The Darko Milicic Era is just about over in Motown.
SPECIAL MIDWEEK EDITION Darko redemption? It's Magic
Assuming you can call this an era: 152 points and 551 minutes logged in 95 NBA games over 2½ seasons.
The decision to draft Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade has been and will continue to be called a mistake -- and worse -- but GMs all over the NBA map will be wishing their failed gambles turned out as well Joe Dumars' Darko experience . . . provided this trade with Orlando goes through.
Barring the collapse of a deal that would bring Kelvin Cato's expiring contract and a 2006 lottery pick to Detroit, sending Milicic to Orlando will create the salary-cap space that allows the Pistons to re-sign Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups without a blink. It'll also give the Pistons another lottery pick to probe for a better selection than Darko proved.
There are worse fates.
Especially when you remember that, while Darko wasn't doing anything remotely era-worthy, Detroit won a championship . . . and came within one win of back-to-back titles . . . and made the decision to move him before the Feb. 23 trading deadline at a time when the Pistons rank as no worse than a co-favorite for this June's Finals with San Antonio.
Standard NBA logic dictates that you'd rather have 'Melo, Bosh or Wade more than anyone on the Pistons' roster, but standard NBA logic doesn't apply to the Dee-troit Starting Five. You view them as an ensemble in pretty much every scenario, which means the Pistons might be looking at an even more complicated situation than the one they face now had they drafted one of those three instead of the brooding Serb who had more hairstyles than memorable on-court moments as an understudy to the Wallaces.
When Detroit does re-sign Big Ben and Chauncey, it'll have taken the bold (and expensive) step of committing an average salary of at least $10 million to five players. That's why Milicic -- like Mehmet Okur before him -- was always likely to be moved in the summer at the latest if something didn't materialize at the deadline. Even if he had cracked Flip Saunders' rotation, which sadly didn't come close to happening, Detroit couldn't afford to sign Milicic to a contract extension given the tab for the five starters.
That's also why, even if they had drafted 'Melo, Bosh or Wade, it wouldn't necessarily be easier to choose a future course. Unless Pistons owner Bill Davidson was prepared to pay some serious luxury-tax bucks, Knicks-style, he'd eventually have to part with one of the young studs or someone in the hallowed starting five. Given how revered the Pistons' starters are in Detroit, that is no simple dilemma.
NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com on Tuesday night that only one detail could unhinge the deal now -- bartering over the level of protection Orlando secures on the 2006 first-round pick it's parting with.
Yet sources also say that the Magic's front-office tandem of Otis Smith and Dave Twardzik, still smarting from 2005 first-round pick Fran Vazquez's decision to spend this season in Spain, are nonetheless eager to inherit Dumars' gamble. They want to pair Milicic's face-the-basket instincts with franchise forward Dwight Howard's power game and see what kind of partnership develops. Throw in a favorable Steve Francis deal, a healthy Grant Hill and a Vazquez change of heart -- OK, granted, all that requires a lot of finger-crossing -- and Orlando's dreary outlook improves.
The first step there, of course, is a mood upswing from Darko. He has to take responsibility for the total lack of grit he consistently transmitted while surrounded by the game's hard-hat kings. There were some promising signs in training camp with Saunders replacing the unforgiving Larry Brown, but Darko's willingness to fight for minutes faded quickly. It has become clear in recent weeks that he's simply waiting for the chance to go somewhere fresh.
It hasn't exactly been a happy place for NBA folks since a certain S. O'Neal left town a decade ago, but maybe a move to the Magic Kingdom -- where Darko would find no unhappy memories and only one star power forward in the same locker room -- can transform the 20-year-old into something closer to what so many of us projected.
AP Photo/Gregory Smith
Will Magic big man Dwight Howard soar even higher with Darko Milicic on his side? Maybe the reluctant Fran Vazquez will join in.
Five questions with Heat forward Antoine Walker:
Q: Why, as a free agent, did you push for a sign-and-trade to Miami?
A: It's a great situation. It's a great opportunity. I got an opportunity to play with Shaq and Wade. It's a great opportunity to win a championship. This is my 10th year and I have a lot of individual accolades, but I've never won a title. Trying to win a title, that's my sole reason for coming here.
Q: Has the team's up-and-down start or coming off the bench made you question that decision at all?
A: We're in first place in our division. We haven't put it together against the top teams, but we've still got 30-something games to get to a championship level. I haven't questioned my decision. This is my first year here, man. We've only been together for 50 games.
Q: Has it been harder than you thought for this group to establish a chemistry?
A: This group just got together. You can say a lot of things, but we had to play [almost] 20 games with Shaq.
Q: We've heard Pat Riley and some of your teammates plead for a greater sense of urgency in the regular season. Is the problem that Detroit got off to such a good start that, deep down, you guys know you're pretty much locked into the No. 2 seed?
A: We're not where we want to be, but we've got 30-something games to get ready for the playoffs. Whatever opinions people want to have at this time, so be it.
Q: Is there enough time this season for this team to go on a championship run? Is that a reasonable expectation for your first year together as a group?
