denver) and Center duties being thrust onto an unproven Glen Davis (with Perkins manning the middle for Detroit). While the Celtics are able to rely heavily on their superstars, it isn’t the one-sided showing that we witnessed anymore. Perkins dominates Davis on the glass, and does well to impeded KG on the other end too. Boston, also devoid of Jeff Green now in addition to an aged-Miller replacing Rondo, don’t have a defensive answer for Carmelo Anthony or Allen Iverson defensively over a six game stretch. The Pistons use their offensive firepower to advance to the NBA Finals for the third time in five seasons. While we never got a Lebron vs. Kobe Finals matchup in our timeline, we do get Melo (with AI) vs. Mamba in this one. A Lakers/Pistons matchup, nearly 20 years removed from the Bad Boys overtaking Showtime, has a similar smell to it. Kobe, still an icon very much in his prime, trying to regain his lost throne before it falls to one of the NBA’s newest phenoms in Carmelo. Throw in an AI, revenge for ’01, plotline here and I can guarantee this gets an ESPN 30 for 30 film about it by now. Close as it is to call given these two rosters, I think this becomes a coming out party for Carmelo Anthony, staking his claim at last as the superstar we already knew him to be. The Pistons win it all in ’08 and Carmelo finally gets to be heralded as “The Guy” in Detroit after being named Finals MVP.
The Detroit Pistons get two more full seasons of Carmelo Anthony as their superstar, with Allen Iverson settling into a still impactful sidekick gig in deference to the guy who went out and got him a ring. Beyond that, there’s a lot of places this could end up going. Melo could ultimately elect to reopen talks with the Pistons on a contract extension now that he’s made climbed the ladder to franchise cornerstone and won a pair of championships. Or he could elect to test the open market with his Banana Boat buddies that summer in search for a new super-team to play alongside: maybe he still goes to New York, maybe he coerces some stars to Detroit, or maybe he replaces Chris Bosh in Miami. The possibilities are really endless for him here given his standing as a two-time NBA Champ and recent rise to superstardom.
Over in Denver, they’re just unlocking their true potential as a hyper-athletic defensive unit with improving offensive abilities to boot. There are many exciting rivalries for them if we’re looking ahead at what’s to come in the future we know: an opportunity to rewrite history if they can avenge their recent loss to the Lakers (who’d otherwise go on to win the NBA Finals) in the coming campaign; a chance to run and gun against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals; a clash of styles matchup with the methodical Spurs; and later-years run-ins with the emerging Thunder and Warriors if they can keep the band together for long enough.
How crazy is it that if we simply swap the draft order of Darko and Carmelo, the butterfly effect changes everything we know about the NBA. I mean seriously. Take a peak at so many ways that things might be different because of the events that transpired:
- Carmelo Anthony is a two-time NBA Champion and a Finals MVP too
- Allen Iverson and Flip Saunders win NBA Championships
- Darko Milicic becomes a precursor for Nikola Jokic, and rides it a slew of All-Star appearances
- The Denver Nuggets put together one of the most exciting young rosters in history
- The Boston Celtics’ Big-3 never win a championship, potentially stopping other similar superstar gatherings in the coming years
That’s one heck of a switch up if we step into the multiverse.