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What if LeBron’s career had started in the Western Conference?

Or if the Miami Heat passed on Wade? These and other mind-bending what-ifs, 15 years after the 2003 NBA draft lottery

The 2018 NBA draft lottery takes place Tuesday night. It’s a loaded class. And while 15 years ago the lottery wasn’t the grandiose event it is now, a season of draft positioning (also known as tanking) on the part of some teams made the May 22, 2003, NBA draft lottery must-see TV. What happened that night, in many ways, set in motion the NBA we enjoy today. But what could have been? If a single pingpong ball had gone this way, or a front-office decision had gone that way? This is the NBA’s equivalent of The Butterfly Effect.

Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke knew it was the kiss of death. Like any other NBA executive in 2003, Kroenke coveted 18-year-old high school demigod LeBron James. And the Nuggets, having gone 17-65 in the 2002-03 season, were very much in play for the man Sports Illustrated famously dubbed “The Chosen One.” The Nuggets won the draft lottery. They landed the No. 1 pick. Except there was a catch. This was the rehearsal that was filmed before the live show.

Kroenke, in Secaucus, New Jersey, was beside himself. There’s no way lightning would strike again when the draft lottery went live later that night. And while Kroenke stewed in Jersey, LeBron James, Aaron Goodwin (James’ agent from 2003-05) and a host of family and friends celebrated the impending reality of James’ professional career in a Cleveland Hilton.

Imagine a young LeBron learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis.

“We just waited to officially hear [who got the No. 1 pick] and kept partying,” Goodwin said 15 years later. “LeBron was in another room. I was on the phone. I don’t think there was any tension or worry about where he would go.” James was the belle of the ball. But he wasn’t the only future Hall of Fame name associated with the Class of 2003. Had things gone differently for two of his closest friends, the trophy case for the band of brothers affectionately known as the Banana Boat Crew would look very different.


What if the mock drafts held true, and the Miami Heat passed on Dwyane Wade?

Clippers. Wizards. Warriors. Bulls. These were the teams several mock drafts forecast for Dwyane Wade. Many thought the Heat would select a big man like Central Michigan’s Chris Kaman, or Maciej Lampe of Poland. Wade, despite one of the most memorable March Madness runs ever, was viewed as middle-of-the-pack talent. An undersized 2-guard with an inconsistent shot — both assessments that ring true to this day. Very few, outside of Miami, saw the game-changing possibilities Wade would bring. And even fewer could foresee that the Marquette star would become the third-greatest 2 of all time (behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant). There’s a Pandora’s box of possibilities — if Wade never lands in the 305.

Where does Shaquille O’Neal eventually land when he’s traded in the summer of 2004 if he doesn’t go to Miami? Where does Derrick Rose go in 2008, assuming the Bulls aren’t around with the No. 1 overall pick? Where does James go in 2010 if Wade’s not in Miami? Does he switch teams in his division, still join Wade and chase Jordan’s ghost while playing under the banners Jordan helped corral in Chicago? Or does he land in New York? Or does he never leave Cleveland in the first place? The questions we’ll never know the answer to are always the most fascinating.

How much differently is Carmelo Anthony’s career viewed if he goes No. 2 to Detroit?

This is, by far, the most-asked question from the 2003 draft. As it stands today, Carmelo Anthony is a future Hall of Famer. He has an NCAA national championship to his name and, with just one season at Syracuse, is one of the more revered college players of all time. He’s in the NBA’s top 20 all-time in points scored — and the other 19 are all in Springfield or eventually will be. But the shortcomings of his career are unavoidable, capped off with a disappointing inaugural season in Oklahoma City. He’s only been to one conference finals (2009), and his era in New York was one filled with internal strife and just three playoff appearances in seven years.