A: Why is it not possible? The Indianapolis Colts, everyone thought they were going to win the Super Bowl, right? They didn't win that, did they? We don't know what the future holds. Do we feel like we have a championship-level team right now? No. But we feel like we've got 30-something games to get ourselves right.
Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:
Seth (Houston): I was thinking this would be the best Monday of the 2005-2006 season. I thought I would come back from lunch and see my Mavs in the top spot. I thought you were going to make some trite statement about the committee (of one) making a call it should have made two weeks ago and Big D standing for defense . . . yada, yada, yada. How could you ever get something so wrong?
Brandon (College Station): Why can't we get the rodeo in Dallas? With the five-day layoff dished out to San Antonio during this eight-game trip, what team wouldn't want its own rodeo? What's so special about winning three games in a row, then having time to fly to the moon and back and then winning five more games on the road against terrible teams. Since when does one team get two All-Star breaks?
Brandon (Detroit): I think I'm becoming less insane this season. I partially agree with you dropping my beloved Pistons down a couple of notches. Are they really getting tired? Is my life really over? You cannot deny that they still have the best record in the league. Maybe dropping them one spot would suffice. But, then again, you are the committee. I only half-hate you now.
Erik (Cleveland): While I don't dispute where you have the Cavaliers this week, I am getting tired of always seeing you write about "the second-half collapse" like it's something that is guaranteed to happen. There will be no second-half collapse this season; it's a totally different team. So find something else to write about.
Scout283 (Plainview, Texas): Guess your rankings are suspect again since the Spurs took it on the chin against the Cavs. Your comments about Dallas said it best -- look at their record against the elite teams of the league. One of these days, the East Coast media will give the Mavs the respect they deserve.
(Ed's note: One of these days this will sink in, since this is at least the 10th time I've written this: I live in a Western Conference city and have lived in a Western Conference city every season but one of my 13 seasons covering the NBA. Sorry to disappoint, but there are no regional biases here at Stein Line HQ.)
Ray Allen is going to Houston to play in the All-Star Game; Michael Redd is not. Allen called Redd to give him some support. And then their respective teams squared off in Milwaukee . . .
Ray's Old Home
D. Lippitt/Einstein/Getty Images
Like his predecessor, Detroit coach Flip Saunders couldn't find time for Darko Milicic in the potent Pistons lineup.
Quote of the Day
-- Shaq, after scoring 25 points in a win over the Magic, has now scored a combined 41 points in the first halves of his last two games.
Drew (Chicago): Who do you see rounding out the last two playoff spots out west? A healthy Rockets team could do some damage in the second half. The Lakers are as good as Kobe. Memphis? Golden State?
Marc Stein: We talked about this Saturday night on NBA Fastbreak. Even though Houston and Sacto have the vets, and thus can't be counted out, I don't see the Grizz slipping all the way out of the top eight because of their D. And I just have a feeling that Kobe and Phil can get the Lakers to No. 8 with help from a favorable schedule. The other spot, on this scorecard, goes to the Hornets.
I'm gullible enough to believe they're going to keep doing what they're doing. I know what Bucher said in his chat yesterday and it's tough to argue with the logic. Once we get into March and April and these kids start feeling the weight of expectations, they'll be ripe for some folding. But I'm going to take the opposite view and back the Hornets to hang on. Going 3-0 without the Rookie of the Year, especially given how the Hornets beat the Wiz last night in a game that looked over, has obviously swayed me.
Meir (Miami): I would have said the same about the Heat's heart -- until Sunday, that is. But we were both wrong and now you have to admit that. One game doesn't change everything that came before, but you predicted that Sunday's game vs. Detroit would be no different. Maybe this spark can set them ablaze. My only fear is that they now believe even more in their ability to "turn the switch on" come playoff time.
Marc Stein: Sorry, Meir. Don't feel a need to admit anything. Shaq himself said it -- any team can do it once. I need to see what Sunday does for the Heat from here. As you mentioned, one potential consequence is that they believe even more in their ability to flip the switch and coast through the rest of the regular season.
Why do I (and Riley, incidentally) keep harping on this? Because some of us have been around long enough to know that a brand new team isn't going to beat a well-oiled machine like Detroit four times in the playoffs without some cohesion of their own. The Heat can't "turn it on" in the playoffs because this edition of the Heat hasn't established an "on."
These aren't the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. We knew those guys had an "on." Even after getting Shaq's best game of the season and an otherworldly flurry from D-Wade at the finish, they were a wide-open Tayshaun triple away from losing at home anyway. If they can put together another good game or two against Detroit, maybe that will give them a bit of base to work from in the playoffs.
If I regret anything about Friday's Heat critique, it's that I didn't separate Wade from the group when talking about Miami's soulless season so far. Wade has been brilliant and, sadly for him, overshadowed by his team's indifference.
One last Heat point: Did anyone else notice that, in the fourth quarter, almost all of the big-name newcomers were spectators: Toine, J-Will and Posey? We've only been saying it since July: If Miami is going to beat Detroit, Shaq and Wade have to have the ball. Which is why I preferred tweaking the cast around them to a major overhaul.
A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:
Highest Rise: No. 13 Washington Wizards
Steepest Fall: No. 21 Philadelphia 76ers