Darko Milicic: Honorable Mention (NBA)

DARKO MILICIC: ONCE A LOSER, ALWAYS A LOSER.

Serbia Kickboxing Darko Milicic

If Milicic roids up a bit, he might be able to star in Rocky VII: Drago vs. Darko.

Synopsis: With respect rankings on this site, I have tried to distinguish between absolute and relative failures. In my mind, the former describes a bust while the later describes a bad draft pick. Based on that distinction, Darko Milicic might be best described as a tweener. In retrospect, Milicic should have stayed longer in Europe prior to jumping into the NBA. However, thanks to an overzealous agent, excessive media hype, and a league willing to change its rules, he entered the draft as an underdeveloped 18-year-old. The following post explores Milicic’s disappointing career in terms of being a bust as well as a bad draft pick. As a tweener, Milicic doesn’t quite qualify as a Top 10 Bust. Yet, he still earned an Honorable Mention.


DARKO MILICIC: HONORABLE MENTION

In two previous posts, I described the circumstances which resulted in Pistons President Joe Dumars selecting 2003 #2 overall pick Darko Milicic. As a quick reminder, the Cavaliers started that draft by taking LeBron James with the #1 pick. With the second pick, the Pistons could have taken Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwyane Wade. However, they went with the unproven 18-year-old Serbian instead. Oops!

In my first post regarding Milicic, I commented that the Pistons made a really bad decision by overlooking three future Hall of Famers. In a separate post, I highlighted how Milicic’s underachievement could be tied to an agent who created unreasonable expectations for him, a league which declared him eligible too soon, and a team which didn’t know how to handle him. Regardless, Milicic can’t be completely absolved from his lack of success. Instead, he’s worthy of being a Top 10 Bust Honorable Mention.

To this day, I’m still unsure how Milicic could be drafted so high. It didn’t make sense to me when watching his selection on TV. After much research, it makes less sense to me today. Somehow we’re supposed to remember Milicic as a wunderkind would could hold his own against much older European professionals. If so, his stats didn’t support that claim.

DARKO MILICIC PRE-NBA EUROPEAN STATS
            Per Game Average
League Season Age Games FG% FT% Rebounds Blocks

Points

YUBA

2001-02 16 18 48.7% 64.5% 3.1 5.4
  2002-03 17 20 48.7% 67.6% 4.6 1.6

9.5

 

Total

  38 48.7% 66.9% 3.9 7.6
                 
NEBL 2003 17 10 61.4% 73.7% 7.0

14.2

At the time, the Yugoslav Basketball Association (YUBA) served as the top professional league in Yugoslavia (later Serbia and Montenegro). Meanwhile, the North European Basketball League (NEBL) included top club teams from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden and Finland. After a few years of expansion, the NEBL lost most of its teams to the Euroleague prior to the 2003 season. During Milicic’s one season in the NEBL, it only had four teams.

For at least some basis of comparison, I tracked down the stats of former YUBA player Nenad Krstic. As an 18-year-old during the 2001-02 season, Krstic averaged 8.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Based on these numbers (as well as his 6’11” height), the New Jersey Nets took him with the 24th pick of the 2002 Draft. With similar stats the following year, Milicic somehow generated enough interest to go 22 spots earlier. Milicic’s pre-NBA numbers don’t seem overly impressive for a 1st round pick, much less the #2 overall pick.

While trolling some obscure European basketball sites, I also found the stats from a junior European Tournament which included Darko Milicic and future NBA player Andris Biedrins.

2001 EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP FOR CADETS – DARKO MILICIC AND ANDRIS BIEDRINS STATS
(Now Known as FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship)
          Per Game Average
Player Age Games FG% FT% Rebounds Blocks

Points

Darko Milicic

15 yrs 10 mos 8 42.3% 38.7% 8.0 1.4 10.8
Andris Biedrins 15 yrs 0 mos 7 52.1% 34.1% 10.0 1.0

16.4

Although limited, this information led to two observations:

  1. Despite being almost one year younger, Biedrins outplayed Milicic in the most significant European tournament for junior players. Not surprisingly, both Milicic and Biedrins played in the Under-20 tournament in 2002. Whereas Biedrins averaged 6.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the tournament, Milicic rode the pine and didn’t get into any games. It’s hard to imagine Milicic as the best young phenom in Europe given his stats and/or lack of playing time.
  2. By connecting on fewer than 40% of their free throws, neither player took advantage of the charity stripe. Both of them improved with Milicic shooting 57.4% and Biedrins shooting 50.0% as NBA players. However, Biedrins absolutely fell apart and made less than 1 in 4 free throws over his last four years in the league. During the 2009-10 season, he only made 4 out of 25 free throws (16%) while playing for the Golden State Warriors and Head Coach Don Nelson. How poetic that the coach who invented “Hack-a-Shaq” would have a player who made Shaquille O’Neal look like Steve Nash.
free throw

Come on Andris – you can do it.

