The NBA’s rookie of the year award had joint winners three times in the league’s history. The first instance this happened was in 70-71 season when Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie shared the award. It also happened two more times in the 90s, having Jason Kidd and Grant Hill share the recognition in 94-95 and Steve Francis and Elton Brand do the same in 99-00. If there was ever a moment do it for the fourth time, the 03-04 season was arguably the time to do so.
The 2003 NBA draft class was one of the better in recent history. Its 1st overall pick LeBron James became the league’s rookie of the year, in retrospect controversially so, given that the 3rd pick of the draft Carmelo Anthony had made his case to at least share the award with The King.
The Denver Nuggets drafted Anthony, a team that only managed to reach 17 wins the previous year. A team led by Andre Miller and Nenê Hilário and coached by Jeff Bzdelik weren’t aspiring for a playoff push. However, the addition of a young forward out of Syracuse Orange made it possible. Anthony turned a team that had a tied worst record in a previous season into a playoff participant, leading them to a 43-39 record in a tough Western Conference.
His impact on the team was undeniable. Anthony was their leading scorer with 21 points per game while also leading all the rookies in scoring. Melo also averaged 6.1 rebounds per game and 2.8 assists. He had nine games of scoring more than 30, one of them being against the Blazers when he dropped his season-high 39 points. As if that wasn’t enough, Anthony was also the second-youngest player after Kobe Bryant to score 30 in a game since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 and also the third-youngest to reach 1000 points.
LeBron’s rookie season wasn’t any less impressive. He finished the season averaging 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, at the time becoming the third rookie in NBA history with the stat-line of 20-5-5, with Oscar Roberson and Michael Jordan being the first two. Unlike Anthony, James wasn’t able to lead his team to the playoffs in arguably the weaker conference. Cavs finished the season as the 9th seed, winning 35 regular-season games.
Melo and LBJ matched up two times in the 03-04 season, with Anthony’s Nuggets winning both games. Their first matchup was one of the most hyped rookie matchups in recent history. Their performances weren’t up to par with the buildup that surrounded the game – Melo went for 14 points and 6 rebounds, while James had a solid all-around but a bad scoring performance of 7-11-7. In their redemption matchup later that season, both guys showcased themselves in a better light, with Anthony dropping 26 over LeBron’s 19.
James and Anthony became the only two rookies in the league’s history who, in the same season, received all of the conference Rookie of the Month awards, making Melo the only rookie in NBA history to do so without winning the Rookie of the Year. This also shows how even their rookie seasons were and that Anthony at least needed to get more consideration when selecting the Rookie of the Year, given that LeBron ran away with the award, receiving a total of 508 points compared to Anthony’s 430.
Numbers-wise, their rookie seasons were similar, both historical in different ways. However, when measuring the impact on the team’s success, there is a feeling that Melo initiating the Nuggets’ turnaround gets overlooked. Anthony had an excellent case for winning the award, and it’s hard to tell why LeBron won it in such a dominant fashion. Since the award is voted by the media, it’s hard to assume that all the hype surrounding LeBron’s entry into the league didn’t have anything with it, because when judging them solely on their on-court performances, the race should’ve been much closer.