Historical Revisions: the 2003-04 NBA Rookie of the Year

When you delve into it, so many sports have some wild award histories. Some are glorious foreshadowing to a blossoming career (2006, MLB Rookies of the Year, Justin Verlander and Hanley Ramirez). Others seemed right at the time, but may have aged poorly in hindsight (both of Steve Nash back-to-back MVP’s probably should have gone to Shaq and Kobe). 

They say hindsight is 20/20, but I’d say there’s little bit of haziness in how we look back. Some sports moments and seasons are ingrained permanently into our memories. Sort of like an emotional equivalent to a tattoo, or a cringe-worthy moment of your childhood that’s never truly forgotten. 

On that principle, awards voters and fans make mistakes, and may even defend those mistakes to this day. One of my earliest “bold” sports takes that I pridefully stand by to this day (and tweet about randomly when it permeates my stream of consciousness) is one that you may totally scoff at. This is not a rouse. Not even an April Fool’s Day Joke! That holiday should be cancelled this year, maybe even indefinitely. It’s just an excuse for corporate twitter accounts to generate hype / mild controversy or for common folk to intentionally invoke heart palpitations to their friends and family. Regardless – this blog’s opinion is very real to me. I hope you open your mind (and your hearts) to the harsh reality I’m about to bestow upon you:

Carmelo Anthony should have won the 2003-2004 NBA Rookie of the Year award over LeBron James.

There, I said it. First let me field some basic questions / re-torts I would anticipate in a Old School style debate:

1.  Did you even watch the NBA back in 2003-2004?  

Yes, I did watch each LeBron and Carmelo play during this season in question. What NBA fan didn’t?! Even a 10-year old me understood that LeBron was special, and that the NBA was about to change forever.  Also, funny enough, the Celtics and I were in a very weird place at the time, but I was enthralled by this season’s Lakers squad.  That 03-04 super team Mitch Kupchak conjured up was such an ELECTRIC concept to 10-year old me.  Bringing in both Karl Malone and Gary Payton was borderline unfathomable.  

I’ve also gone back and watched highlights, as well as a few dynamic rookie performances by each Melo and LeBron.  For Melo, I recommend looking back on a couple of performances. You could watch his late season 36-point, 11 rebound effort against a pre-Steve Nash era Suns team. You could even watch him drop 35 points, and go toe-to-toe with Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers in a 1-point loss. Yes, that was THE LOADED 03-04 Lakers team that won 56 games but eventually blew it all by losing to Detroit in the finals. Not impressed yet? How about 29 and 8 against a 61-win Indiana Pacers team. I think many forget how good the Pacers were at the time, a mere months before they would jar the world of sports with the infamous ‘Malice at the Palace’ debacle. 

Bottom line, Melo had some GREAT performances. Especially for a rookie, on a team that won 43 games. These weren’t hollow stats, these were team-leading scoring efforts.

2.  Didn’t the Nuggets make the playoffs?  They must have been a far better team.

Yes, the Nuggets made the playoffs, and that’s seen as a knock to Melo’s case as the ROY. But, what’s overlooked is that though his roster was far more complete than LeBron’s Cavs squad, it was Melo’s play as a rookie that sparked their wild turnaround.  In fact, Denver’s turnaround from 17 wins in 2002-03 to 2003-04, a 26-game improvement!!! Good enough to be the biggest jump in NBA history by a team that won less than 20 games the previous season. This is also after the Nuggets lost their best player from the previous year, Juwan Howard, as well as their 2nd leading scorer and future 2008 NBA Champion, the defensive specialist, James Posey. 

Bottom line, rookie Melo was a MASSIVE contributor to the Nuggets’ overall team success, and should be lauded for it, not punished.

3.  LeBron was basically the whole Cavs team, so he must’ve played way more minutes.

No, the difference in minutes played over the course of the season is negligible.  In fact, even their usage rates are pretty similar as well. 

Melo – Minutes: 36.4 per game Usage Rate: 27.4% (per https://cleaningtheglass.com/)

Lebron – Minutes – 39.5 per game Usage Rate: 29.1% (per https://cleaningtheglass.com/)

Simple explanation for usage rate for anyone wondering: that % is how many possessions Player X’s team resulted in an action by Player X. That could be a shot, or a turnover, or a drawing a foul to get to the free-throw line. 

4.  Well, team success aside – wasn’t LeBron by far the more efficient rookie with a better stat line?

No, by my estimation not really at all! But, in an effort to be fair I’ll let you decide:

(Side-by-side stat lines per https://www.statmuse.com/)

The biggest advantage LeBron has in their comparable stat lines is in assists. This makes sense for a player who was basically the primary ball handler from day 1 in Cleveland (sans the 31 games of Jeff McInnis after a mid-season acquisition). That assist to turnover ratio also leans heavy in LeBron’s favor – BUT, other than that, this is basically Melo across the board! 

Advanced stats are a mixed bag, and like most statistics, can basically be manipulated to sway an argument with a very specific stat. I won’t nit-pick and pluck anything egregious, for the integrity of the debate. But a minor stat I found interesting was the vast difference in corner 3’s between Melo and Bron. 28.6% of LeBron’s 3 pointers attempted in 03-04 were from the corner, in stark contract to just 7.9% of Melo’s 3 points shot from the corner! As we now know, the corner 3 is one of the most efficient and rewarding shots for teams to take… which means the Nuggets underutilized Melo from the easier spot to shoot a 3 from!  And yet, he still shot better from 3 as a rookie? Yes I probably just contradicted myself from self-proclaimed high-integrity, but ADVANCED ANALYTICS, BABY – LFG!!!!

What’s the verdict?

In short, I instinctively felt this way back in the day, and to this day, I genuinely lean with Carmelo Anthony as the 2003-2004 Rookie of the Year, over LeBron James! LeBron was entirely worthy of the Rookie of the Year in almost any season, but in 2003-2004, Melo was just more-deserving. Does this take away from LeBron’s legacy? Nah, not at all. Still an all-time NBA great, on and off the court. I don’t think him losing the ROY like he should have changes how the past 17 years of the NBA went down at all… but… what if…. ?

Stay tuned for more possible blogs on more of my suggested historical sports revisions, served with a heavy dosage of hindsight in 2020.

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