Paying for potential
Despite track record, Darko may score in free agency
Posted: Tuesday July 3, 2007 3:16PM; Updated: Wednesday July 4, 2007 7:59AM
When it comes to NBA free agency, timing is everything.
Take Darko Milicic.
With Vince Carter (Nets) and Chauncey Billups (Pistons) expected to re-sign with their respective clubs -- and Rashard Lewis agreeing to sign a five-year deal with the Magic for a reported $75 to $80 million -- Milicic, known mainly for being a draft bust, suddenly finds himself perhaps the hottest commodity on the free-agent market.
"He's a big man who's shown promise," said one Eastern Conference general manager who wished to remain anonymous. "I don't know if he's going to get $10 million a year or whatever [as reported]. But I think there will be a number of teams interested."
Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
Milicic has done little to warrant a big payday. In four seasons split between Detroit and Orlando, the forward-center has averaged a whopping five points and 3.3 rebounds in 15 minutes per game. Last year, his first full season as a regular rotation player, he put up eight points and 5.5 boards in 23.9 minutes.
Potential carries its own value, however, and Milicic is only 22. Given a chance to play steady minutes the past two seasons in Orlando, he showed an ability to block shots and hit the offensive boards at a fair rate. He also raised his game in last year's playoff series against the Pistons, averaging 12.3 points in his team's four-game loss.
On the minus side, the onetime Pistons bench-warmer also has been more up and down than a Disney World roller coaster, a brick layer from the foul line and at times downright soft. One former NBA GM even used the expression "Picasso on tissue paper" to describe Milicic. "A work of art, but you can go right through him," he said with a chuckle.
But with so few quality centers on the market (Chris Mihm, Jamaal Magloire, Brian Skinner headline the rest of the group), Milicic is expected to command a multiyear deal starting in the $7 to $8 million range. Some say that's optimistic, given that there are so few teams with any cap room. But if Milicic can find the right suitor, he could get big money from a team willing to overspend to find the next Jermaine O'Neal.
Never mind that for every late bloomer like O'Neal there are 10 overpaid disappointments like Jerome James. GMs will always be suckers for height.
"I wouldn't be surprised," said one West executive with more than 25 years in the league. "He's got talent. I don't know if he'd be the second pick in the draft again, but he can be a force. He's long and he's a shot-blocker and rebounder. ... He looks like he can be a player once he shakes off the rust a little bit and gets a chance to play. He needs a certain amount of attention... But he showed promise in Orlando. A lot of people think they can make something out of him."
Added a longtime West scout: "He's got a big upside. Teams are always looking for big men who can score, and he has a decent low-post game. I wonder about his desire a little. He's also been spotty in terms of performance on a night-to-night basis. Some games he has it, some he doesn't. ... But there are a lot of teams that would be willing to take a chance on a guy like that."
The Bulls, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pacers and Kings lead the pack of teams that might be interested in Milicic. Chicago is in desperate need of a low-post scorer, but Milicic's lack of intensity might not make him a good fit with Scott Skiles. Houston could use another big, but it probably desires a player with more shooting range. Memphis appears to be setting its sights on Anderson Varejao.
Ironically, Orlando is a good fit for Milicic given its need for a big man. But the Magic renounced his rights in order to free up the cash to sign Lewis, making Milicic an unrestricted free agent.
Wherever Milicic winds up, his story demonstrates yet again how fate can turn quickly in the NBA. One could argue that he was unlucky four years ago to be drafted by the Pistons with the No. 2 overall pick. After all, it wasn't his fault he went behind only LeBron James, and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Milicic didn't exactly walk into an ideal situation in Motown either, at least not in terms of playing time. Stuck behind the likes of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Elden Campbell, Mehmet Okur and Antonio McDyess, Milicic barely got off the bench over those first two seasons. It didn't help that his coach, Larry Brown, was notoriously tough on rookies.
But now Milicic appears to be on the other side of the luck factor. Despite having produced like a journeyman backup, he's probably about to get paid like a front-line starter.
When he does, the Human Victory Cigar should light up one for himself.