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Darko Milicic & The Myth Of The Celtic Center

I'm going to do my best Mike Zarren impression here. These are the post-season numbers of the big men that played with Garnett. Disregard 2008-2009 when KG sat out with injury.

Mar 5, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Minnesota Timberwolves center Darko Milicic (31) tries to drive to the basket past Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) in the second half at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 95-94. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

They broke the mold when they made Kendrick Perkins. There won't be another one like him. We love him because of that trademark scowl and the fearlessness that he defended the post. He was a blue collar player in a blue collar town. He wasn't as skilled and talented as some of the game's best big men, but he was our Perk. I think a lot of us also loved him (and still do) because Garnett loved him. As much as Garnett tries to pump up his teammates know, he had a brotherhood with Perkins that only comes from years of being in trench warfare with someone. Since the Perkins trade, it's been a revolving door of vets and young guys and with every one of them, Garnett and Celtic fans alike haven't felt the same magic that they did with Perk.

Perhaps, that's all been by design. In the Garnett era, the Celtics have not put a huge premium on a center. Even when Ainge constructed The Big Three, he didn't hedge his bet with a veteran center. At the time, Perk was a shy 23-year-old who didn't really have a reputation. Teaming with Garnett, however, gave him an identity. Fast forward four years. He's coming off a major knee injury and more importantly, rejected a 4-year, $22 million deal to stay in Boston. That move would effectively change the course of how the Celtics would approach the position. It was the one and only time that management showed any interest in committing someone to be the man in the middle. This was an organization that had signed Mark Blount to a 6-year, $40 million deal. In retrospect, I think when Perk expressed an interest to test the free agent market, Danny regrouped and looked hard at what he was actually paying for.

Admittedly, a lot of what Perk did doesn't show up in a box score. There isn't a stat assigned to intimidation or heart. There's no implicit value for chemistry and trust. But with that said, what were they really getting? Danny knew that he had a coach in Doc Rivers and vets in the core four that could mask Perkins' absence and make it work with someone else.

And that brings us to yesterday and the imminent signing of Darko Milicic.

I'm going to do my best Mike Zarren impression here. These are the post-season numbers of the big men that played with Garnett. Disregard 2008-2009 when KG sat out with injury.

Year Lineup Minutes Points Rebounds Blocks
2007-2008 Perkins-Brown-Powe 50.5 14.5 11.2 1.8
2008-2009 Perkins-Davis-Powe 85.0 32.7 21.7 3.2
2009-2010 Perkins-Davis-Wallace 62.2 19.1 13.7 2.4
2010-2011 J. O'Neal-Davis-Krstic (S. O'Neal not included) 51.1 12.4 9.5 2.4
2011-2012 Bass-Hollins-Stiemsma 47.9 14.1 9.1 1.6

You'll see that even with marque names like Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal, and Shaq or with moving Garnett to center and playing him along Brandon Bass, Ryan Hollins, and the Stiemer, a trio of guys average about 50 minutes a game, a point total barely in the teens, and barely double digit rebounds. That's three guys, one of them being a starter. It's blasphemy to say around these parts but maybe Perk opting in was the best thing to happen to the Celtics. With the NBA shifting gears to a more up tempo style, it makes sense to spend a chunk of your salary cap on wing players and go big on the cheap and by committee. Not unlike Billy Bean in Moneyball trying to replace Giambi and Damon, the Celtics are trying to reproduce Perkins in the aggregate. Since trading Perkins, this is how much they've committed to the center position:

  • Jermaine O'Neal $11,991,200 (two years)
  • Shaquille O'Neal $1,352,181(one season)
  • Nenad Krstic $5,543,116 (expiring contract)
  • Chris Wilcox $3,854,389 (two one-year deal)
  • Greg Stiemsma $762,195 (one year deal)
  • Fab Melo $2,565,960 (two years with a team option)
  • Jason Collins $854,389 (one-year deal)
  • Darko Milicic $854,389 (one-year deal)

That doesn't include the waiver wire acquisitions of Troy Murphy, Ryan Hollins, and Sean Williams or drafting and trading JaJuan Johnson.

Sign up for the gig at your own peril Playing center for the Celtics is a paradox. You're simultaneously the most and least important person on the floor. The Celtics defense is predicated on overloading the strong side and having the big closest to the baseline protect the rim. That's usually the center. If Garnett goes out to shade a pick-and-roll, it's your responsibility to guard his man and yours. Even though you're three defensive assignments from the ball, a missed rotation could be disastrous. When a perimeter shot goes up, you're rarely in position to block out and the media creams you for not grabbing a rebound. It's an unsung job that gets little recognition and a lot of grief because you're not Kendrick Perkins. And if and when you do leave Boston, you're also not exactly going to put together monster numbers that look good on a resume.

But with that said, Darko Milicic passed up easier and more money in Europe to give it a shot in an already crowded front court. With him now in the mix, Doc has to cobble a big man rotation out of Milicic, Chris Wilcox, Jason Collins, Jared Sullinger, and Fab Melo. Remove Bass from the equation above. If he plays at the same level he did last season, he'll average about 30 minutes a game, 12-14 points, and 5-7 rebounds. That leaves about 20-25 minutes for those four players to score a handful of points, grab a handful of rebounds, and play defense. Ultimately, that's going to be the key and again, a stat that doesn't show up in the box score.

The smart money is on Wilcox. He has an albeit shortened season under his belt and understands the defensive concept. He also has the added value of being able to run with Rondo and finish in transition. Sullinger will get his shot because he has a reputation as a rebounder but how it translates into the Celtic system could prove troublesome. As a big, you're always trapping and hedging and that can lead to poor positioning in the paint. He's also a bit undersized and with three seven footers on the bench, the rookie might have to get in line.

What will be interesting is what Danny decides to do if Milicic can find a way to contribute. Wilcox, Collins, and Milicic all signed one-year veteran minimums. He won't have the option to submit a qualifying offer and the right to match if another team's interested. Both Collins and Wilcox are over 30 and on the back end of their careers, but if Darko has a good showing this season, He could parlay his success to a long term contract here or elsewhere. He's still 27 and could have one more multi-year deal in him. My guy tells me that unless he blows people away and is in the conversation for Most Improved Player, Danny will continue to re-stock his shelves with 2-3 FA bigs every summer until 2015 when KG retires.

But I could be wrong. With tempered expectations to just fulfill a role rather than justify his place in the draft or the money he's paid, maybe Darko becomes a semi-permanent fixture in the Garden. Maybe he's found a city that will appreciate what he does and not criticize him for what he doesn't. But hey, maybe Garnett rubs off on Darko and DM gets the scowl right and helps Celtic fans forget about Perk a little. It's not likely but anything is possible. Right, KG?

According to Darko's agent Marc Cornstein (per A. Sherrod Blakely), Danny Ainge was the first person to call him when Milicic was amnestied. In August, I suspected the hold up in finalizing Jeff Green's contract was that Danny was working out the numbers so that he could bring in another big. My suspicion now is that Ainge never even kicked the tires on Chris Andersen or Andray Blatche. With The Birdman facing legal problems and Blatche's maturity in question, Ainge probably wanted to avoid the drama. Milicic has never really been a knucklehead, but his motor and attitude on the court have been questioned. As Jeff points out, that won't be tolerated by the Celtics. "He has always had a lot of respect for Doc Rivers' style of play and feels he can help fill a need," Cornstein told CSNNE. For Darko's entire career, people have put the cart before the horse, but this will be the first time that he's played with a clean slate. Looks like he's already at work (h/t to RedsArmy).

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