I know, I know. It's too easy, right? Too obvious.
For that reason, I tried to talk myself out of Darko and into somebody else. I nearly chose Mike "The Amityville Scorer" James, except that James and Lindsey Hunter provided a great change-of-pace guard combination off the bench for the 2003-04 Pistons. Their defense was so destructive in short bursts that Rasheed Wallace nicknamed them "The Pit Bulls."
No, Mike James had his uses. He did.
Let's be honest with ourselves, shall we? There wasn't a less deserving NBA champ on that Pistons squad than Darko Milicic.
Darko will always be remembered for getting selected with the second overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, when he was infamously chosen ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. But why stop there? Because it gets worse. Here are some other players chosen after Darko: Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, David West, Kendrick Perkins, Leandro Barbosa, Josh Howard, Mo Williams, Kyle Korver.
All better than Darko, right?
There were even some decent roleplayers that came after him, like Nick Collison, Luke Ridnour, Boris Diaw, Travis Outlaw, Jason Kapono, Steve Blake, Zaza Pachulia. Hell, you could argue that Matt freaking Bonner has had a better NBA career than Darko. After all, Bonner currently has 22.9 career Win Shares. Darko has 6.9.
So forget whiffing on 'Melo, Bosh and D-Wade. It's like the Pistons could have randomly selected almost any other player in that draft class and ended up better off. But no. They selected Darko.
Darko, who became known far and wide as the Human Victory Cigar. Darko, whose life spawned a cult classic basketball blog. Darko, who despite being the second-worst second overall draft pick in NBA history (next to Sam Bowie) has somehow earned (and I use that term loosely) almost $40 million in salary and recently signed a contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves that will pay him another $20 million over the next four years. Like my old college roommate might say: Fuck me.
The Pistons got lucky, and they screwed their luck in the wrong hole without the benefit of any lubrication. Do you know how they even had the second pick in the draft that year? Because championship-caliber teams don't get lottery picks very often. It came to them courtesy of a 1997 trade with the then-Vancouver Grizzlies (who got Otis Thorp in return). And the Pistons knew how lucky they were. They did.
Said president of basketball operations Joe Dumars: "If you go back to any championship-contending team, they can point to something along the way where they caught a huge break. For the ball to come up No. 2 for us on lottery night was an incredible break. You've got to have that if you're going to take the next steps."
Said then-coach Larry Brown: "Any time you get the second pick in the draft, it's crucial that you get a player that is going to be a fixture, and a contributor and hopefully a star."
The funny thing about that last statement is that it came from Larry Brown, a coach who everybody knew had a reputation for neglecting (at best) or abusing (at worst) his rookies. Brown loves savvy vets who know the score. He hates raw players who need their hands held.
And see, Dumars either knew that or should have. So why would he pick the rawest of the raw players available? Detroit fans can thank Will Robinson for that.
Robinson was Dumars' assistant and the oldest scout in the NBA. At the time, his resume included the following: "He has been inducted into 24 Halls of Fame. He has coached the likes of Doug Collins and Spencer Haywood. He was the first African-American head coach in the history of NCAA Division I basketball."
Of Robinson, Dumars said: "Let me tell you something about Will Robinson. He's seen it all. You can't fool Will Robinson. Nothing gets by him."
Really, Joe? Really? 'Cause let's look at some of the things Mr. Robinson had to say about Darko:
"That's the type of kid you want to coach. If I was coaching him, we'd go to the moon."
"He's going to own the game. Own the game. We're going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman."
"I've seen a lot of kids come through here in my day," Robinson says. "And none of them have ever played like that. That kid's going to be a star. He's a 7-footer that plays like a point guard. That kid's something special."
So Dumars' most trusted advisor had history's biggest, wettest, sloppiest man-crush on Darko? Well then, I guess Joe's decision makes a little more sense then. Although even Dumars realized that Darko wasn't exactly superstar-ready.
Said Dumars: "Darko Milicic is not going to have to come here and be the savior. LeBron is going to have to be the savior in Cleveland, there's no getting around that. Carmelo is going to be expected to carry a huge load. We're going to push [Milicic] to be the best he can be. But, he's not going to be judged on whether he carried us this year. We think that's an excellent situation for him and for us."
