The Tao of Darko: Why can't he help the Celtics?

The Tao of Darko: Why can't he help the Celtics?
October 9, 2012, 4:20 pm
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On October 30, short of injury or international incident, Darko Milicic will become the sixth Top 2 NBA pick to play for the Celtics in last the 20 years.

Thats very likely the most random sentence youll read all week, but just for fun, in the name of randomness, can you name the other five?

Once again, were looking for five players who were drafted either first or second overall, and played for Boston sometime between 1992 and Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals

Ill give you a few minutes to think.

OK, so in chronological order of their Celtics debut, weve got . . .

Pervis Ellison: The No. 1 pick in the 1989 Draft, Big Perv played in Boston from 1995-2000. He was often injured, appearing in only 69 games over his last three seasons with the Cs, but to Ellisons credit, his hair was always stupendous.

Kenny Anderson: The No. 2 pick in the 1991 Draft, Anderson played four seasons for the Celtics (1998-2002). The Green didnt get the best years of Kennys career, but he still played a key role in Bostons run to the 2002 Conference Finals and single-handedly kept at least four local Bentley dealerships in business.

Gary Payton: The No. 2 pick in the 1990 Draft spent the 2005 season in Boston. The Glove averaged 11.3 points and 6.1 assists per game, and is still the only player in Celtics history to be traded for, then traded and then signed as a free agent in the same season. I think.

Michael Olowokandi: The No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 Draft, the Kandi Man was a smooth criminal who dominated the paint in Boston from 2005-2007.

And finally, Shaquille ONeal: The No. 1 pick in the 1992 Draft, ONeals Celtics career spanned a mighty 37 games, and he once posed as a statue in Harvard Square.

In the words of Tony Kornheiser: Thats it. Thats the list. And while on the surface, these five guys have little to no connection aside from similar draft position and mostly forgettable stints with the Cs, their respective careers pretty much run the gamut of reality when it comes to Top 2 picks.

First, theres Shaq, arguably one of the Top 10 players in NBA history, and easily one of the most dominant. Hes your best-case scenario right up until he signs with the Lakers.

A stepmany steps below Shaq, theres Payton a future Hall of Famer; one of the greatest point guards, competitors and all-around defenders of his era. The Glove never won a title on his own, but snagged a late ring off the bench for the 2006 Heat.

Beneath Payton, albeit significantly, theres Anderson. Kenny (along with Derrick Coleman, although it didn't help that they lost Drazen Petrovic) never fulfilled expectations in New Jersey, but he still had a respectable career. Anderson averaged 17.8 points and 8.8 assists from 1992-97, and averaged double figures for eight straight years (1992-2000). He never won anything, and should never be mentioned in the same breath as Payton, but you can do a lot worse than Kenny Anderson with a Top 2 pick.

For instance, Pervis Ellison, who averaged 20 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game in 1992 on his way to winning the NBAs Most Improved Player award but then saw his career derailed by injury (knee and otherwise). He played more than 60 games only once over his final eight seasons, and finished with career averages of 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. (However, by all accounts, he was never nervous.)

And finally, theres the Kandi Man. Olowokandi wasnt quite as bad as history will remember. A major project coming out of Pacific, he averaged 8.6 points, eight rebounds and 1.6 blocks over his first four seasons with the Clippers. He also played in more games and registered more career minutes than Ellison while struggling through a similar array of knee injuries. But the Kandi Mans career (perhaps due in large part to his association with the Clippers and the fact that his nickname was The Kandi Man) will always be a much more powerful punch line. His name is forever synonymous with NBA bust.

There are obviously many more intermediate levels on the spectrum of Top 2 picks, but Id say that these five guys have you pretty much covered from top to bottom . . .

And that brings us back to Darko.

As I type, Milicic's legacy is cemented within the depths of Kandi Land. He's an absolute bust. Not only when compared to the players he was drafted in front of (Melo, DWade, Chris Bosh), but by any standard of measure in NBA Draft history. Over nine NBA seasons, he's averaged six points and 4.2 rebounds a game. He's failed at five different stops (Detroit, Orlando, Memphis, New York and Minnesota) along his NBA trail.

