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Danny Darko: What do Celtics see in center’s future?

09.26.12 at 12:14 pm ET
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Just because Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca says the Celtics can roll out five or six 7-footers doesn’t make it true.

Sure, since the addition of Darko Milicic on a one-year, $1.2 million veteran minimum contract, the C’s feature three legit 7-footers (Milicic, Jason Collins, Fab Melo) and Kevin Garnett, who insists he’s 6-foot-11 but had a bird’s-eye view of Nenad Krstic‘s receding hairline. Throw in 6-foot-10 Chris Wilcox, and Pags isn’t far off. That group could give forwards Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green a Napoleonic complex.

Still, the Celtics can roll out all the bigs they want. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any good. We heard the same rhetoric when the C’s entered the 2010-11 NBA season with Shaquille O’Neal, Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal and Semih Erden at the 5. So, what should the Celtics expect from these pillars of Boston?

The Celtics hope Darko Milicic concentrates more on his role than where he was selected in the NBA draft. (AP)

First, what Danny Ainge said: “It seems like everybody that we’ve played at our center position over the last few years has thrived in our system playing opposite KG and with [Rajon] Rondo.”

At least the Celtics ownership and the team president are on the same page, but they can’t honestly expect that coach Doc Rivers can solve any puzzle as long as Garnett and Rondo are two of the five pieces.

After all, the C’s ranked last in rebounds per game last season and second-to-last the previous two years, so the revolving door hasn’t been as bountiful as Ainge remembers. So, can this year be different?

There are reasons to be confident. First, there’s something to Garnett’s presence. Not only does he give the Celtics their best starting center at season’s start since, well, maybe Robert Parish, but he also teaches those willing to listen. That doesn’t help someone like Mikki Moore, but it does benefit guys like Greg Stiemsma.

“I think it can either make you great or crush you,” Rivers said of Garnett’s method. “It’s going to be one of the two. It’s not really an in-between with Kevin, and in a good way. I like how he goes about his work, obviously, and how he approaches the game. I think if you’re willing to learn, you can only get better playing with Kevin.”

And there’s something to strength in numbers. If Wilcox doesn’t return to form, if Melo doesn’t take form and if Milicic resumes the form that led Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman to put Darko’s departure on the top of his to-do list, at least the Celtics can rely on the dependable defense of the offensively challenged Collins.

“My role is to be ready,” said the former Nets and Hawks center. “I never know what night my name and number is going to be called, but my job is to go out there and be physical and play solid defense and contribute on the offensive end whenever possible. We have a lot of scorers. I don’t think they’ll be counting on me for that. Going out there and guarding the Dwight Howards and Andrew Bynums of this league — that’s my job.”

But is there anything to Danny’s Darko experiment? That’s the key. The last two seasons have shown the best and worst of Milicic. Two years ago, he averaged 8.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.5 assists in 24.4 minutes a night over 69 games. In other words, Milicic was Kendrick Perkins. Last season, he averaged just 4.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.9 blocks and 0.6 assists in 16.3 minutes over 29 games. In other words, he was Jason Collins.

“Darko has been a good player in stretches in his career, and he has struggled in other places,” Ainge said. “He’s a big body, and he knows how to play, and we’re hopeful that he can [thrive] in our system with our guys. … We like his intelligence on the court and his passing ability, and he’s 7-foot-1, 270 pounds, so that helps.”

The hope is Milicic can forget his past and focus on his future. But forgetting his past is the hard part. From fans to the man himself, everyone evaluates Darko with this notorious caveat: He was taken second overall in the 2003 NBA draft, one spot behind LeBron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

“What we want Darko to be is just come in and fit a role for us and not push all these expectations that he’s had on him for his whole career,” Rivers said. “I think his first concern should be our team instead of trying to establish himself as this second-pick-in-the-draft thing. I think that probably hurt him over his career.”

Easier said than done. It’s not a revolutionary idea, and surely one of his four other teams since the Pistons has applied the same logic, but perhaps Boston is the best place to see that to fruition. After all, he’s been in the league for eight NBA seasons. We can all agree he’ll never be Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.

Forget his past. He’s not an utter failure, as Detroit perceived him to be when he never played more than 6.9 minutes per game in two-plus seasons for the Pistons. And he’s not a starting center, as lottery teams like the Grizzlies and Timberwolves have forced him to be for much of the past five years. Focus on his future. He’s a backup for an Eastern Conference contender, in Kevin Garnett’s shadow, and that’s not such a bad place to be.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for him,” Ainge added. “He did not have a good year last year in Minnesota, and he had a good year the year before. At this time last year, he was unavailable. He was a guy you couldn’t get, coming off a good year the previous year. He’s 27 years old, he’s healthy, he’s big and strong, and we need size.”

If that doesn’t work, the Celtics will roll out Wilcox, Collins and Melo behind Garnett, and hope one of them sticks. Same as they’ve done the previous three seasons with guys like Stiemsma, “the O’Neal brothers,” Krstic, Ryan Hollins, JaJuan Johnson, Sean Williams, Semih Erden, Troy Murphy, Chris Johnson, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Scalabrine and Shelden Williams. You know, those 7-footers who have thrived so much in the C’s system.

“This is my best opportunity to win an NBA championship,” said Collins, who showed up “in phenomenal shape,” according to Rivers. “We have a lot of depth on this team — a lot of guys who could be playing a lot of big minutes someplace else — and we’re all buying in and sacrificing and trying to win a title.”

Just because the Celtics say it every year doesn’t make it true, but maybe Darko makes this season different.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge, Darko Milicic, Doc Rivers Print  |  Email  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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