Well, that's good, because Darko didn't carry anything except his teammates' bags. During his rookie year, Darko appeared in 34 games and logged only 159 total minutes...which equates to less than 3.5 48-minute games. There were only three games that season in which Darko saw 10 or more minutes. His season-high in minutes played was 12.
Conversely, he had seven games in which he played only one minute, another five games of two minutes, three games of three minutes, four games of four minutes and three games of five minutes. So in 22 of his 34 games, Darko played five minutes or less.
The second overall pick in a draft that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh! Sweet baby Jebus!
The thing is, the Pistons weren't the only ones who thought Darko was going to be a player. Utah coach Rick Majerus said: "He reminds me a lot of (Sacramento star) Chris Webber, but he's more skilled than Chris was at the same age (at Michigan). I love Darko's work ethic. We watched him play for five straight hours and then he played for more than another hour because he just loves the game. He's done a great job with his body by going from 220 pounds to 245 pounds in only one year."
I bet C-Webb was pissed. And I'm not even touching that last sentence.
Donn Nelson, the Mavericks' president of basketball operations, addressed comparisons between Darko and Dirk Nowitzki: "We saw Dirk as a multi-position player, but I think Darko is a pure (power forward). Darko doesn't shoot it from as far as Dirk does, but Darko is more dominant in the paint. Dirk is more of finesse player while Darko is more of a power guy. Obviously, we think the world of Dirk. But I would be very surprised if Darko was not a success in this league."
I hope Nelson has gotten over his shock by now.
Man, during his rookie campaign, Darko could have been the guest of honor at an ass convention considering how many NBA-related jokes he was made the butt of. But even as 'Bron, 'Melo and Wade were having strong rookie seasons, the Pistons stubbornly refused to admit they'd made a mistake. Dumars repeatedly insisted that Darko would be a huge part of the team's future...even as Brown struggled to remember the kid's name. "Derrick...? Durkel...? It's definitely a D-word. Oh, right, it's Dcoughcoughcough! That's it. I said it."
Darko's season-high in points was 6. His season-high in rebounds was also 6. His season-high in assists was 2 (he had only 7 total assists on the season). Darko averaged 1.4 PPG and 1.3 RPG. However, his worst stat was his shooting percentage, a dismal 26.2 percent. Wait, I thought he was dominant in the paint? His PER was 6.1. He also finished the season with -0.2 Win Shares, proving that he actually subtracted wins from an NBA champ.
Want some playoff numbers? Of course you do. During Detroit's run for the rings, Darko logged a total of 14 minutes in eight games, giving the Pistons 0.1 PPG, 0.4 RPG and 0.1 APG. His totals in those categories were 1, 3, and 1 respectively.
Want some advanced playoff stats? Of course you do. Darko's postseason PER was -14.8. That's right: -14.8. How does that even happen? Was he scoring for the other team? Tying his teammates' shoelaces together? Spiking their Gatorade with laxitives and human urine? Punching Larry Brown in the face? (No, that's just what he wanted to do.) His True Shooting Percentage was .087 and his Effective Field Goal Percentage was .000. He had -0.2 Offensive Win Shares, 0.0 Defensive Win Shares, and (obviously) a total of -0.2 Win Shares. So, again, he subtracted wins from the Pistons while they were winning a title.
And in case you were wondering: Yes, he was the only player on the team with negative Win Shares in the playoffs. Mind you, Chauncey Billups -- the clear-cut team leader and Finals MVP -- made $5 million in salary that season. Darko made $3.6 million.
Wait. I'm not done yet.
Darko appeared in exactly three Finals games, playing a total of five minutes. In those three games, he scored zero total points, dished out zero total assists, blocked zero total shots and grabbed 2 total rebounds while going 0-for-2 from the field and 0-for-2 from the line. He had Game Scores of -0.4, 0.0 and -0.8. That 0.0 represented his only non-negative Game Score in his eight playoff games.
And I'm still not done.
He was put in for what was described as a "token" appearance in the Pistons' Game 5 blowout of the Lakers. During that title-clinching game, Darko played 2 minutes, finishing with 1 rebound, 1 steal, 1 turnover...and 1 broken hand. Oh yes he did. The injury required surgury and sidelined him for eight weeks. So in the process of winning his first and only championship, Darko not only earned a spot among the all-time great Human Victory Cigars, but he also made the Basketbawful Dumb Injury Hall of Shame.
The only thing missing was him slipping on a banana peel and falling face first into a cream pie.