Over that time, on top of his minimal production, Darko's also become a very angry man. A man you might not want hanging around your team. A man who once publicly threatened to have sex with a referee's mother (and daughter!) after Serbia was knocked out of the 2007 FIBA World Championship.

He's really become the total package.

Yet, here we are or most of us, at least two games into the Celtics preseason, and feeling like Darko Milicic has finally found a home in Boston. We're thinking and saying the same things they did at various points in Detroit, Orlando, Memphis, New York and Minnesota, before the crap hit the fan and Darko was off to his next endeavor.

We've heard the stories. We know the background. Yet, after two measly preseason games, we're starting to believe in Darko Milicic.

Why?

First, because unlike Ellison and Olowokandi, injuries have never been a major issue for Darko at least nothing that's affected him in the long term. Maybe that's because he's still only 27 (basically only a year older than Rondo), but whatever the reason, Darko's still every bit the physical specimen he was when came into the league. If anything, his presence is more imposing now than it's ever been. He might be one of the strongest, most immovable objects in the league.

Aside from his size, it's also clear that Darko understands the game. He might not be able to execute it all the time, but unlike some past Celtics back-up centers (aka Mikki Moore and Ryan Hollins), Milicic has a brain.

Take this pass in the Celtics first game against Fenerbahce Ulker:

That's a smart, heady play. If Rondo had done that, it would have been on Plays of the Week. Sure, it's just one little tip pass, but it displayed a level of basketball instinct that you don't see every day in seven-footers. And while we obviously have to factor in the competition, Darko also proved to be an aggressive rebounder and solid post defender during EuroCeltics action.

Finally, you're not worried about him being a locker room cancer, because that's just not possible. You really think the Celtics are going to allow their ninth man, who's playing for the veteran minimum, to have any negative effect on what they're trying to do?

The second that Darko becomes a legitimate issue off the court (that is, if he ever does), one of two things will happen.

1) The Celtics will show him the door, regardless his guaranteed contract. Worst-case scenario, they put him on the inactive list with a BS back injury and pay for his flight back to Serbia.

2. He's mauled to death by Kevin Garnett.

Take your pick, but know that Darko is not going to kill this team's chemistry.

We put all that optimism together and can't help but ask the question:

Why can't Darko help the Celtics this year?

Why can't he come off the bench for 13-15 minutes a night, rebound, protect the middle, block some shots, bust some heads and make Boston a better team?

It all comes down to managing expectations.

There's no doubt that much of Darko's anger stems from the belief that he never got a fair chance in the NBA: "I've said it 10,000 times, the best way for me to improve is to play. All the work in practice and individual workouts can only help me so much," he said during his time in Detroit. There's no doubt that he's been affected by all the noise surrounding his standing among some of the biggest busts in NBA history.

But now that he's on the Celtics, Milicic needs to understand that no one cares.

He's not the Celtics problem. They didn't waste a Top 3 pick or ruin their cap to bring him on board. As for as Boston's concerned, he's a nameless seven footer, playing for the veteran minimum, who can rebound, block shots and just happens to be built like an African elephant.

"Our thing right now with Darko is to play forward," Doc Rivers said last week. "From being around for a short time, as a coach I can probably feel he's played his career backwards. He lives in the past a lot and we're trying to get him to live in the future."

That's all it is.

Despite a career filled with untapped potential and unmet expectations, Darko needs to let go and come to grips with the fact that it's over. For the first time in his career, there are no lofty expectations. Only a modest role, befit of an average NBA center. It's no longer about where he falls on the spectrum of Top 2 NBA picks, it's how he fits within the fabric of this Celtics team.

And right now, on paper, it looks like he might fit in pretty well.

Just because he was a miserable No. 2 pick doesn't mean he can't be a quality back-up center.

But he has to allow himself to get there.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine