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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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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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Amid a successful career in his native Spain, Jose Calderon entered the draft in 2003 but went undrafted. He didn’t come over to the NBA until two years later when he signed as a free agent with the Toronto Raptors.
Calderon was one of the best shooters in the NBA over his 14-season career, which included seven-plus seasons with the Raptors as well as two stints with the Detroit Pistons and stops with the New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks.
He holds a career 40.7 shooting mark from three-point range, as well as the NBA’s all-time record for best single-season free-throw percentage, hitting a staggering 98.1 percent of his foul shots in 2008-09.
Calderon was also a mainstay on the Spanish national team, winning silver medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and a bronze medal in 2016.
Actual Pick: Chris Kaman
Calderon’s Actual Draft Spot: Undrafted (signed with Toronto Raptors in 2005)
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A late second-round pick, Kyle Korver has become one of the best shooters of his era. He’s led the league in three-point percentage four times and holds a mark of 42.9 percent from beyond the arc in his 17-season career.
In addition to his shooting, Korver developed into a solid defender later in his career. Although he has yet to win a championship, he has been a key player on some very good teams, including the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer-led Utah Jazz of the late 2000s, the Chicago Bulls team that made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11, the 60-win 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks and two of LeBron James’ Finals teams in Cleveland.
This season, he was shooting 41.5 percent from three in 16.7 minutes per game for the league-best Milwaukee Bucks before the NBA’s season was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Korver’s longevity sets him apart in the 2003 draft class. He’s the only player from this group besides James and Anthony who’s still in the NBA in 2020.
Actual Pick: Kirk Hinrich
Korver’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 51, New Jersey Nets (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
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Boris Diaw was ahead of his time, one of the most uniquely skilled players in the NBA during the mid-2000s and early 2010s. The 6’8″ Frenchman acted as sort of a point-power forward, developing a good three-point shot later in his career.
After two forgettable seasons with the Hawks, Diaw came into his own when he was traded to Phoenix for Joe Johnson, becoming a key piece of Mike D’Antoni’s legendary “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns teams with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Following a stint in Charlotte, Diaw joined the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 and played a major role in their 2014 NBA title.
Actual Pick: T.J. Ford
Diaw’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 21, Atlanta Hawks
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Known primarily for his hard-nosed defense, Kirk Hinrich had a solid 13-year career, mostly spent in Chicago. He was never flashy, but he’s all over the Bulls’ franchise leaderboard. He’s their all-time leader in three-point makes, eighth in scoring and third behind just Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in both assists and steals.
Hinrich was not a part of the Bulls’ post-Jordan high-water mark in 2010-11, but he was a staple of their other successes in the 2000s and had a second stint in Chicago in the mid-2010s before his retirement after the 2015-16 season.
Actual Pick: Michael Sweetney
Hinrich’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 7, Chicago Bulls
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Another second-round steal, Zaza Pachulia had a long career as a defensive enforcer. He spent eight of his 16 seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, coming off the bench for the Joe Johnson-led teams that were a mainstay in the Eastern Conference playoffs in the 2000s. He averaged double-digit scoring in his first two seasons with Atlanta but mostly settled into a role doing dirty work in the paint.
To some, Pachulia’s name has negative connotations. In Game 1 of the Golden State Warriors’ 2017 Western Conference Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard landed awkwardly on Pachulia’s leg and suffered the quad injury that kept him out all but nine games of the following season, ultimately leading to his exit from San Antonio. Pachulia was widely accused of encroaching on Leonard’s landing space on purpose, although he has always denied it.
Regardless, Pachulia won titles with the Warriors in 2017 and 2018. After he retired in 2019, he rejoined the Warriors as a front-office adviser.
Actual Pick: Jarvis Hayes
Pachulia’s Actual Draft Spot: No. 42, Orlando Magic
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11. Golden State Warriors: Nick Collison
Collison spent his entire 14-season career in the Seattle/Oklahoma City organization, becoming a beloved teammate and solid backup big man who played a key role in the Thunder’s late 2000s/early 2010s run with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before retiring following the 2017-18 season.
