The Case for the 2003 NBA Draft Class as the Best of all Time

LeBron, Carmelo & Wade '03

Image credit: Sports Illustrated

Recently, the two NBA draft classes that have been discussed as the greatest of all time are the drafts of 1996 and 2003. Both consist of a deep, flashy and talented pool of players, however, it’s in my definitive judgment that the 2003 NBA Draft is the best we’ve ever seen.

Jim Armstrong made the case for the 1996 class, when he concluded that standout players such as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Ray Allen were part of a coalition that made the ’96 class more appealing than the ’03 draft, whose main staples comprised of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

In the sections below, I’ll take you through several reasons as to why I’d rather been drafting in the 2003 NBA Draft in comparison to the 1996 NBA Draft.

Why the 2003 Draft was better than the 1996 Draft

From top to bottom, 2003 included more talented players than those in the 1996 draft. The 1996 draft did not include a 2nd round talent such as Mo Williams, who made an all-star team and was once hailed as LeBron’s second option in Cleveland on a 60+ win team. It also did not include arguably the greatest overall player of all time, LeBron James. Yes, LeBron is one player, and we are debating class vs. class. However, the stature, aura, and revolution that LeBron James has brought to the game of basketball were unheralded from the 1996 class. Iverson, Kobe and Nash all impacted the games in immense ways, and in no way am I here to debate this obvious fact. But, I am here to tell you that LeBron James is the best overall player in both the ’96 and ’03 draft (sorry Kobe!), and as the cover boy for the ’03 class, it makes a major impact on where I stand.

Now, let’s take a look at the notable players from the 2003 class. Although it may ultimately come up short of all-time greats in comparison to 1996, this list may be a wakeup call for some as to how deep this class really was.

Notable Players from the 2003 NBA Draft

Lottery Picks

LeBron James (#1) – Has anyone come into the NBA with more build-up and excitement than LeBron?  I’d have to say the clear answer is no. I never in my wildest dreams could have expected LeBron to exceed the hype, reaching the pinnacle these past two seasons, going on to win the regular-season MVP, as well as the NBA Finals (and Finals MVP, too). James had already been cemented as an all-time great, even before joining forces in Miami with two other all-star players in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (also from this 2003 class). Ever since sweeping home the Rookie of the Year award in 2003, “King James” quickly became the most exciting player in the NBA. He took the Cleveland Cavaliers literally from “worst-to-first” in a matter of years, something that no one from the 1996 draft class can really hold claim to. Although some of the best players the NBA has seen did come from the ’96 class, not one single player from that draft made an impact near the level of LeBron James, and none of those players had near the expectations and pressure that was assumed by the “King” himself.

Carmelo & LeBron

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On a roster filled with lack-luster talent, James took a Cleveland Cavaliers team to the playoffs in 2005. In just two seasons, LeBron had reversed the trend in Cleveland and made the city proud by helping to put a competitive team on the floor. By 2007, James had his team in the Finals, surrounded by a putrid supporting cast of Eric Snow, Daniel Gibson and Drew Gooden. Does it get any worse than this for an NBA Finals team?  Probably not. Outside of James, there isn’t anyone in history (Michael Jordan comes to mind, though) who could have taken this roster all the way to a Finals berth. Definitely not from the 1996 draft. Ultimately, they were swept by the overpowering San Antonio Spurs, but this accomplishment four years into his playing career sealed James’ fate as an all-time great.

LEBRON JAMES CAREER STATS / ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 27.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 6.9 APG. 2X Olympic Gold Medalist, 2X NBA Champion, 2X Finals MVP, 4X NBA MVP, ’03 ROY, 9-time All-Star.

Carmelo Anthony (#3) – Anthony was disrespectfully passed over by the Detroit Pistons with the number two selection, who opted instead for one of the biggest busts in NBA history, Darko Milicic. Following an NCAA championship run as a freshman at Syracuse, Carmelo was passed on and ultimately taken by the Denver Nuggets at number three overall.

In his defense of the 1996 class, Jim Armstrong argued that Carmelo may not get into the Hall of Fame. As of now, that might be true, but Anthony is still just 29 years old. This gives him plenty of time to make his case, as his statistics (listed below) certainly warrant an entry into basketball’s most prestigious home. The knock on Anthony is that he has not enjoyed enough team success, and that he’s not a great teammate. I’d beg to differ on both of those arguments, one of which I will save for a future post. For now, take a look at his career numbers and accomplishments. When you compare Carmelo Anthony to the lottery picks of the 1996 NBA draft, you can make the case that outside of Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, Anthony has had a better or equal career than anyone in the lottery of that respective year.

CARMELO ANTHONY CAREER STATS / ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 25.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.4 APG. 2X Olympic Gold Medalist, NBA Scoring Champion, 6-time All-Star.

Chris Bosh (#4) – With the fourth overall pick, the Toronto Raptors selected Chris Bosh from Georgia Tech. After just one year at Tech, Bosh showed the ability to be a big time NBA player. Although he may not be that top-tier superstar that some expected, he is still an 8-time all-star. After struggling to rise above mediocrity, Bosh bolted from Toronto for South Beach in ‘10, where he linked up with two other buddies from this draft, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, to form a trio of all-stars that has resulted in three straight finals appearances, and two championship victories. Bosh has proven to be a great value as the #4 selection, being a top player in the NBA for 11 seasons now (and counting). Compared to the 1996 draft, I’ll make the case that Bosh still would have been one of the better players in that lottery.

CHRIS BOSH CAREER STATS / ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 19.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.1 BPG. Olympic Gold Medalist, 2X NBA Champion, 8-time All-Star.

