When Darko Milicic signed with Boston it highlighted a glaring flaw in the way most NBA organizations approach developing their rosters. The Celtics weren’t the first teams to fall into the trap of bringing in a player that is unproductive or unemployable just because they are known commodities. But far too often, it seems, teams are overly optimistic about notorious malcontents and too easily swayed by veterans long in the tooth simply because they are familiar.
Sadly, these types occupy roster spots on contending squads across the league that unheralded young players are proving more and more capable of filling. This shouldn’t be a surprising a development, either. Younger players – assuming they possess a baseline of ability to compete in the NBA — can be easily asked to fill specific roles on teams that have their core parts already established thanks to their malleable games.
In some cases, these opportunities were created by injury (Kenneth Faried in Denver, Avery Bradley with Boston) or desperation (Jeremy Lin in New York). But in others, young players found a niche thanks to a predetermined effort by their organization to put them there. After the spark Bradley – and to a lesser degree, Greg Steimsma – provided this past year, it was quite a shock that Boston wasn’t more open to this idea as they attempted to fill the void in their rotation behind Kevin Garnett.
It’s certainly no secret the Celtics desperately need someone with size to hold the fort when Garnett is out of the game. And at 36, those rest periods are more valuable than ever. As we saw in last season’s playoffs, a well-rested Garnett is still a force to be reckoned with while a weary one — forced to play well over 30 minutes in multiple games — is merely mortal.
Milicic was signed because there is a chance he could shake the apathy that has hampered his career to this point and use his physical tools to provide an impact in that bench role. That sounds great in theory, but the reality is that entering his tenth year in the league, Milicic is likely to stay the same uninspiring performer he’s always been. Even if he possessed the fundamental requirements needed to change his approach – namely showing a palpable interest in the sport — reforming his appalling habits would take longer than a single year.
Instead of spending their valuable time in training camp and the beginning of the regular season trying to invigorate a lost soul, the Celtics should have focused their resources on a young player already in house: Fab Melo. The rookie big man, as David Thorpe alluded to could offer them much greater upside if the team remained steadfast about their decision to let him grow into the backup role behind Garnett. Showing that type of patience to a non-franchise altering prospect is incredibly rare in the NBA, but when awarded to a worthy youngster, it can still pay off handsomely.
Take for instance Danny Green’s emergence as an integral piece of the Spurs’ rotation puzzle last season. Green went from playing 28 games – total – in his first two seasons to starting 38 games during his first full campaign with the Spurs. Very few, if any, foresaw Green playing a role like this on the West’s best team in the regular season.
And it wasn’t by some random stroke of luck.
Once Green flashed the ability to provide defense and shooting in the Spurs spread pick-and-roll system, head coach Gregg Popovich seemed determined to make sure he developed. There was a particular stretch in January where Green shot a combined 0-13 yet played 60 minutes in two games against Memphis and Philadelphia. That month in general was rather unimpressive for Green as he shot just 36.6 percent from the floor. Yet, despite those struggles, he still averaged nearly 30 minutes a contest.
Not too many young players with less than a full season of experience get that kind of latitude. Most – thanks to the short-term, results-orientated thinking that dominates the NBA — find themselves facing a severe reduction in minutes, if they even see the court at all. But Popovich and the Spurs front office were committed to filling out a veteran-heavy rotation with youth, even if it meant losing games they should have won in the regular season.
That is the same commitment Doc Rivers and the Celtics could have shown Melo. Instead the Celtics allowed themselves to be lured by the siren song of Darko and with that decision they lost valuable minutes and repetitions to develop the callow Melo, who will likely need every second to add polish to his game.
And while Melo will be given time to grow in the D-League, it’s important to remember that not all minutes are created equal. Playing 35 minutes a night in a league dominated by the Blake Ahearns of the world isn’t the fastest way for a player likely to make his living on the defensive end of the floor to grow. A smaller — but still consistent — role facing the best offensive players on the planet on a nightly basis would offer much sharper feedback.
However, giving steady NBA minutes to Melo almost certainly means sacrificing a handful of regular season wins. With no feel for the professional game yet, Melo is sure to be downright dreadful for the majority of his first 50-60 games (maybe even the first 70). But those games possibly costing the Celtics home-court advantage for a playoff series won’t matter if Melo rewards the team’s commitment to him by developing into a shot-swatting force come playoff time.
But whether Melo, or any other NBA greenhorn, could grow that much in a single season is a major unknown. Milicic at least brings recognizable traits, even if most of them are undesirable. In league that finds comfort in the familiar, that’s all it takes.