Thursday, February 16, 2006

Darko Era Ends in Detroit

For Detroit Pistons fans, February 14, 2006 will not be remembered for romance.  Instead, this Valentine’s Day will be recalled as the end of an era.  On that night, Pistons supporters had their last glimpse of Darko Milicic in a Detroit uniform.



Milicic has been traded to the Orlando Magic, along with point guard Carlos Arroyo, for center Kelvin Cato and a future first-round draft pick.  The move is stunning, considering how successful Detroit has been since drafting the Serbia & Montenegro native.  The Pistons have an NBA-best 42-9 record heading into the All-Star break.  Last season they took San Antonio to game 7 before falling in the finals.  And two years ago, with the rookie Darko having a front-row seat for the action, Detroit downed the Los Angeles Lakers to capture the NBA title.  Head coach Larry Brown could not win a title with Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller, or David Robinson.  However, his first season with Milicic resulted in a ring.



Darko’s impact was not unlike that of Magic Johnson, whose Lakers won the championship in his rookie season.  Yes, Magic had 42 points and 15 rebounds in a legendary title-clinching performance in game 6 of the 1980 finals.  However, Milicic’s Pistons wrapped up the title in five games, depriving him of the opportunity for a transcendent game 6 effort in 2004.  The fact that Darko scored just one point during the entire 2004 playoffs may lead skeptics to claim that he could not have gone for 42 in game 6.  Sadly, we will never know.



As basketball fans know, Milicic was the second overall pick in the star-studded 2003 NBA draft.  LeBron James went first, with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade going after Darko.  The other four members of the quintet have far gaudier statistics than Milicic.  However, James, Anthony, and Bosh have yet to win a playoff series.  In last season’s eastern finals, Darko’s Pistons outlasted Wade’s Heat in seven games.  If victories are the ultimate measure of success, Milicic is the runaway winner from the 2003 draft.



Darko may have a kindred spirit in offensive lineman Tony Mandarich, who was the second player chosen in the 1989 NFL draft.  Mandarich followed Troy Aikman, with Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders completing the top five.  Of the five teams who chose those players, Mandarich’s Packers had the best season in 1989 with a 10-6 campaign.  They finished the year with a 20-10 victory over Aikman’s Cowboys.  Humiliated by a 1-15 season, Dallas rued the day it passed over Tony Mandarich to select Troy Aikman.  Every year as the NFL draft arrives, Mandarich is fondly remembered with these words of praise: “As far as busts go, he wasn’t as bad as Ryan Leaf.”



In addition to his winning ways, Milicic has also been notable for his consistency.  In 2003-04, he averaged 1.4 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.  The next season, it was 1.8 points and 1.2 rebounds.  So far this season, Darko has contributed 1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds per game.  In contrast, LeBron can be all over the board.  James tallied an impressive 51 points at Utah on January 21, but the previous night he had just 14 against Golden State.  With Milicic, you know what you’re getting – you don’t have to worry about 37-point swings.



What the Pistons were getting in 2006 was near-perfection.  Darko’s three-point miss on Tuesday night was his first misfire from the field since December 17, having shot 7-for-7 in games since then.  Additionally, Milicic has not missed from the line since December 2 – coincidentally, the last time he had a free throw attempt.  Apparently Detroit panicked after Darko’s miss on Tuesday – dealing him away after finally seeing a chink in his armor.



It remains to be seen whether the Pistons can continue their success without such a huge presence buried on their bench.  Head coach Flip Saunders only has four current All-Stars at his disposal in Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace.  If their efforts fall short of a championship, Detroit’s president of basketball operations Joe Dumars will be haunted by this image: Darko Milicic sitting in his Orlando Magic warm-ups.