Dwyane Wade (#5) – D-Wade. Flash. Whatever you want to call him, Dwyane Wade broke into the league as the number five overall pick, and he was a steal for the Miami Heat. Outside of LeBron, he’s had the most successful career of anyone in this historic draft class. Just three seasons into the league, he led an average Miami Heat team filled with role players, to an NBA Championship. His finals performance was nothing short of brilliant, as it resembled flashes of Michael Jordan in the 90’s. In the 2006 playoffs, he averaged 28.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 5.9 APG. After teaming up with James and Bosh in Miami, and going on to win another two championships, Wade’s glory days are certainly behind him. Flash is just a shell of his former self. If it weren’t for the consistent nagging injuries, I truly believe Wade would have gone down as one of the top five players to ever play the game. However, with injuries that have forced him off the court at times, he has never been able to fully show his potential over a long period of time. With all D-Wade has accomplished, I’m willing to bet, it could have been more.

DWYANE WADE CAREER STATS / ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 24.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 6.1 APG. Olympic Gold Medalist, 3X NBA Champion, NBA Finals MVP, 9-time All-Star.

Of these key lottery players, all of whom are still playing, three of the four are still in their primes. This allows me to make the argument that when it’s all said and done, this class will be better than the 1996 NBA draft class. Carmelo and LeBron certainly have the ability to still win championships. Bosh and Wade can also add to their collection of rings and all-star appearances. We shall see how the future plays out.

Rest of 1st Round

David West (#18) – West has had an extremely consistent career, and he is known for being a team-first guy. His game is fundamentally sound, and he’s willing to do the dirty work. He helped lead the New Orleans Hornets to the playoffs on several occasions in his eight seasons with the team. Now, as a member of the Indiana Pacers, West will attempt to deliver a longer, more sustained playoff run in a tougher Eastern conference. As the 18th overall pick in the ’03 draft, West showed the class depth by proving to be one the steadier and fundamentally sound players of his era.


Kendrick Perkins

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Kendrick Perkins (#27) – Perkins has been considered an “enforcer” throughout his entire career, playing that role successfully for much of the past decade. In my opinion, Perkins has been more than that. For the Celtics, he was very well-respected in the locker room and provided great leadership, even on a team full of Hall of Fame bound players such as Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. After tearing his ACL and MCL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 2010, the Celts fell to the Lakers in Game 7. They undoubtedly missed the late first round pick, who played a key role on several NBA Finals teams, including the OKC Thunder in ‘12. On OKC’s run to the Finals, Perkins played 26 minutes per game, and was crucial in protecting the rim and grabbing rebounds. Although there were some notable late round picks in the 1996 draft, Perkins is just as worthy as any of them, as he’s consistently made an impact for playoff and championship aspiring teams for an entire decade.


2nd Round / Sleepers

Mo Williams (#47) As the 47th pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, Mo Williams has proven he is more talented and has had a more successful career than anyone in the backend of the 1996 class. To find a player such as Williams with the 47th pick in an NBA Draft is almost unheard of, clearly illustrating the depth and talent associated with the ’03 class. Mo Williams was brought into Cleveland to be LeBron James’ sidekick, and second-scoring option. A former 47th overall pick was supposed to get the Cavs over the top. Ultimately, this idea did not pan out for Cleveland, but he still had three terrific seasons playing alongside James. Overall, the idea that a former late 2nd round pick could be the boost that a wishful championship franchise needed was a testament to the talent of Williams, but also to the class of ’03.


Kyle Korver (#51) – Korver has been overlooked by just about everyone over his career. Donned as “just a shooter,” the former late 2nd round pick’s stint with the Chicago Bulls from 2010 to 2012 should prove to be evidence of his overall game, beyond one as just a shooter. Under Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s leadership, Korver showed an ability to defend and hit big shots off the bench with regularity. Individually, the sharp-shooting Korver has had standout seasons, including the ’06 campaign in Philly when he averaged 14.6 PPG. Or, the 2009 season with Utah, when he hit 54% of his three point attempts. When you compare Korver’s value to the ’96 class, you’ll find he is more valuable than anyone near the late 2nd round of that class.

KYLE KORVER CAREER STATS / ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 9.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 42% 3 PT. 2010 NBA Three-Point shooting leader.

Closing Argument

As I have laid out with the key and notable players from the 2003 NBA draft, the major point that has stuck out to me is how vital these players have been in recent years, ten years down the road from their NBA rookie seasons. LeBron, Bosh and Wade all teamed up in the summer of 2010, and three seasons later are still the team to beat, having now won back-to-back championships. By no means is anyone from the ’03 class “old,” but we may see many of these notable players continue to dominate the league headlines for years to come. And don’t count out Carmelo Anthony – he certainly still has a window of opportunity to win a ring, as the Knicks have gotten closer and closer the past few seasons, following a decade of misery.

Ultimately, we must see more from the 2003 class to definitively label it as the best. But one of the main reasons I think we will eventually judge this class as the greatest is because of what the future has in store. I am a firm believer that the James, Wade and Bosh trio will win at least one more ring. And, don’t be surprised if one of the big four from this draft (James, Wade, Bosh, Melo) jump onto a contender in the twilight of their careers, and win another championship or two. Only time will tell which class is better when you sit down and compare 1996 to 2003, but at least for now, it’s one hell of a debate.


If you missed the case for the ’96 NBA draft, you can find that post here. Which draft was the best of all time in your opinion? We would love to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.

About Tyler Michels

Tyler is an NC State alum living in Raleigh, NC. Growing up in Northwest New Jersey, Tyler developed a love for New York sports teams, driving his desire to become a writer. In his free time, Tyler can probably be found on a golf course.

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