Timberwolves GM David Kahn Explains His Faith in Darko Milicic
Yes, Internet world, the Minnesota general manager hears you. And reads you. And watches you. He knows there's a "Kick Me" sign on his back, that some of his decisions over these last 18 months have bewildered the armchair GMs (and plenty of real ones, too), and that there's enough skepticism surrounding him to fill all those empty seats at the Target Center.
And he certainly knows what he did in bringing Darko Milicic into his blogger's playground, joining forces with one of the most infamous players in the history of the NBA and taking his easy-target status to a whole new level.
Whether he cares, however, is another question entirely. You are, he made clear while quoting Pat Riley, nothing more than "peripheral opponents" as he sees it.
"Sometimes people send things (from the Internet) to me, so I'm exposed to it in that way," Kahn said when asked if he peruses the Web for his own approval ratings. "A couple days ago, after seven games, there were NBA power rankings (on a web site) and the early returns on free agent signings, including one signing we made of a guy for four years (Milicic) and (they're declaring) 'This will never work.' It's seven games out of a potential 368 games. Come on.
"A friend sent (the story) to me empathetically, like (saying), 'Tell this (expletive) to shove it up his (expletive) ass, because it's absurd."
Of all the Kahn moves that have been widely ridiculed in his short tenure, his decision to give Milicic a four-year, $20 million deal in July was far and away the preeminent punch line. The seven-year veteran had been the definition of a bust in the NBA, from being drafted second overall in 2003 (as we all know by now, just after LeBron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) to spending his first six seasons floundering in Detroit, Orlando and Memphis.
The trade from New York to Minnesota last season sparked the first sign of life in his infamous career, with Milicic making the unexpected rise from Mike D'Antoni castoff with the Knicks to Kurt Rambis favorite with a T-Wolves team that would win a franchise-low 15 games in 2009-10. Then on the merits of 24 games in which Milicic averaged 8.3 points (49.2 percent shooting), 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while playing an average of 25 minutes, he was given the contract that became the surprise of the summer.
But even with Milicic struggling early this season (see early returns here), Kahn continues to defend the deal based largely on three points. Be sure to stick with us until No. 3, as it's far and away the least known and most interesting.
1) Milicic's untapped potential
As Kahn points out, the big man is still just 25 years old after all this time. He is, as Kahn sees it, a rare sort of 7-foot-1 presence who changes games defensively down low and can pass better than most big men in the league. His offense remains rough, but the hope also remains that this unprecedented support from the team on which he plays helps improve his battered confidence and leads to what would go down as one of the least expected career salvage efforts in league history.
The Kahn defense: "What people fail to recognize is that last season was almost like a lost season. New York didn't play him, for whatever reason, and even when he came to us, while we liked what he saw, he was really -- and he'd be the first to acknowledge this -- terribly out of shape, and he got in better shape this summer. But he's still not in peak condition. And of course because of all the pressures and expectations that he has been carrying around since he's been 17 years old, it's obvious that he still is dealing with some confidence issues.
"Having said that, this week in particular, I sense that it's starting to come, and we will be patient with him. It's very difficult to find a 7-foot-1 defensive presence who moves fluidly who has a lot of skill. You can see even with the shots that he is missing that mostly he's missing by this much, and I believe it will come. We will be very patient with him because he's 25. I know that he shouldn't have been drafted second in his draft. He was too young and it didn't make sense when you look back on it, but he should've been drafted probably in the top half of the first round based on skill level. He has a tremendous amount of skill for a man of that size. We'll continue to work with him. He needs to get in better shape, and he needs to keep seeing that good things will happen to him if he keeps at it."
2) The relative affordability
No typo there, just the under-mentioned contention that the guaranteed money for which Minnesota is ultimately responsible is approximately $16 million because the fourth season of the contract is only partially guaranteed. And in terms of Milicic's payday compared to his peers, he is (with good reason) near the bottom among those centers who have negotiated contracts rather than playing under their rookie deals (first-round draft picks are signed to contracts which are negotiable between 80 percent and 120 percent of a predetermined-figure that is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement).
