One of the best stories of the first half of the season was the emergence of Nikola Pekovic as the Minnesota Timberwolves' starting center. The bruising 26-year-old Montenegrin has been a revelation for coach Rick Adelman, overpowering opponents down low, beasting on the offensive boards and pairing with All-Star power forward Kevin Love to give the resurgent Wolves a frontcourt duo capable of battling even the best out West.
Of course, for every rising star, there's also a setting sun. In this case, it's gotten pretty dark for former Minnesota starter Darko Milicic, whose injury earlier this season opened the door for Pekovic to play Wally Pipp, and who has been all but cast aside since Pekovic's arrival on the NBA scene.
In theory, then, Pekovic's recent foot and ankle injuries — which led to him being sent back to Minnesota for treatment on Wednesday, meaning he'll miss the last two games of the Wolves' road trip — could have offered a nice bit of duality for Darko, a chance to prove turnabout's fair play by providing some fair play of his own. It didn't work out that way, though.
After not playing for eight days, receiving DNP-CDs against the New Orleans Hornets, Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers, and being removed from the active roster against the Phoenix Suns, Milicic returned to the mix following Pekovic's injury. It was an inauspicious return; he played just six "disappointing" minutes in Sunday's loss to the Sacramento Kings, then went right back on the inactive list for the Wolves' Monday night win over the Golden State Warriors.
When Minnesota rolled into Texas on Wednesday to take on the Southwest Division-leading San Antonio Spurs, Darko "remained on the sideline and out of favor" with Adelman, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
"He hasn't done anything to really give you a lot of faith that he's going to go out and do the job," Adelman said of Milicic. "He's gotten himself out of shape. He hasn't been as driven as you'd like so when a situation like this happens, it's time for someone to have their opportunity and get back in there. Today, [Derrick Williams is] going to get his chance and Anthony Randolph is going to get his chance and we'll see if any of those guys can step up."
The numbers, not surprisingly, support Adelman's assessment.
In 29 appearances for Minnesota this year, Milicic has posted his worst Player Efficiency Rating since being a woebegone and towheaded teenage mutant ninja Piston. His per-minute production in every category is down from last year, and it wasn't very good last year. His individual defensive performance on isolation and post-up plays has been OK this year — he ranks 93rd and 79th in the league, respectively, on defending those kinds of plays, according to play-by-play data from Synergy Sports Technology — but he's not a lockdown stopper, especially when he's not really trying. If he's out of shape and not hustling on D, Milicic pretty much gives Adelman nothing.
As a result, Darko stayed stapled to the Minnesota bench as the short-handed Wolves trotted out a small-ball lineup heavy on Love, Williams and Anthony Tolliver. And proceeded to get smoked.
Not that Darko would've made much of a difference there, of course. Sure, the version of Darko that the Detroit Pistons hoped to see when they drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft — the legit 7-footer with range, touch and flow — might have. But that dude has never actually existed in real, tangible form in the NBA. Just in Chad Ford's projections and Joe Dumars' dream sequences.
The version that Minnesota general manager David Kahn thought he was getting when he signed Darko to a four-year, $20 million extension back in 2010 would have helped, too. That rangeless, touchless, flowless 7-footer — whose once-boundless potential was well-bound by that point, but could still clog up the middle, protect the rim pretty well and pass it a little bit (albeit nowhere near as well as the GM thought) — could've been useful against a Spurs team that grabbed 17 offensive boards, outrebounded the Wolves 56-41 and attempted 43 shots at the tin.
Of course, that guy was never really there, either. Save for a stretch of sound defense as a 21-year-old with the Orlando Magic in 2006-07 and a more solid all-around turn as a 23-year-old with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008-09 — both of which came in a reserve's minutes and neither of which really indicated a starter's potential — Milicic has never actually "done anything to really give you a lot of faith that he's going to go out and do the job."
He's not very good from the field or the line. He doesn't rebound well for a center. Kahn's delusions aside, he never passed well enough to be compared to former Adelman frontcourt linchpins like Chris Webber, Vlade Divac or Brad Miller. His career offensive win shares number — an estimate of how many wins a player has contributed, based solely on his offense, since entering the NBA — is negative. And he'll never be a Ben Wallace or Metta World Peace type whose defensive contributions are excellent enough to overshadow spotty-or-worse offense.
That's why it was weird for Kahn to make a $20 million commitment to him, that's why Wolves fans were thrilled to see Pekovic take over the starting spot in the middle, and that's why no one batted an eyelash when Milicic didn't see the court for a week. And that's why, when Zgoda wrote that Adelman said he doesn't have much faith that Darko can go out and do the job, most readers probably thought something along the lines of, "No [EXPLETIVE], Sherlock."
Darko has had two things going for him throughout his eight-plus years in the league — his age and the fact that pretty much everyone needs a big guy to sop up minutes, even if he's a stiff. He turns 27, the age at which many (if not most) pro ballers reach their athletic peak, in three months, and the one coach who we hoped might have the key to unlock his dormant potential — as A Wolf Among Wolves' Benjamin Polk wrote before the season, Adelman "seems like Darko's last chance" — has no faith he can do the job.
Maybe Adelman's comments and decision are meant as a motivational ploy to shake the Serbian center from his doldrums, as SB Nation's Scott Schroeder suggests, but that feels kind of like wishful thinking at this stage of the game, and I'm all out of pennies with no wells in sight. Kahn's foolish extension probably means Darko will hang on to his job for one more year, but the deal's not guaranteed for 2013-14, so it feels for all the world like it's all over but the shoutin'.
Some of us probably still want to believe, but the time has come for putting away childish things; we'll never see a Darko that matters. Faith is a strong, resilient thing, but you can't keep it forever.