February 18, 2010
The trade that sent New York's Darko Milicic(notes) to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Brian Cardinal(notes) inspired more than a few quips, and it probably should. Darko's been a bust as an NBA pro since the get-go, and Cardinal seems to typify the worst of NBA contractin' gone mad. The fact that the Wolves will have to track Darko down somewhere in Europe and the idea that Cardinal will be waived well before the time you read this post adds a bit to the silliness of the transaction.
But I'm a little bummed. Mainly because it didn't have to be like this. Because both of these guys can play, and in a perfect world, they would have a pretty sound niche in this league. And as it stands, there's a good chance we won't see either suit up in the NBA again.
Cackle all you want, but Darko Milicic can play. Or, he should have been able to play. He's a 7-footer with significant hops who had a sturdy frame that could have even gotten sturdier in time. But he was also an angry young man, entering this league, and the Detroit Pistons (who drafted him ahead of Kendrick Perkins(notes), Steve Blake(notes), and Jason Kapono(notes)) did something you really shouldn't do to an angry young man — make the young man angrier.
They didn't play him at all in his rookie year, which made sense on paper because the Pistons went ahead and, you know, won the damn championship that year, but they could have handled him better. Instead, Larry Brown artlessly handled what could have been Detroit's ticket to multiple championships, failing to mix up his minutes, playing Darko only in garbage-garbage-garbage time.
A broken hand suffered in the last game of that year's Finals knocked out his offseason, allowed him to sulk, and continued iffy minutes in 2004-05 contributed to Darko's mood. Was he a knucklehead? Could he have suffered through it? But Larry Brown was the adult in this situation, and he had a choice. He could show tough love, and hand Darko the minutes he deserved (which weren't many, or any), or he could teach the poor kid to fish, deal with being let down at times in the process, and think pound-wise for the first time in his coaching career.
Instead, Darko never played. And he got angrier. And he never got over it. Never stopped blaming others. Never fulfilled his potential. I can't tell you how important the lessons learned in the first two years of a player's career are, you've just got to handle these projects the right way, or you risk losing them forever.
Cardinal? He fulfilled his potential. He was the anti-Darko. The guy never got minutes, but kept working on his game, kept getting better, kept playing his tail off whenever his number was infrequently called.
His PERs over the first seven years were around average in total, and though his per-minute production plummeted over the last three seasons, his teams constantly played better with him on the floor as opposed to when he was off it. I'm not going to tell you that he was some unrecognized gem, but there are things that PER can't pick up, and when it comes to hockey assists or perfectly-set screens, Cardinal was the man.
Every time I'd see him play he'd be doing something helpful. Something to help the team in ways that weren't being picked up by the box score. Points and rebounds count, they really do, and you have to have the right setup and rotation to consistently field a player who isn't going to help much on that end. But you would have at least liked to see the Grizzlies and Timberwolves try.
Instead, he sat. And never really got a chance to build on his 2003-04 campaign, Darko's rookie year by the way, one that saw him contribute a 19.4 PER and lead the NBA in offensive rating. Dork it up, scout it up, he could play. And rarely got the chance to.
Trading these two seems appropriate to most NBA followers because of the combined stiff-o-tude of the two particulars. I understand that. Throw me a bone by understanding that it didn't have to be that way.