Heading into the ‘03 draft, the top three was basically set in stone. James to Cleveland, Darko Milicic (who had the league captivated with his mysterious potential) to Detroit and Anthony to Denver. For a decade and a half, every basketball fan has wondered once or a million times: What if Joe Dumars and the Pistons went with Anthony instead of Milicic? It’s also one of Anthony‘s great regrets. “I was a little bit disappointed,” Anthony said. “I really wanted to go to Detroit. You had Chauncey, you had all those guys over there. … Detroit, they had something going.”

A random 1997 trade featuring Otis Thorpe directly impacted the 2003 draft and where its most valuable piece landed.

Anthony around Detroit’s veteran leadership, on top of instantly being the best one-on-one player on the Pistons in 2003-04, makes for an interesting dynamic. Whatever defensive shortcomings he had would’ve been masked by bringing a devastating defensive force like Tayshaun Prince off the bench. The makings of a potential LeBron-Carmelo rivalry, in the same division, would have produced a plethora of 2000s classic games. Not to mention: How would a young Anthony have influenced key series losses such as the 2005 Finals to San Antonio, 2006 Eastern Conference finals to Miami and the landscape-changing 2007 Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland? The Detroit what-ifs of Anthony’s career remain infinite 15 years later.

How did Otis Thorpe play a role in two of the three biggest drafts in NBA history?

The Houston Rockets’ second consecutive title in 1995? (Partially) thank Otis Thorpe for that. The veteran power forward was traded by H-Town along with Tracy Murray to the Portland Trail Blazers in return for future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.

Two years later, Thorpe was involved in another trade that, at the time, barely made headlines. Thorpe and Detroit Pistons head coach Doug Collins had a strained relationship during their time together in the mid-’90s. In August 1997, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies traded for the 35-year-old Thorpe, giving up a protected first-round pick between the years 1998 and 2003. The pick came with protections and stipulations. By 2003, the Grizzlies were between a proverbial rock and hard place. The only way they could keep their draft pick is if they somehow landed the No. 1 overall pick.

There’s heartbreak and then there’s having to experience it on national television. The legendary Jerry West joined the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002 as the team’s president of basketball operations — meaning he inherited the Thorpe trade. West landed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles during the summer of 1996. He was thisclose to drafting James in Memphis, Tennessee, had the pingpong balls fallen in his favor. Look at West’s face when he realizes his franchise missed James by a single pick. If “this is some bulls—” ever had a face, it’s Jerry West on the night of May 22, 2003. “I hate the lottery; I think it’s a terrible thing,” West said in 2013. “And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well.” Can you really blame West for being salty?

On a related note, Thorpe played a role in two of the three most storied drafts in NBA history. He was selected ninth overall in 1984 in a draft that featured Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. And a random 1997 trade featuring Thorpe directly affected the 2003 draft and therefore everything that’s happening in pro basketball today.

What if James began his career in the Western Conference?

James in the Eastern Conference — it’s all the basketball he knows. Depending on the decision he makes this summer, it may be all we ever know. But, as mentioned, James nearly began out west. Two of the top three picks in the ‘03 draft, Memphis and Denver, were from Western Conference squads. Both made the playoffs in James’ rookie year.

Can you really blame Jerry West for being salty?

How would The King have looked on the Grizzlies or Nuggets 15 years ago? Memphis would’ve paired him with a young Pau Gasol, his future teammates Shane Battier and Mike Miller, Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams. Also, imagine a young James learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis. Goodwin never really anticipated Memphis landing the first pick. “If that would’ve happened, we would’ve turned Memphis into a great market,” said Goodwin. “And they’d have at least two championships by now.”

Denver, on the other hand, boasted another future teammate in Chris Andersen, as well as Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Nenê, with current Houston Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik manning the sidelines.

James battling his way through a Western Conference with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Rockets and Phoenix Suns are heavyweight parallel universe matchups. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is that we would have eventually landed a James vs. Bryant series — the one matchup a league filled with stars could never make happen on its biggest stages. It’s tough to imagine a series more anticipated, debated and fawned over than a seven-game Western Conference finals featuring its two most polarizing names.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.