Things never really got any better for Darko after that. When Brown finally quit (as he always does), the Pistons brought in Flip Saunders, who had a rep for developing young players (such as Kevin Garnett). But nothing changed: Darko averaged 5.6 MPG under Saunders before getting shipped to Orlando for Kelvin Cato and a 2007 first round draft pick (Rodney Stuckey).
Darko was somewhat better for the Magic, but not much. However, he did give them this classic moment: A mid-game nipple rub:
Shockingly, the Magic still let him walk when his rookie contract expired. Even more shockingly, on July 12, 2007 -- the very first day of free agency mind you -- the Memphis Grizzlies (the franchise whose pick allowed the Pistons to get Darko in the first place) signed Milicic to a three-year, $21 million contract. What I want to know is: Who were they bidding against?! Oh, right. Nobody.
During his time with the Griz, Darko struggled with injury problems (first an Achilles tendon injury and then a a broken knuckle on his right hand) and crappy play. He would start and then get benched, start and then get benched, rinse and repeate. Darko couldn't even stay out of his team's doghouse during the offseason. As Basketbawful reader Mladen reminded me, after a 68–67 overtime loss to Greece in the EuroBasket 2007, went apeshit on the officials, threatening to "come back and f*** their mothers to all of them." Here's the video:
Said Wallace: "We're very displeased with Darko's actions and comments. It's an emotional situation playing in national competition, particularly with Serbia, because they take pride in having good teams. But Darko has to be in control of his emotions."
Yeah, right. Darko had his emotions so under control that he treated the Grizzlies to this classic moment: A Hulk Hogan-style jersey rip:
Despite that genuinely awesome Hulk-out, it soon became obvious, even to the Grizzlies, that Darko was never going to get any better...
Said Walsh: "When building a team, it is invaluable to have a skilled big man such as Darko. He is the type of player with strong high-post play that will complement Eddy Curry's low-post game. He will thrive in Coach D'Antoni's system."
I seriously hope Donnie was drunk or high when he said that shit. I mean, compliment Eddy Curry's game? Thrive in D'Antoni's system? It's like Walsh had been replaced by an alien who had never before seen this "earth basketball."
D'Antoni was just as delusional: "I am very excited about the possibilities with Darko. He has great size and the skills to really help us. He can run the floor really well, shoot and has a load of talent."
"Whatever happens, I'm going back [to Europe] next year. It's 100-percent certain. I have to be real and not lie. I'm not going to get it done in the NBA. I'm not going to get another opportunity and there's nothing wrong with going back to Europe. I don't want to create a bad atmosphere here, but it's not working in the NBA. I don't give a f*** about the money. I just want to enjoy the basketball. I'd like to have the ball in my hands and have an offense run through me. I'm not just a defensive player."
An offense run through Darko? That's a Basketbawful dream come true!
On February 17, 2010, in an effort to get him the hell out of New York before he went postal or something, the Knicks traded Darko (and cash) to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Brian Cardinal's corpse (and soon-to-expire contract). In 24 games with the T-Wolves, Darko averaged 8.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG and 1.4 BPG...which apparently was all it took for Minny to ship 20-10-50 guy Al Jefferson to Utah and sign Darko to a four-year $20 million contract. Again, this deal happened on the very first day of free agency. And the Timberpoops were bidding against exactly...nobody.
The bottom line: We have four more years of Darko jokes!
So...did the Pistons waste the pick they used to get Darko? Everybody thinks so. Even Darko himself:
They did! No, they did waste a pick, you know. Why did they take me? Who knows if I really had a chance to play like these players that play like Dwyane Wade or Carmelo, those guys are incredible players. So for me, being a second pick, I don't get why they didn't play me at all and, secondly, they did waste, you know? Why did they take me? You should take someone that they really think was gonna play right away because just taking someone to sit on the bench, you waste a pick and you waste the guy's time. You wasted my time for three years not playing so you f**k up a player and you f**k up yourself, and I just didn't get it. So I just didn't get it. I guess they thought they were gonna be champions forever. I don't know.
Now that's one seriously bitter dude.
But he has a ring.
Update! Bonus video: Courtesy of Basketbawful reader jim, here's the instant-classic "Manna from Heaven" interview with David Kahn, where Chris Webber bristles when Kahn tries to compare his career to Darko's.