I recently read an article on ESPN.com by LZ Granderson about how his soul was ripped out of his body the day the Pistons drafted Darko Milicic. Or maybe it was just slowly ripped out over the last two years after being witness to D-Wade, Melo, and Chris Bosh take over the league. The Pistons could’ve had anyone other than LeBron but instead took the tried and not true “European big-man” route. Before I get any further into this, I want to remind everyone that nobody had a problem with the Pistons taking Darko at the time. In fact, I remember there was some talk in the months leading up to the draft that some teams around the league would have taken Darko over LeBron. Whether that was an attempt to scare Cleveland out of taking LeBron is unknown. Nonetheless, the Darko pick only became a bad pick after he failed to garner playing time which is something that Joe Dumars said he wasn’t going to get when he drafted him. As a result, the Darko experiment never had a chance of working in the first place. Nobody knew if Darko was good when he was drafted and, believe it or not, nobody knew if he was good when he was traded to Orlando. Joe Dumars failed to follow through with his own plan. He mortgaged the future on a plan that he gave up on. That is, by far, the biggest criticism I have of Dumars’ tenure in Detroit. That decision cost the Pistons Mehmet Okur and Wade/Anthony/Bosh. Reading that last sentence makes me sick to my stomach.
While I don’t necessarily blame Joe D for drafting Darko, I certainly blame him for the way he botched the Darko experiment. That said, Joe D has a chance to make amends. In his article, Granderson forecasts a “cruel” future for the franchise because of the Darko pick. While I can understand his frustrations, I think he has failed to adequately portray the situation. The verdict is not in on the whole Darko thing, yet. Sure, it is possible that nothing will ever come of Detroit’s second overall pick in the 2003 draft (AKA Darko Milicic) but Joe D salvaged a draft pick when he traded Darko to Orlando. So the Darko pick is actually still sitting on some piece of paper in Joe D’s office in the form of Orlando’s top-five protected 2007 first round draft pick. That pick may end up being Joe D’s salvation.
Orlando is tanking at the right time.
While Dwight Howard is a freak of nature, the rest of the Orlando Magic is not. That draft pick is looking a whole lot better for the Pistons than it did two weeks into the season when Orlando had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Orlando stands at 27-28 with a brutal schedule to finish out the season. I went through the rest of Orlando’s games and guesstimated the wins and losses. I can’t see the Magic finishing any better than 37-45. That equates to a 10-17 record from here on out. That record is only one win off of Orlando’s total from last season which garnered the 11th pick in the draft. I went through the prospective lottery teams for this season and guesstimated that Orlando will end up with the 12th pick in the draft assuming it finishes at 37-45. As long as the Magic doesn’t win the NBA Draft lottery (the pick is top-five protected) the Pistons can reasonably expect Orlando’s pick to fall someplace around 10-12. If Orlando tanks it even worse than I’ve projected, then the pick could be a little better.
Over the past few seasons, the Pistons have actually picked up two valuable commodities in the name of young talent. Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson have considerable trade appeal around the league. In Maxiell’s limited minutes, he has shown tremendous athleticism. He has a fairly good array of offensive moves and has improved considerably in the last two years. Johnson is considered an “untouchable” by the Pistons brass. Considering the age of the frontcourt, I think it would be wise to keep Johnson in that “untouchable” class. If the Pistons aren’t going to entertain offers for Johnson, then they have no reason to do the same with Maxiell.
This is all leading up to one of the most important off-season decisions the Pistons have had in years. It is important because it has a chance to make or break the future. If Joe D can’t parlay the Orlando pick into something big, then the Darko experiment will officially go down as one of the biggest disasters in NBA history—a distinction that I won't give it quite yet because of the technicality that is Orlando’s 2007 first round draft pick. Three years from now, the Pistons will be without Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Chris Webber, and Antonio McDyess. Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton will not be enough to keep the Pistons in championship form. Without the addition of a star player or two, the future may be as bleak as Granderson forecasts. However, if Joe D can package Orlando’s pick (10-12), his own pick (mid 20s), and Jason Maxiell for either a proven NBA talent (i.e. Rashard Lewis, KG) or a top five draft pick, then he may have redemption after all.
This will likely be the only chance the Pistons have to secure success for down the road other than the crapshoot that is NBA free agency. Gradual decline is the rule in the NBA. It takes teams on the decline years to get back to championship basketball. The Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, and Pistons are evidence of that. In the NBA, fortuitous situations come along every so often. When teams make the correct decision (i.e. Chicago taking Michael Jordan, San Antonio taking Tim Duncan, Phoenix throwing a bunch of money at Steve Nash), a franchise can be set up for years. When a team makes the wrong decision (i.e. Philadelphia trading Charles Barkley for nothing), the franchise could resign itself to mediocrity for the foreseeable future. I believe that this decision for Joe D is just that sort of decision.
Just Do It!
The Pistons will not likely find themselves with such a high draft pick any time in the near future. There is absolutely no compelling reason for Joe D not to make a big move. The Pistons probably don’t have the roster room to keep two first round draft picks. Neither draft pick is likely to fetch a player talented enough to significantly improve the outlook of the future. Jason Maxiell plays the same position as Amir Johnson so he is somewhat expendable (although I like Maxiell’s game quite a bit). Joe D has already botched the Darko experiment beyond recognition. Not making a move would be like Michael Jackson refusing to try a new technology that could restore his nose to non-alien status for fear that it might mess his nose up even worse. You get to a point where you have nothing to lose. Joe D has nothing to lose. He needs to think big this off-season because one of the things that Granderson had right in his article is that this group is on the “back nine.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t a championship in the future. That just means it is closer to being a team without Billups and Rasheed than it is to the Championship it won in 2004.
Since Bill Davidson is reluctant to see his payroll go into the luxury tax zone, I doubt he’ll approve the addition of a big salary. That means Joe D will likely have to make his splash by trading up in the draft. That is a bit disappointing since the NBA draft is about as reliable as tossing a coin. However, this is one of the deepest drafts in years. A top five pick should surely net a player with tremendous potential. I just hope Joe D doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger because of Darko. The only thing that could be worse than what Joe D did with the Darko experiment would be to sit back and draft his two first-round picks. It is almost a certainty that those two picks will be worth more before the draft than they will be after. Now if only Granderson could cut down on his strikeouts—uhh sorry, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.