PHOENIX - DECEMBER 15: Darko Milicic #31 of the Minnesota Timberwolves gets hit in the face by the ball as Steve Nash #13 of the Phoenix Suns loses control during the NBA game at US Airways Center on December 15 2010 in Phoenix Arizona. The Suns defeated the Timberwolves 128-122. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Hook remembers Darko Milicic, a Serbian gangster and basketball star, as he slinks off into the light.
The Minnesota Timberwolves needed to free up dollars to throw a fat four-year, $46.5 million offer sheet at Nicolas Batum. There were a number of options to get the necessary cap space, but the one that the Wolves chose was the option that included using the amnesty waiver clause on Darko Milicic.
The Serbian gangster had two years and $7.5 million guaranteed left on his four-year deal that was a part of the epic rush of the 2010 free agent period. Including Darko, four of the top five picks from the 2003 NBA Draft -- LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were the others -- were free agents in 2010. Only Darko stood on his own two feet and opted to meet the challenge of competing for a championship without forming a superteam. Like the stars of yesteryear, Darko doesn't team up with rivals for glory. He has confidence in his own abilities.
Shortly after Milicic committed to Minnesota by signing a four-year, $20 million deal in July 2010, the mastermind of the contract -- Wolves general manager and Twin Cities celebré David Kahn -- said that Darko's arrival via trade months earlier had been "Manna From Heaven." Media hogs (included NBA TV personality and one-time basketball player Chris Webber) chortled, but Kahn made a stirring defense of Darko. It is considered a great moment in basketball history and served as a wake-up call to all those who don't know. We revisit it now.
The reasons for optimism were obvious. Minnesota had been 1-17 with Darko as a starter in the 2009-10 season. Darko had averaged 8.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in that role. Milicic had a rebound rate comparable to that of fellow '03ers LeBron and Carmelo, even though they had access to the entire floor while Darko was primarily contained (due to footspeed and effort) to the immediate basket area. Why wouldn't Kahn be excitable when discussing Darko's great gifts? Why wouldn't he believe him to be Manna From Heaven?
Unfortunately, Kurt Rambis and the rest of the National Basketball Association ruined it all. Rambis was a dullard who didn't know how to properly build his system around Darko's magnetic skills. The man Kahn called the best passing big man since Vlade -- Vlade Divac? yes -- and Rambis could not run the offense through him enough. That 2010-11 season, of 47 big men who played at least 1,000 minutes and started at least 50 games -- so basically the starting power forward and center for most teams -- only 27 had higher assist rates than Darko's 9.9 percent. Darko was quite nearly average at passing for a big man. If Rambis knew what he was doing even a little bit, Darko could have ended up in the top 55th percentile at least, and well on his way to Vlade Status. (Among those ahead of Milicic in assist rate among big men: DeMarcus Cousins, the center Kahn passed up in '10 to take Wes Johnson, and Kevin Love, the Minnesota Timberwolf that Kahn should probably have been fluffing all along.)
Things devolved further when Rick Adelman executed a hostile takeover of the Timberwolves franchise, neutering Kahn's dream by giving the ball to his point guard (Richard Rubio) and best player (Love). How depressingly dull. Darko was eventually exiled to the bench, as Nikola Pekovic -- another Eastern European who does more traditional, uncreative center tasks like "rebound" and "defend" -- took over the starting spot. As the team is reshaped as "decent" instead of "abjectly horrible," Kahn had no choice but to end his dream of seeing Darko reach the stirring highs that great big men like Wilt, Russell and Kareem had before him.
But it's all for the best. Darko is no human victory cigar, and should not again be relegated to such a role. Heaven needs him too much. Go home, Manna, for your work here is done.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.