It has played out time and again in the fantasies, and dare we say, nightmares of some Detroit Pistons fans -- for six months in some cases, and possibly for as long as six years in others, on a stinging, endless loop of what could have been. As in: If not for Joe Dumars' man(agement)-crush in the spring of 2003 on Euro-project Darko Milicic, Billups and Anthony might have been cavorting and winning together in Detroit, across a bunch of yesterdays as well as a much brighter today.
"Remember when" might be the lowest form of conversation -- Tony Soprano said so, anyway -- but in the sportswriting racket, nothing comes cheaper than second-guessing a draft pick through the miracle of hindsight and retrofit. Anyone can go back and cherry-pick the prospects who did not pan out for the teams that chose them, identify the legit contributors who were selected after a given spot in the draft order and then criticize, scold or ridicule the personnel folks who zigged when they should have zagged, who called heads on a young bundle of skills and ambition when tails would have been the savvier choice.
Oh, and the longer you wait, the cheaper it is. One year later, that's a second-guess. Two, three or more years later, it starts to resemble a rewriting of history, about as helpful as wagging a finger at the poor souls who booked passage on the S.S. Titanic. Then again, if you question the wisdom of a big draft move in real time -- say, within 48 hours -- your skepticism qualifies as a true difference of opinion and vision rather than a big, fat "told ya so."
There were, for instance, some NBA observers who felt that the Portland Trail Blazers erred in selecting Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick in 1984 as soon as the league's new mustachioed commissioner got the announcement out of his mouth that night in the Felt Forum. They didn't wait for the No. 3 guy to become the greatest and most popular pro basketball player of all time before choosing sides. Likewise, there were those who believed and stated the very night that Dumars made his pick that Anthony should have been the Pistons' choice at No. 2 in 2003 ... and if not Anthony, then Chris Bosh ... and if not Bosh, then Dwyane Wade ... and if not them, then any of a dozen other guys besides Milicic, whose biggest contribution to this point is providing inspiration for a popular and snarky Web site.
"I still haven't heard them come out and say, 'We've screwed up,' " one NBA coach said the other day, as the Pistons were falling into an 0-2 hole against Cleveland in their first-round series. "They still kind of hide on that. It doesn't matter -- everybody in 'the know' knows. That night, it was well known that Detroit was rolling the dice. But the one thing you've got to worry about is lying to your players. Because they'll know, and then they won't trust you." Claiming that they were set with Tayshaun Prince at small forward, this coach said, is no different from Portland saying it already had Clyde Drexler and thus had no need for Michael Jordan.
Others shrug it off. "You could find a Darko on a lot of teams," a scout said. "They've already swallowed that one and gone on and been successful. In defense of Darko, he's a decent defensive center. He's not a rebounder. He's got nice moves, he just doesn't finish. If he wasn't taken with the second pick, if he was taken in the late teens or so, you'd say, 'OK.' But he was drafted on size and potential."
Why does this all matter now? Because, if not for Dumars' gamble in 2003, the Pistons might well be a team of the present in these playoffs, rather than one split between its past and its future. Anthony could be clicking with Billups just the same -- Smooth and 'Melo, together in Motown -- and an organization that got to six Eastern Conference finals, two NBA Finals and one championship could be chasing those things again, rather than facing first-round elimination for the first time since 2000.
In a way, it's a tribute to Dumars' work up and down the roster -- apart from the Milicic pick -- that we're seeing the Pistons at less than their best. Typically, teams looking to retool slink off to the shadows of lotteryland, do what's necessary, lick some wounds and stay largely out of sight, out of mind until they're ready again for their close-ups. Detroit has done it on the fly, transitioning from Billups and the core of Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Prince and Antonio McDyess to replacements such as Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiell, Will Bynum and Arron Afflalo.
That makes it unsightly and in plain view, like performing an autopsy on someone still twitching. Veterans know their time is up. Young guys know it's not their time yet. The result, here near the end of the run, has been more whimper than roar, the Pistons getting caught more than once playing only off muscle memory.
"You can't fake hustle," TNT's Charles Barkley said at halftime of the Pistons' Game 2 loss. "You either have to be into the game or not. Cleveland is trying to win the championship, and Detroit has one foot in Cancun. They are packing up their stuff as we speak." The Chuckster pronounced the Pistons "dead" and, with his Vegas expertise, set the odds for a Cavaliers sweep at "100 percent."
Where does Dumars go from here? Back to the drawing board, for sure. The Billups-Allen Iverson deal was driven by money, the opportunity to clear AI off the books fast. Wallace might be allowed to walk as a free agent, another big salary and challenging personality shed. McDyess' time is nearly up (though he played well in the second half of the season) and, while Prince and Hamilton still have tread life, they might be logging fewer miles in lesser roles.
The Michael Curry mandate -- a rookie coach who could somehow come in and flex authority, holding the players more accountable -- hasn't worked. But Dumars has to be careful about acknowledging that, because with late owner Bill Davidson's heirs involved now, the former Pistons stalwart himself might not have the same solid backing as before.
When Detroit won the title in 2004, it won in spite of the Milicic move, the gentle interpretation being that its rotation was streamlined without a high-profile and ready-to-rip rookie for coach Larry Brown to attend to. Now, though, with Billups extending his prime and Anthony smack at the start of his, a team wrapping up its run might still be in full sprint, if not for an overly bold move in one of the most bountiful and can't-miss drafts in NBA history.