What If? The 2003 NBA Draft Lottery

Alex Bab

“For all the words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, it might have been.'”-John Greenleaf

Every English professor I had in college would disown me for starting an article with a quote but for this particular piece, it just fit too well. “What if?” is one of the most fun hypothetical questions we can pose in sports. We’ve all done it at some point. Here’s some examples that probably sound familiar:

“What if Michael Jordan never left the NBA to play baseball?”

“What if the Seattle Seahawks ran the ball on the goal line?”

“What if Ted Williams never served in the military?”

Those are some of the better known ones. We here at The 3 Point Conversion love to debate these and we thought, why not share the wealth?

We’ll write these from time to time, exploring things that could have gone the other way from how they actually did and the ripple effects they caused. The histories and legacies of players, teams and entire sports sometimes hinge on a simple 50/50 chance.

To start off, we’ll look at one that rarely gets talked about and yet was monumental in it’s impact. Everything went one way and yet had we had a different outcome at one crucial point, an entire sports league is drastically altered for the next 17 years (and counting).

We’re talking about the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery.


The Scenario:

NBA fans remember the 2003 draft as one of the best ever, with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh all being selected in the top five, alongside mega-bust Darko Milicic. The lazy “What if” question here is to think about what happens if the Detroit Pistons select Anthony, Wade or Bosh with the second pick instead of Milicic.

The more interesting scenario is mostly forgotten and it occurred during one of the most hyped draft lotteries of all time. We were a ping pong ball away from hearing David Stern say: “With the first pick, in the 2003 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select LeBron James!”

This very nearly happened.

In 1997, the Detroit Pistons traded Otis Thorpe to the then Vancouver Grizzlies for a first round pick, which had to be given to Detroit somewhere between 1998 and 2003 (trades are just inherently weird when picks are involved). In 2003, the now Memphis Grizzlies had no choice but to give their first round pick to Detroit.

Unless it was the first overall pick. The pick was top one protected, meaning that if Memphis got the first pick in the draft on lottery night they got to keep it and would owe a first round pick to Detroit the following year.

Remember, this was one of the most hyped draft lotteries in history (I cant ever recall being as excited for a lottery). The top prize was of course, LeBron James. As the lottery picks were revealed the tension became more palpable. The Heat would pick fifth (Wade), the Raptors fourth (Bosh) and the Nuggets third (Anthony). When we got down to the final two, it was Memphis and Cleveland in the running for James’ services.

Of course, we all know what happened. Cleveland won the rights to draft the relative local kid in James. Memphis, in an all or nothing situation, lost out on one of the best players of all time and didn’t even get the chance to use the number two pick on one of the other phenomenal talents in the draft. Instead, Detroit got the number two pick and wasted it on Milicic.

But what if it went the other way?


The Immediate Impact: 

The most immediate impact is how the draft itself shakes out. With the first pick, the Grizzlies of course select LeBron James. Detroit no longer has a top five pick in this scenario and the Cleveland Cavaliers pick in the second spot.

Presumably, they take Carmelo Anthony. Denver picks third and likely takes Dwayne Wade, while Chris Bosh still winds up going to Toronto at four. Miami would still pick fifth and would likely take either Milicic or possibly Chris Kaman.

But the more interesting thing is what the 2003-2004 Memphis Grizzlies look like with LeBron James on the roster.

Looking back at the 2003-04 Grizzlies’ roster, a few names jump off the page: Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams and James Posey.

Doesn’t that sound like the perfect supporting cast for LeBron James?

He would have had a reliable All-Star partner in Gasol, whose versatility and passing would have complemented James’ game perfectly. Mike Miller is the perfect third scorer for those two, someone who can get 18-21 points while playing primarily off-ball (think Bosh in Miami or Kevin Love in Cleveland).

Battier is the ideal “three and D” support player, who spaces the floor with his shooting and can guard the opponents’ best perimeter player each night. Posey serves as a Swiss-army knife back up: he could space the floor with his shooting and at 6’8″ he could defend multiple positions, which would unlock small-ball lineups with Gasol at center, James as a defacto point guard and Miller, Battier and Posey as perimeter threats.

Lastly, Jason Williams would fit in nicely as the starting point guard so James could play off-ball. It gives them a true point guard that could handle those responsibilities and take some of the load off of James.

This would be a drastically better supporting cast than James had in his first stint in Cleveland. He no longer would need to put Herculean loads on his shoulder, dragging lesser talent to the post season. He would have a very talented veteran supporting cast. This hypothetical lineup could theoretically be deadly in transition with Williams and James, could shoot you off the floor with Miller, Battier and Posey and could go to the post with Gasol.

And on top of all that, they would be phenomenal defensively. Battier has always been lauded for his defense and Gasol was a much better defender and rim protector than he gets credit for. Throw in James playing free safety, jumping passing lanes and coming from the weak side for blocks and you have one of the most complete teams of the mid-2000s.

This team is potentially a legitimate championship contender by James’ third season.


The Ripple Effect:

If we accept the hypothetical that James becomes a Grizzly in 2003 rather than a Cavalier, the impact is greater than just the fates of those two franchises. This would be true if we switched any player from any team at any given time. However, given James’ stature and other moves that occurred in subsequent seasons, the potential changes to the NBA are incredible. Let’s look at just a few of the bigger ones…

In 2007, Kobe Bryant was not happy in Los Angeles. After Shaquille O’Neal’s departure in 2004, the Lakers failed to restock the cupboard. By his own admission, Bryant requested a trade, preferably to the Chicago Bulls, in 2007. Bryant was eventually appeased by the 2008 trade that brought Pau Gasol to the Lakers.

But think about it for a minute…if James is drafted by the Grizzlies, they’re presumptively a title contender for years. It is highly unlikely the Grizzlies ever consider trading Gasol to the Lakers in that era. So what happens?

It’s possible that Bryant does get traded and wears something other than purple and gold. So not only is the legacy of LeBron James changed but so are those of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Potentially, Bryant only ends his career with three championships as opposed to five.

Additionally, the infamously vetoed trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers in 2011 never occurs. The trade may have never been on the table, as Gasol (involved in the potential trade) likely would not have been a Laker and there’s no guarantee Bryant would have been. So this infamous NBA conspiracy theory moment never happens.

On top of it all, Marc Gasol’s entire career path is changed. Marc was kind of an afterthought in the Pau Gasol to the Lakers trade. His draft rights were thrown in as a development project for the Grizzlies.

Marc Gasol would go on to have a stellar tenure in Memphis, making three All Star teams and winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 (yes, the 2003 lottery results were still having ramifications a decade later). Gasol’s development in Memphis made him a valuable trade asset in 2019 and he was traded to the Toronto Raptors, helping them secure their first title in franchise history.

Without the trade to Memphis, where he fit in perfectly, Marc Gasol may have never become an impact player in the NBA.

So as you can see, this lottery was still causing ripple effects as far as 16 years later.


The Final Assessment:

At the time of this writing, it’s hard to fully determine how many years the 2003 draft lottery impacted. Since LeBron James is still playing at an MVP level 17 years later, we know it at least altered the past 17 seasons. Of course, it’s impossible to know how many potential outcomes it changed. Here’s what we know it definitively changed and what it probably changed:

  • The legacies of many players are completely different but of the elite tier players, we can securely say the legacies of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony are completely different from 2003 forward.
  • At a minimum, four NBA championships are altered: the 2009 and 2010 Lakers titles likely never happen as there would be no Gasol and possibly no Bryant. The 2006 Miami Heat title is shifted as Dwayne Wade is likely never a member of the Heat in this scenario. Lastly, the 2019 Toronto Raptors title is altered as Marc Gasol never develops his game in Memphis and never becomes a Raptor.
  • In addition to the altered titles listed above, most likely the 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat titles are altered. Even if at some point the James, Wade and Bosh “Big Three” is formed, there is no guarantee it occurs in Miami as Wade wouldn’t be established there at that point.
  • At a minimum, one MVP award is likely altered: Kobe Bryant won the MVP in 2008 but Gasol was traded to the Lakers mid-season in February. Without Gasol, the Lakers don’t flourish and it’s possible Bryant retires as the greatest player to never win an MVP. Additionally, there’s a better than fair chance that 2008 MVP goes to LeBron James of the Memphis Grizzlies.


There are many other things that get altered, such as the likely career paths of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Lamar Odom, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and others. Basically, what it boils down to is this:

The last 17 years of the NBA, all of it’s awards, titles, player movement and everything that goes along with it, would be remarkably different had a different ping pong ball been pulled from the hopper. 

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?



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