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The Darko Dilemma

Editor’s Note: Brett Koremenos is a guest writer for CelticsHub. You can find his other work at HoopSpeak.com or follow him on Twitter. 

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.

  • Tiny Archambeault

    Yeah. He's awful and already an embarrassment to the uniform. Hopefully he self-destructs amusingly.

  • Josh

    As much as I want to be a glass half full, I totally agree with Brian. Danny and Docs short leash for young talent (minus Rondo) pisses me off. I hope Darko gets released or traded and we can give some minutes to Melo and/or Sullinger. Give me even Wilcox over Darko.

  • jbeumer

    Well, that's an opinion.

    The feeling I get from this article is that the author had a point that he wanted to make (Teams should spend more time and roster spaces on trying to bring along young players instead of hiring veterans that they know have failed. (Current opinion on wages of wins)), and he tried to force this particular signing into something he could use as an example. I have a feeling that he does not know the Celtics organization or Fab Melo very well.

  • ElRoz

    With Wilcox and Collins why do we assume that Dark will get significant minutes?

    I would love for Doc to give young talent more playing time, but I have a little voice that tells me to check my strange confidence that I know this game as well as Doc!

    If Doc feels a certain way about an NBA player (Melo) needing to develop more, I go with Doc.

  • Chief

    Excellent article, I felt exactly the same when we signed darko, and while I can understand that we needed some extra depth at center, I just can’t help to think that those minutes could’ve been valuable to fab’s development.

  • BDFrance

    Agree with the post from jbeumer: the author has a hammer (develop younger players) so every team situation starts to look like a nail. In reality the Celtics are in "win now" mode with Garnett and Pierce so having veteran options like Wilcox, Darko, and Collins makes sense. Throwing Fab Melo into the water to see whether he can swim does not make sense for the Celtics in 2012-1.3

  • howardavellino

    Can anyone elaborate on these supposed "appalling habits" with which Darko is afflicted?

    I feel compelled to point out that this is a twefth-man signing. It's a one-year deal, at the minimum possible salary (a portion of which is paid by the league). If Darko is bad, Doc won't play him. If Darko sucks, or is an attitude problem or whatever, they'll cut him. They haven't cut ties with Melo, and can always switch to him if they want to. I see it as an extremely low risk signing. And I genuinely don't get the hostility.

  • gregbert

    Just saw Darko at a restaurant near the Celtics training facility in Waltham. He looks like he has spent the last few months in the gym.

    I think Darko was signed because Danny have a well founded fear that Fab is likely not going to contribute — not this year, and perhaps not ever. Fabricio's summer league performance was a SERIOUS disappointment against mediocre talent.

    Yes, the Darko signing could be a risk to team unity — if not handled right — but I trust Doc and the veterans to keep him in line. Darko's ego must certainly have taken some hits — perhaps Boston is a place where he can regain some pride in his role.

  • skeeds

    This article makes a very good point. Even though I'm not sure every championship contender should take risks by investing in lower-talent development, (Spurs might, but the Lakers or Heat would never do that), it's frustrating that guys like Darko keep getting opportunities, when the world is full of great players never getting a break.
    Yes, veterans have their advantages, but up to a certain point. For every Darko, there's a guy like Printezis (best PF in the Euroleague), never offered a contract. Or a guy like Semih Erden, heading back to Turkey, because somehow, a kid drafted #60, who managed to be a contributor for the Celtics as a rookie and plays his heart out doesn't deserve a chance to make it, while Eddie Curry deserves a 10 year career and a championship ring. This is just sad….

    • GreenM&M

      why didn't we try to pick up Semi? He may not have a whole lot of talent but he has 10 times the heart of Darko and would be happy to fill ANY role Doc gives him!

      This is really a great post by Brian. I agree 100percent

  • CG12

    Melo is a project to such an extent that it won't do the team or him any good to throw him out there just to get some minutes. He was a project in college and his very limited overall bball experience. You need to position players for success, especially young guys finding their way. Just running Melo out there when he isn't able to contribute and his confidence may be shaky is much more likely to hurt him than help him.

    Darko is depth and a reasoned gamble on a guy who still has some intriguing skills. Either he gets on board with the Cs program and they see what he can do, or he doesn't and they cut him without a moment's hesitation. Melo wouldn't play in front of Wilcox, or even Collins, for that matter. Wilcox is the backup center. Collins, Darko, or both will get spot minutes based on health and match-ups.