CHAD FORD – MILICIC’S BIGGEST FAN

Despite Milicic’s mediocre numbers, ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford became his biggest fan. In January 2003, Ford wrote a glowing article about Milicic that likely influenced the NBA’s decision to lower its age restriction. In turn, teams became more interested in the international phenom who caused the rule change. Given that Milicic lived 5,000 miles away, teams relied on the opinions of “draft analysts” more than they should have.

Showing his chops, Ford provided the following analysis.

European players, like most African-American players, are stuck with stereotypes. You know the code words. Skills, fundamentals, great feel for the game. Milicic is all of these things, but he’s not only these things. He’s fast, athletic and will dunk it in your face.

While some teams accepted this viewpoint, Grizzlies GM Jerry West disagreed and repeatedly questioned reports of Milicic’s talents. When recounting those conversations, Ford referred to West as a xenophobe. Really?!? I wonder who’s the real bigot.

Whether deserved or not, Milicic went second overall. Having just lost the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals,the Detroit Pistons didn’t need a lot of help. In fact, they had 3 All-Stars in Chauncey Billups at point guard, Richard Hamilton at shooting guard, and Ben Wallace at center. Furthermore, they had two promising rookies in Tayshaun Prince at small forward and Mehmet Okur at power forward.

In contrast to the other teams with a top five pick, the Pistons had won 50 games and at least one playoff series in each of the prior two seasons. Usually, rookies benefit from a situation in which they can develop gradually. Unfortunately, the reverse situation existed for Milicic. In particular, the team played so well that he never got meaningful time on the floor. Initially, Milicic couldn’t move ahead of Okur and 8-year veteran Corliss Williamson on the depth chart. When Dumars traded for Rasheed Wallace in February 2004, Milicic went even further down on the bench. As someone who only came in during a Pistons’ blowout, Milicic picked up the nickname “The Human Victory Cigar.” Ouch, that had to hurt.

DARKO MILICIC (“THE HUMAN VICTORY CIGAR”) –  ROOKIE STATS
    Per Game Totals
  Games FG % Minutes Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Points
Regular Season 34 26.20% 4.7 1.3 0.2 0.2 0.4 1.4
Playoffs 8 0.00% 1.8 0.4 0.1 0.1 0 0.1

Playing against other bench players during blowouts, Milicic still couldn’t deliver. In fact, his numbers were absolutely pathetic. With a field goal percentage of 26.2%, he ranked 425th out of 442 players that season. With respect to players with at least 50 shot attempts, Milicic finished dead last. Additionally, his average of 0.1 points per game in the playoffs ranked 175th out of 189 players who entered at least one playoff game. With respect to players who got on the court in at least eight playoff games, Milicic finished dead last.

In case you’re wondering what 1.4 ppg over 34 games equates to, Milicic scored 48 points during his entire rookie season. In comparison, #3 overall pick Carmelo Anthony surpassed that total after one week in the league. Don’t worry, Milicic increased his production by almost 40% in his second season when he scored 67 points in 37 games. In comparison, Anthony needed less than two weeks as a rookie to surpass the point total from Milicic’s first two seasons. Regardless, Darko has a ring from the 2004 NBA Championship. Eat your heart out, Carmelo!

LARRY BROWN – MILICIC’S BIGGEST HATER

Detroit Head Coach Larry Brown’s harsh treatment of Milicic is well documented. Of note, the coach beat up his rookie in practice and in the press. After keeping Milicic on the bench for the first 23 games of the 2003-04 season, Brown finally put him into a game with less than a minute to play in a blowout loss to Cleveland. In that game, he missed a dunk and had another shot blocked. I guess that’s how someone shoots 26% from the floor for a season. When asked about his rookie’s performance, Brown responded, “I wanted to see if he acted like he belonged. He acted like he was insulted.” Needless to say, Milicic didn’t help his cause to change Brown’s opinion.

Given the Pistons’ success, one could justify Brown’s treatment of Milicic as sacrificing an individual for the benefit of the team. Who knows? Perhaps Brown really tried to help Milicic toughen up and become the best player he could be. Then again, his teammates seemed to disagree.

Despite a title and another Finals appearance, Dumars fired Brown due to rumors about his coach’s search for greener pastures. With Brown gone, players opened up and publicly challenged their former coach’s approach. In an interview with WXYT in Detroit, Chauncey Billups offered the following quote.

He [Brown] tore the kid’s confidence apart too much, and it was tough for him to recover. … With (new coach) Flip (Saunders) there, maybe it’s different. (Brown) beat him up too much, man, to where he could never recover.

DARKO MILICIC – WORTH AN EXTENSION?