12. Seattle SuperSonics: Matt Bonner
The “Red Mamba” became a cult figure in San Antonio because of his distinctive red hair and quirky personality. A career 41.4 percent three-point shooter, Bonner was a part of the Spurs’ title teams in 2007 and 2014.
13. Memphis Grizzlies: Mo Williams
One of LeBron James’ favorite teammates in Cleveland, Williams parlayed his second-round selection into a long and successful career of providing instant offense. He rode James’ coattails to an All-Star appearance in 2008-09 and capped off his career as part of the Cavs’ 2016 title team before announcing his retirement.
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14. Seattle SuperSonics: Josh Howard
Howard had a great early part of his career in Dallas, starting on the Mavericks team that went to the Finals in 2006. He made the All-Star team in 2007, averaging 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. After the Mavs traded him to Washington at the 2010 deadline, he suffered a torn ACL, and his career never recovered.
15. Orlando Magic: Leandro Barbosa
The “Brazilian Blur” was a small, quick change-of-pace guard who played an integral role on the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and was also a valuable bench contributor to the Warriors’ 2014-15 title team and 73-win 2015-16 team.
16. Boston Celtics: Luke Ridnour
Ridnour, a standout at the University of Oregon, had a solid 12-year career as a rotation point guard, mostly spent with Seattle, Minnesota and Milwaukee.
17. Phoenix Suns: Steve Blake
Blake’s 13-year career included three separate stints in Portland along with time with the Wizards, Clippers, Lakers and Pistons, among others. He was a solid, reliable backup point guard.
18. New Orleans Hornets: Kendrick Perkins
A first-ballot “Beloved Teammate” Hall of Famer, Perkins was the starting center on the Celtics’ 2008 title team before being traded to Oklahoma City in 2011, where he was a mainstay on the Durant-Westbrook teams of the 2010s.
19. Utah Jazz: James Jones
Another all-time great teammate, Jones followed LeBron James from Miami to Cleveland, appearing alongside James in seven straight Finals before taking a job in the Phoenix Suns front office.
20. Boston Celtics: Chris Kaman
Kaman had a nice run as the starting center for the Clippers during their brief pre-Lob City success, making an All-Star team in 2009-10 before being traded to New Orleans in 2011 as part of the Chris Paul deal.
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21. Atlanta Hawks: Carlos Delfino
Delfino played eight NBA seasons, coming off the bench early in his career for the mid-2000s Detroit Pistons powerhouse and starting for a decent Milwaukee Bucks team in the early 2010s. He shot a career 36.5 percent from three-point range.
22. New Jersey Nets: Keith Bogans
Bogans wrapped up a respectable 11-year career as a journeyman wing defender in 2014. He started all 82 games for the 2010-11 Bulls, who won 62 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals.
23. Portland Trail Blazers: Mickael Pietrus
The French guard is best known for his time with the 2006-07 “We Believe” Warriors and the 2008-09 Orlando Magic team that reached the NBA Finals.
24. Los Angeles Lakers: T.J. Ford
Ford was a solid, well-liked point guard who averaged double-digit scoring for five seasons in a row from 2005-06 to 2009-10. His career was unfortunately cut short in 2012 at age 28 because of chronic health issues related to his spine.
25. Detroit Pistons: Travis Outlaw
Outlaw made the jump to the NBA from high school and was a solid rotation player for the Brandon Roy/LaMarcus Aldridge-era Blazers. He signed a giant free-agent contract with the New Jersey Nets in 2010 that he never lived up to.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves: Marquis Daniels
An undrafted success story, Daniels caught on with the Dallas Mavericks and played 10 years in the league.
27. Memphis Grizzlies: Luke Walton
The son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton, Luke had a long run as a reserve forward for the Lakers, winning two championships. He’s currently the head coach of the Sacramento Kings following three years in that role with the Lakers.
28. San Antonio Spurs: Jason Kapono
Kapono was a deadly shooter, leading the NBA in three-point percentage in 2006-07 and 2007-08. He shot 43.4 percent from beyond the arc in his career.
29. Dallas Mavericks: Willie Green
Green had a respectable 12-year career as a bench scorer. He averaged a career-high 12.4 points per game for the Sixers in 2007-08.