Should the Detroit Pistons have spent the No. 2 pick in the
2003 NBA Draft on Carmelo Anthony, possibly affecting team chemistry for the
eventual champions but getting a much better player in the long run? Did
Pistons coach Larry Brown irreparably retard Milicic’s development by resigning
the young 7-footer to the bench for his first two seasons? Was Milicic even
that good to begin with?
As Milicic enters his 10th NBA season with his sixth team,
though, he brings with him to Boston two incontrovertible truths.
Fact No. 1: Based on his track record, Milicic was a
terrible choice for the No. 2 pick in 2003.
Fact No. 2: Independent of his draft position, Milicic is
not altogether terrible as a pickup for the Celtics.
It is difficult to have any discussion regarding Milicic
without the context of where he was drafted. That really is everything, of
course. No one would remember Sam Bowie if he had not been drafted ahead of
Michael Jordan in 1984, and Kwame Brown would not be the subject of so much
derision had he not been taken directly before Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol in
2001. Milicic was the second overall pick, after LeBron James but ahead of
Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and by comparison he has been a definitive
Yet the version of Milicic that joins the Celtics is not the
same version that was a wasted draft pick in 2003. He looks the same, has a
similar 7-foot, 250-pound build and is still relatively young at 27 years old.
He is on a one-year contract for the veteran’s minimum, nowhere near the
guaranteed multi-year deal he garnered as a top-two draft pick and well short
of the four-year, $16-million deal the Timberwolves are still paying after
waiving him via the amnesty clause this summer. Whatever was expected of
Milicic nine years ago is irrelevant. He is now a minimum-salary player
providing insurance behind Kevin Garnett and Chris Wilcox — essentially another
Jason Collins only more Serbian.
Anyone wondering if Milicic will resurrect his career in
Boston or whether he will finally realize the ample potential he showed as an
18-year-old can stop wondering, because he will not. The versatile
forward-center who inspired visions of a young Arvydas Sabonis is gone,
replaced by a fairly cookie-cutter frontcourt role player — competent in
stretches, impactful in spurts but quickly exposed if left on the court for too
long. For much of his career, Milicic’s per-minute statistics suggest a
top-of-the-rotation big man — 11.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes for
his career is more than serviceable compared to a lot of backup centers — but
the fact that he has never averaged more than 24.4 minutes per game implies
that those solid per-minute numbers are largely a product of shrewd
substitution patterns by his coaches.
Still, there are no bad one-year, minimum-salary contracts. If Milicic turns out to be a find, the Celtics will have him cheap. If he fails to pan out, they can stick him on the bench of even waive him without their payroll taking a major hit.
Milicic has never averaged more than 8.8 points and 6.1
rebounds in a given season. If he posted similar numbers this year, the Celtics
would probably hate it, because that most likely would mean Garnett was injured
and Wilcox was ineffective or hurt. This is not an opportunity for Milicic to
become the star he once appeared capable of being. This is merely an
opportunity for him to keep playing against the top basketball competition in
the world, contribute to a team with championship aspirations and to continue
to be a solid, capable, professional veteran presence in the NBA for at least
one more year.
Those are expectations he should be able to fulfill.