Welcome to our summer series entitled “The biggest mistake in franchise history,” where we examine some of the greatest regrets of every team in the NBA. Today, let’s take a look at the Detroit Pistons.
The Detroit Pistons had the chance to turn their franchise around in 2003. All they needed to do was nail it in the 2003 NBA Draft, headlined by a powerful rookie class of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. But in Detroit Pistons fashion, they failed to acquire gold in the 2003 draft and fumbled their chance to turn their organization.
Darko Miličić over Anthony, Bosh, and Wade
The Pistons, who had the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, knew they couldn’t select James, who the Clevland Cavaliers already had their eyes on from the beginning. Instead, they chose the most infamous bust in NBA Draft history, Darko Miličić, over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade — a choice that marks their biggest mistake in franchise history.
But in fairness to the Pistons, they had high hopes for Miličić, the prospect from Serbia. He was an unknown prospect in the United States before the 2003 draft, but his height, skills, and international experience swayed the Pistons to gamble on the 7-foot big man. It also helped that Anthony Ronzone (a scout for the Pistons at that time) frequently traveled to Europe to search for the best international prospects hence why Miličić caught his attention in 2003.
Miličić was also touted as the next Dirk Nowitzki and drew similar comparisons to Pau Gasol. According to his 2003 scouting report, the big man was a “do it all” kind of player who could dribble the ball, score relentlessly on the post, run the floor, finish excellently inside the paint, and displayed high basketball IQ. However, his only basketball experience was when he played for a Serbian basketball club in 2001, where he only averaged 5.4 points and 3.1 rebounds a game and barely received playing time.
Still, the Pistons remained bullish on Miličić because they believed the likes of Nowitzki and Gasol (both international players) transitioned so well in the NBA that they developed the exact expectations for Miličić. Darko also aced his pre-draft workout with the Pistons, probably violating "a million NBA rules," and even got the approval of team executive Joe Dumars. Dumars and his staff at that time compared Miličić’s post moves to Hakeem Olajuwon.
Unfortunately, expectations leading to disappointments are a common theme in life. From the get-go, Miličić couldn’t find his groove in the NBA, averaging an embarrassing 1.4 points and 1.3 rebounds a game in his rookie year. Ironically, Miličić’s rookie year was the same season Detroit won the NBA Finals in 2004, but the Rookie was barely a contributing player as he took on a bench role throughout the season.
After two years, Detroit eventually traded their 2nd overall pick, who ended up becoming a journeyman around the league. To add insult to injury, it was unfortunate for the franchise to see how Wade, Anthony, and Bosh gradually developed into franchise players, which Miličić never could in his career.
Maybe it was because the Serbian just didn’t fit in the Pistons’ roster or had a difficult time transitioning to American basketball but ultimately, he remains notoriously known as one of the biggest draft busts of all time.
A decade full of draft pick errors.
Since 2010, the Detroit Pistons have only experienced 1 winning season as well as 6 coaching changes and 8 lottery mistakes. Let’s break down all their draft choices from 2010 to 2022.
In 2010, the Pistons selected Greg Monroe for their 7th overall pick instead of Paul George and Gordon Hayward.
In 2011, they chose Brandon Knight for their 8th overall pick over Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vuevic, and Jimmy Butler.
In 2012, they picked Andre Drummond 9th overall over Khris Middleton and Draymond Green.
In 2013, Detroit selected Kentavious Cardwell-Pope over CJ McCollum and Giannis Antetokounmpo (who’s on a trajectory to be the best international prospect of all time)
In 2014, the Pistons selected Spencer Dinwiddie 38th overall over Nikola Jokic.
In 2015, the team drafted Stanley Johnson 8th overall over Devin Booker.
In 2016, they picked Henry Ellenson 18th overall over Dejounte Murray, Pascal Siakam, and Malcolm Brogdon. This was gut-wrenching because the Pistons had the 49th overall pick in the same year, which they ended up using on Michael Gbinjie.
In 2017, Detroit drafted Luke Kennard 12th overall over Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo.
In 2019, the team selected Sekou Doumbouya with the 15th overall pick.
A bright future ahead
Despite their decade-long unfortunate errors and disappointments in drafting and roster building, the Pistons are now expected to bounce back and hopefully finally turn their franchise around. In the past three years, they’ve drafted players (including a number one overall pick in 2021) that now headlines a young and potentially dangerous team for the future.
In 2020, Detroit drafted Killian Hayes for their 7th pick, who has shown flashes of his potential but remains a development project. The year after, the Pistons gambled on Cade Cunningham with their 1st overall pick over Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and Scottie Barnes (last season’s Rookie of the Year recipient). And finally, they recently drafted Jaden Ivey with their 5th overall pick, who many tout as one of the best, electric guards in this year’s draft class.
The pressure is now on Cunningham, Hayes, and Ivey to do what no other draft pick in the last decade for Detroit has done — bring the franchise back to the promised land. It will take a lot of time, but there’s enough evidence to prove that these draft picks can finally turn the Pistons franchise around after more than a decade of failure.