Milicic only scored 115 total points in his first two years in the league. Yet, the Pistons still exercised its option to pick up the 4th year of his rookie contract. As a result, his original contract increased from $11.6 to $16.8 million. In comparison, Portland picked up Greg Oden’s fourth year for $6.8 million after he had scored 773 points during two injury-plagued seasons. Based on these numbers, Milicic earned an extra $150,000 while Oden earned an extra $90,000 per point scored. Apparently, teams have a hard time understanding the concept of a sunk cost.

Despite the front office’s ongoing commitment, the new coach didn’t think Milicic deserved any more playing time than the old one. In fact, Milicic’s playing time decreased from 7 minutes to 5 1/2 minutes per game from his second to third season. To Dumars’ credit, he finally decided to cut his losses and traded Milicic to the Magic. During his time in Orlando, Milicic got more time on the court and showed the type of player he could be. With more consistent minutes, he settled in and produced similar numbers for the next seven seasons.

DARKO MILICIC NBA STATS – BY TEAM
      Per Game
Team Age Games Minutes Rebounds Assists Blocks Points
DET 18-20 96 5.8 1.2 0.2 0.5 1.6
ORL 20-21 110 23.1 5.1 1.1 1.8 7.9
MEM 22-23 131 20.6 5.3 0.7 1.3 6.4
MIN 24-26 122 22.7 4.8 1.3 1.6 7.7
Career* 18-27 468 18.5 4.2 0.9 1.3 6.0

* Note: Career totals include 8 games with the New York Knicks and 1 game with the Boston Celtics. The individual team statistics from those games are excluded because they’re not statistically relevant.

Once Milicic got off the bench, he delivered around 7.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 20 minutes per game. While those numbers are not impressive for a #2 overall pick, they were good enough for Milicic to get two lucrative free agent contracts totaling over $40 million. Simply based on the fact that he signed those contracts in spite of his appalling numbers with Detroit, it’s hard to call him an all-time bust.

Earlier in this post, I compared Milicic to two other 1st round picks (Krstic and Biedrins). All three, who played against each other as 7-foot teenagers in Europe, signed meaningful free agent contracts after fulfilling their rookie deals.

FREE AGENT CONTRACTS SIGNED BY DARKO MILICIC, NENAD KRSTIC AND ANDRIS BIEDRINS

 

 

Per Game Totals      
Player Age Points Rebounds Blocks Years Annual Salary

Total Contract

Darko Milicic

22 8.0 5.5 1.8 3 $7 MM $21 MM
Andris Biedrins 22 10.5 9.8 1.2 6 $9 MM

$54 MM

Nenad Krstic

25 6.6 4.4 0.4 3 $5 MM $15 MM
Darko Milicic 25 6.7 4.7 1.1 4 $5 MM

$20 MM

While there are no losers in the group, Krstic lost out because his numbers reflect his production in the year after recovering from a torn ACL.

krstic

Prior to the injury, Krstic was averaging 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game so the injury clearly had a negative impact on his production. Assuming he could have maintained his pre-injury numbers through the end of his rookie contract, he would have been as productive as Elton Brand was before signing a 5-year deal with the Philadelphia 76ers worth $18 million per year.

As the following table shows, the three European players had fairly similar NBA careers but only one is referenced as a bust.

NBA TOTALS FOR DARKO MILICIC, NENAD KRSTIC AND ANDRIS BIEDRINS
Draft Pick Team Player Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG Win Shares
2002, #24 NJN Nenad Krstic 419 4,210 2,261 346 10.0 5.4 0.8 21.5
2003, #2 DET Darko Milicic 468 2,813 1,971 405 6.0 4.2 0.9 7.1
2004, #11 GSW Andris Biedrins 516 3,247 3,631 467 6.3 7.0 0.9 30.7

In retrospect, Milicic was a reasonably productive NBA player who simply was drafted too high. Based on his career win shares, he was in the bottom 10% of all players selected with a 2nd-5th overall pick. In comparison, Biedrins was in the top third of players selected with a 11th-14th pick while Krstic was in the top quartile of all 1st round draft picks taken 22nd or later.

By simply looking at Milicic’s pre-NBA stats, I don’t think he was worthy of the 2nd overall pick; however, the “experts” thought differently (even though they now admit that their evaluation methods were flawed). As a quick aside, statistic analysis is taking over player evaluation because it works. Bringing some real world knowledge and expertise to the discussion, Billups offered his thoughts about the Pistons’ selection of Milicic for the 10th anniversary of the 2003 NBA Draft. In particular, Billups said, “If he [Dumars] had drafted either Melo or Bosh, I think maybe that whole team would still be together. We probably would have more championships down the road. But this is the NBA and things happen. But, of course, I always think about that.”

I could reasonably argue that the Pistons drafted Milicic too high or they mismanaged him to the point of making him exempt from being called a bust. Also, I could reasonably argue that he was too productive to be called an all-time bust. However, due to his poor attitude and his self-serving role in changing the NBA Draft eligibility requirements, Milicic deserves a Honorable Mention as a Top 10 Bust.

DARKO MILICIC: HONORABLE MENTION
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