    • C'eattle Fan

      Right on the mark with your assessment. Basically, a no-lose proposition on signing Darko, with considerable upside advantage on a skilled, but emotionally fragile & beaten-down player who had the opportunity to see "fringe-life" this summer when nobody called after he was run out of 'Sota. So, he's definitely had his scare of not being in the best league in the world & obviously wants to prove wrong all the naysayers. I can't think of a better environment to extract & capitalize on his talents than the C's, mainly given some valuable practice time with Doc & KG to build up his confidence. I hope (& I think he realizes it) Darko sees this opportunity as the golden one of his career to stick with an organization who's offering him a legit role, provided he's willing to show the necessary commitment & desire to make it work. The eternal optimist in me looks at this as Darko's last chance to make it in this league, which he takes advantage of because he's finally willing to throw aside his ego….and he ends up experiencing success as a solid starting center by year end….KG & co. get this guy believing in himself finally, he buys in to the culture, he bonds with the guys & it turns into somewhat of a rallying cry for the team to see this once ridiculed ("human match-stick") 7 footer start believing in himself & pound on guys. I think the way this team ticks, if they saw Darko absorb the lessons, put the work in & experience success, the entire team would feed off of it & view it as a group accomplishment…..they were the only ones who could get this guy right.

  • seminoleup

    Darko brings "crazy" to the Celtics when opposing teams attack the paint. The Sixers, Nets, Knicks, Bulls, and Heat have all either moved towards longer and stronger in the paint or have players that are driving to the hoop even when the defense is there, drawing contact and getting the call (Lebron). There had to be an upgrade for the Celtics, Darko is a proven shot blocker, blocking shots places him out of position for rebounds, but Darko does not back down in the paint and has more athleticism than Collins. This is "basic stuff." Great article but I still like the Darko signing for the Celtics.

  • jbeumer

    When Kendrick Perkins joined the Celtics in 2003-2004 he played in 10 games for a total of 35 minutes. Chris Mihm and Mark Blount played most of the minutes at the center slot. The Celtics protected Perkins until he got into NBA shape and learned the NBA game.
    I think the Celtics know how to do develope a young player better then the author of this article

  • Confused

    Training camp over? Has the season started? Didnt realize Darko was backing up KG.

    And was Fab so bad that the coaches spent their valuable time in training camp and the beginning of the regular season focused on Darko? Did Doc and Danny change their minds about their decision to let him grow into the backup role behind Garnett?

  • Andy

    This article is bullshit, Darko has proven himself as still a decent Center in the NBA, He got outplayed by a better Center in Pekovic last season who you will see become a top 10 Center this season (i guarantee that)…when Darko rotates in that team and KG is playing PF he will provide a great defensive presence on the court, people forget that Darko is one of the best shot blockers in the league…If u'd rather have Collins or Wilcox over Darko u must be crazy…A good pick up by the Celtics and all the skeptical C supporters that u'll get good value from him

  • gar

    Darko has had any number of tough breaks. He did not fit in with Detroit and just as he was peaking in MIN and playing some decent ball, they bring in a young stud. He is in great shape and if his knee can hold up he will be fine. He will be rewarded in Boston for playing defense. Saying that playing at NBA level for so many years does not mean anything is ridiculous. All you have to do is look at what marginal NBA players are able to do in the Olympics. It is the same in any field. I would take someone who has worked in one of the top firms any day because they know what is expected and they know to contribute at a high level.

  • Chris in Danvers

    Interesting article. While the overall point is well taken – some teams pass on a younger player who could develop over an aging veteran – I don't think the Darko signing represents that for three important reasons.

    1. Darko is still young. Sure, he has been in the league since 2004. However, at 27, he still has a good 8 years left in the league. He can still develop. While this may seem like "one man's trash is another man's treasure," the Celtics do have a knack of helping underdeveloped or minimal talent find a niche (e.g. Tony Allen, Delonte West, Greg Steimsma, and Leon Powe among others). It is exceedingly possible that the Celtics could do this yet again.

    2. You can never have enough big men. If the past two seasons have not proven this to people, then nothing will. Look back two years ago when Semi, JO, Shaw, and Perkins were all part of the big men group. It was considered a luxury. How did that work out???? Bringing in Darko is a luxury that the Celtics can afford at the veteran's minimum.

    3. Darko is better than the younger alternative. Sure, Melo may be able to develop. But, he is far better off developing in the D-League (ala Steimsma) where he will get the consistent minutes to develop into a player (again ala Steimsma). He won't get that on the Celtics this year. However, Darko has been a role player, is only one season removed from 8.8 pts and 5.2 rebs a game, and is easily interchangeable with the other backups.

    Honestly, I cannot see a negative here. In fact, if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But if it does, this gives the team at least 11 veterans who have played one season or more and have played a role on a team…not many teams can profess to have that.

    • Noze Bleeds Green

      I agree Melo is better off spending a year mostly in the D-League. Odds are injuries will clear some roster space for part of the season. JaJuan Johnson almost had his career killed spending a year without playing time or practice, but with the C's too thin to send him to D-league.

  • DaveM

    All a young player like Melo can do is give it 100% every practice, improve their skills to the point where they are NBA ready, and have the attitude that eventually the day will come where they will have the opportunity to show they can play at the NBA level and take full advantage of that opportunity. That is something Darko has not been able to do in his decade in the league. Hopefully, he serves as an example to the young Celtics on how NOT to do it.

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