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The 2003 NBA draft is on the short list, along with 1984 and 1996, as one of the most important drafts in NBA history. The prize, of course, was LeBron James, the most hyped high school prospect ever. His hometown Cleveland Cavaliers won the lottery and drafted him.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in Miami in 2010, which not only led to two championships in four seasons but also ushered in the current era of player empowerment and superteams. Their close friend Carmelo Anthony was also instrumental in that shift after he engineered a trade from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks at the 2011 deadline.
Beyond the four future Hall of Famers taken in the top five (with legendary bust Darko Milicic mixed in), there was plenty of talent throughout. David West was a mid-first-rounder, Kyle Korver and Mo Williams were second-round picks and plenty of others went on to have long, successful careers.
With the NBA shut down for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good time to redraft this most pivotal of NBA drafts, which changed the course of the sport for nearly two decades to come. These picks are made with the guiding principle of “Best Player Available,” not taking team needs into account, with full hindsight.
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The 2003 draft lottery was one of those years when the bottom tier of teams had spent part of the season tanking specifically for a chance to get one guy. Needless to say, LeBron James more than delivered on that hype, blowing past even the loftiest expectations for how his career would play out.
At the time of the draft, James was closer to a child star in Hollywood than a normal NBA prospect. He was anointed the “Chosen One” on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, and his high school games were broadcast on ESPN, which was unheard of at the time. He signed a seven-year, $90 million deal with Nike before he’d played a game in the NBA.
James isn’t just one of the two or three greatest basketball players of all time. He’s one of the most important public figures in the history of his home state of Ohio, both for his philanthropic work (providing education to hundreds of low-income children with his I Promise School) and for bringing the city of Cleveland its first pro sports championship in over five decades when the Cavs beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals.
The payoff of the Cavs’ championship didn’t come until 13 years into James’ career. He played his first seven seasons in Cleveland, won consecutive MVP awards in 2009 and 2010, made the controversial but fruitful decision to leave for the Miami Heat, won two championships there and then returned.
The most telling clip to illustrate how much of a sure thing James was from the beginning is the look of dejection on then-Memphis Grizzlies general manager Jerry West’s face when it was revealed that his team finished second in the lottery, thus missing out on the opportunity to draft him.
Years later, in Bleacher Report writer Jonathan Abrams’ 2016 book Boys Among Men, West said: “It didn’t take a genius to look at LeBron James and know what he was going to be.”
Actual Pick: LeBron James
James’ Actual Draft Spot: No. 1, Cleveland Cavaliers
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The Pistons passed on three future Hall of Famers to draft Serbian center Darko Milicic, one of the most infamous draft busts in NBA history. They would not make that mistake again if they had a do-over.
Dwyane Wade, a three-year player at Marquette, went fifth overall in the draft, miscast as a point guard early on in his career. But he blossomed into a superstar, winning Finals MVP in 2006 and becoming a perennial All-Star and All-NBA player for the remainder of his career.
Wade helped recruit James and fellow 2003 draftee Chris Bosh to Miami in 2010, and the trio won two titles in four seasons together. He retired in 2019 after 16 seasons, going down as one of the greatest shooting guards of all time.
Actual Pick: Darko Milicic
Wade’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 5, Miami Heat
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“LeBron or Melo?” was a more common debate leading up to the draft than you’d think.
Carmelo Anthony was coming off a spectacular freshman season at Syracuse that culminated in a national championship. Some evaluators at the time saw him as a more polished prospect than James, who was still fighting the stigma of jumping straight from high school to the NBA.
The Nuggets ended up taking Anthony No. 3 overall, and there’s no reason to believe they’d do anything differently if they had the chance. Although he forced a trade to the New York Knicks in 2011, the Nuggets had a lot of success during his time there, in which he made four All-Star teams and four All-NBA teams.
Denver made the playoffs in all seven full seasons with Anthony, advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2009. Even when the Nuggets traded him to New York, they got enough quality players back to remain competitive for several years after that. It’s hard to believe they’d regret making the pick.
Actual Pick: Carmelo Anthony
Anthony’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 3, Denver Nuggets
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Another pick that would remain the same in a redraft.
In seven seasons in Toronto, Chris Bosh was one of the best players in franchise history. He’s the team’s all-time leading rebounder and is second in points scored. He has its second-highest career scoring average, trailing only Vince Carter. He made five All-Star teams in Toronto and led the Raptors to the playoffs twice in a time period before they became the consistent playoff presence and title contender they are today.
Bosh left the Raptors in 2010 to team up with James and Wade in Miami, forming a formidable Big Three and winning titles in 2012 and 2013. He made six more All-Star teams with the Heat before a persistent blood-clot condition forced him into early retirement in 2016 at age 31.
It’s a virtual lock that he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as soon as next year.
Actual Pick: Chris Bosh
Bosh’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 4, Toronto Raptors
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Easily the biggest steal of the first round of the 2003 draft, David West carved out a very successful 15-year NBA career after being taken No. 18 overall. A skilled scorer and hard-nosed defender, he was a cornerstone of some very good Chris Paul-led New Orleans Hornets teams in the late 2000s, making consecutive All-Star teams in 2008 and 2009.
After eight seasons in New Orleans, West signed with the Indiana Pacers in 2011 and became a pillar of that franchise’s early 2010s run alongside Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, making two straight Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014. He rounded out his career by winning championships with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018.
West was one of the NBA’s most solid and reliable big men for the entirety of his long career, becoming a highly respected veteran voice in every locker room he was in. Outside of the four all-time greats taken in the top five, he was the best player in the draft.
Actual Pick: Dwyane Wade
West’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 18, New Orleans Hornets
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Amid a successful career in his native Spain, Jose Calderon entered the draft in 200