MIAMI — Upon his 1995 arrival, Pat Riley made the Miami Heat matter. But it wasn’t until Dwyane Wade’s 2003 arrival that the franchise truly was set on a championship course.
Without Wade, there would not have been Shaquille O’Neal, a reality O’Neal has stressed over the years. Without Wade, no Big Three with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010. And without what Wade had built and sold to a fellow Marquette product in 2019, likely no Jimmy Butler to carry on the franchise’s championship-contending legacy.
So now, with Wade being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 20 years after his selection in the 2003 NBA draft by the Heat, consider what might have been.
Which means considering a pair of names who did not alter the arc of ascension that Riley established: Chris Kaman and Darko Milicic.
As he prepared to head to Springfield, Mass., for Wade’s induction, Riley reflected on landing Wade with the No. 5 pick in 2003.
“We were very fortunate to get him,” he understated. “And it would have been a dilemma if Toronto would have taken him fourth. We would have taken Chris fifth. As a matter of fact, we needed a big that year and Chris got picked and then we took Dwyane. Everybody said I was going to take Kaman, but that’s not true. That was just something we put out there in the media.”
Only … it wasn’t.
Kaman, the 7-footer out of Central Michigan who went No. 6 in 2003 to the Los Angeles Clippers and went on to become an All-Star in 2010, actually very much was on Riley’s mind in 2003.
Says who? Said Riley, in a 2013 interview with ESPN a decade after the selection of Wade, who by then had helped lead the Heat to what still stand as the franchise’s three championships.
“That year we ended up with No. 5, and I was looking at point guards and centers; that’s what we needed,” Riley said, with Eddie Jones, at Wade’s collegiate position of shooting guard, already on the Heat roster. “I had guys like Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford and Chris Kaman high on our list, and I was interested in them. Dwyane was on there, but at the start of the process, I wasn’t sure.”
Appreciate, also, that not only did Wade admittedly have an awful workout for the Heat, but that when the Heat first scouted Wade in the pre-draft process, it came only with Wade working on an adjacent court to where a Kaman workout was being featured. Also, at the time, the Heat were about to lose center Alonzo Mourning to the New Jersey Nets in free agency.
As Wade’s agent, the late Henry Thomas, said at the time, “the Heat wanted a big man.” And, as Randy Pfund, then the Heat’s general manager, said at the time of Kaman, “One of the big stories of the draft is there will be a chance to get a center or power forward combo at the top of the draft. He is a true center, a scorer who can rebound and block shots.”
Then there is the Milicic aspect that could have forever altered this 20-year Heat embrace of the family tree created by the drafting of Wade.
Ahead of that 2003 draft, the buzz was about Milicic, the versatile 7-footer out of Serbia who had so wowed Detroit Pistons President Joe Dumars during an early stateside workout that the marriage of Milicic at No. 2 after LeBron James at No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers seemingly was set well in advance of the draft.
The Pistons at the time already were in win-now mode, careful not to disrupt a mix that would go on to win the 2004 NBA championship, with Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton already in place in their backcourt. So Detroit bypassed Camelo Anthony, who would go No. 3 to the Denver Nuggets; Bosh, who would go No. 4 to the Toronto Raptors; and Wade.
Milicic never averaged more than 1.8 points in his two-plus seasons for the Pistons.
“A flat-out miss,” Dumars later would say.
Had Dumars and the NBA known then what they soon came to realize, with Milicic ending his NBA career with a 6.0 scoring average, it is safe to assume that Anthony, Wade and Bosh would have followed James in some order.
Most re-drafts not only since have had Wade listed as the most-deserving No. 2 pick that year, but point out that the Heat at No. 5 likely would have been able to do no better than the career stats put together by David West, the power forward out of Xavier who went No. 18 to the New Orleans Hornets in 2003.
Another option could have been Ford, the point guard out of Texas, considering Wade played his rookie season at point guard in order for the Heat to accommodate Jones and Caron Butler on the wing. Ford went No. 8 to the Milwaukee Bucks, after Wade went No. 5, Kaman No. 6 and Hinrich No. 7 to the Chicago Bulls, the spot with his hometown team where Wade thought he would land.
So, yes, it could have been Chris Kaman.
It could have been David West.
It could have been T.J. Ford.
And it could have been a far different path these past two decades for the Heat, one that well could have had Riley elsewhere than Springfield on Saturday night.