Of the 22 players who, in essence, were paid based on merit as opposed to draft position, Milicic ranks 19th this season with his salary of $4.32 million. He's just below Boston's Kendrick Perkins ($4.39 million) and ahead of Memphis' Marc Gasol ($3.48 million after being signed as a second-round pick), Miami's Joel Anthony ($3.3 million) and 36-year-old Ben Wallace in Detroit ($2 million). Anthony presents the most timely comparison for Milicic's deal, as the undrafted fourth-year player signed a five-year, $18 million deal to stay with the Heat after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach.
The Kahn defense: "As most people know, the fourth year is only partially guaranteed. When you examine his deal against others -- forget about starting centers -- but backup centers, it's not that out of line. For example, if Darko were to become a 15-to-18-minute backup center and become a defensive presence, yeah it's probably a little rich, but not to the point where you'd say, 'Oh my God.' He took a near 50 percent pay cut from last season to come back (Milicic made approximately $7.5 million last season)."
3) The insurance plan
If you are right -- you being those aforementioned "peripheral opponents" -- and signing Milicic proves to be the gaffe of Summer 2010, Kahn contends the damage control will come easy.
Remember this: Before Milicic was traded to Minnesota, he had publicly stated that he was done with the NBA. He had given up on this league and was headed back to Europe, which -- and this part wasn't as public -- then led to his request for a buyout when he arrived with the Wolves.
But Kahn brought him back from the brink, vowing to give the kind of support, patience and respect that the big man always thought he didn't have around him. And with that, it seems, there is a mutual understanding that anything short of consistent contributions from Milicic will result in a subsequent discussion about the future of this partnership. Put simply: Milicic has no interest in collecting a check at the end of a bench, and the Wolves have no interest in paying him to do so.
The Kahn defense: "There was a lot of talk amongst ourselves about, 'Should we do a short deal or should we do a long deal with Darko?' And of course we talked with Darko and his agent (Marc Cornstein) very candidly. Here's what I know: if it doesn't work here, and it will work here by the way, but this summer I knew that if it didn't work out here, it won't work anywhere. He really likes Kurt, really likes Kurt, and Kurt really likes him. That's the key to this. They both like each other a lot, meaning he's really wanting to push himself. They really believe in one another. ... This isn't an issue where I'm concerned that, say it doesn't work out, that we'll be left holding the bag."
Before Milicic played a pivotal role in beating Sacramento on Wednesday night, he was candid in his negative assessment of his play thus far.
"Not that good," he said when asked to critique himself. "It's going to be better. I have to improve every day. It's just my shooting stuff. Besides that, my shots that I'm making right now are short or right now I can't make them. Just working on that or working on, as a team, getting on the same page on defense."
And while he said repeatedly that he won't start smiling again until the Wolves start winning consistently, Milicic -- who played in just eight games with the Knicks before being dealt in mid-February -- has said he is enjoying simply playing again.
"I enjoy much more playing," he said. "It's tough, and I'd enjoy a little bit more if we started the season a little bit better because we expect from ourselves much more than we're doing right now. It's kind of hard, but it's a long season and we're trying to correct that. We've got to do it as soon as possible, because in the NBA you've got back-to-backs, you've got this, you've got that. The season goes by fast."
A season, of course, that Milicic and so many others had assumed would not include him.
"Minnesota came over and gave me a chance to play, so I said, 'I'm going to stay. Why not?'" Milicic said. "That's what I was looking for, a chance to play and they gave me a chance to play, so I stay here. I saw they trust me a lot. They believe in me a lot, and I'm going to try and do my best. It's hard to not play for a year, not play for three years, play for a half year, not play for a year. It was hard. It was hard doing that. I'm going to do my best to compete and do the best I can in this league."
E-mail Sam at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.