Points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks.....manna....?
That sure feels like reality for the Timberwolves these days. David Kahn's goofy comment has suddenly become a real, tangible force for Minnesota this season. "Manna" is no longer the punchline for jokes on ESPN; it's now a cheer. A cliche. A rallying cry.
Step 1 of Project: Timberwolves was changing the culture of the team. Step 2 is getting it to play better.
One could say that the Darko and the Timberwolves were destined to be together. A bust of a player playing for a bust of a franchise. Darko, for whatever reason, couldn't cut it with his first four teams (Pistons, Magic, Grizzlies, Knicks). He was a player no one else wanted....so what more fortuitousness could there be than ultimately playing for a team no one else wanted to play for?
When Darko first entered the NBA, you would have been hard pressed to find an NBA executive or scout who didn't like the kid. He had everything you could want in a basketball player: commanding height and reach, agility, court vision, and the youth to suggest it would all get even better. Scouts raved about his multi-dimensional game, drawing comparisons in him to everyone from Kevin Garnett to Wilt Chamberlain. For the Pistons, drafting a 17 year old who could eventually become a superstar when Ben Wallace and Mehmet Okur moved past their primes....especially when the team was already set at the positions Carmello Anthony and Dwyane Wade played....seemed too good to be true.
And perhaps it was. For all his prodigious basketball talent, Darko was still just a kid who barely spoke English, playing in a rough city for a coach with a long history of ignoring young player development. Darko only played in 34 games his rookie season, and only for 5 minutes at a time. In fact, he averaged just 6 minutes a game over two and a half years with Detroit, before being traded. Although he played more minutes and performed better with Orlando and Memphis, he didn't exactly knock anyone in the league off their feet. When the Knicks traded for him in 2009, he was considered a certified bust, overrated as a draft prospect and only useful to New York as an expiring contract. And to Milicic, the NBA was as much a letdown and he was to it; as the 09 season wore on, Milicic began making public declarations that he would return to Europe at the end of the year, done with the NBA forever.
By the time Darko arrived in frigid 'Sota in February 2010, no one....including Milicic himself....thought the Timberwolves were for real. The team was in chaos. Its front office was flying by the seat of its pants, its coaching staff was struggling to maintain order, and most of its players were hitting the court with the clear knowledge they were just keeping the seats warm until their contracts expired or a favorable trade came up. Darko, in fact, was acquired under such circumstances....traded for Brian Cardinal, a sparsely-used locker room veteran with a cheap contract the Knicks could buy out to further their quest for LeBron.
What Darko got instead, was something he'd never been a part of before: a team that believed in him. The Timberwolves were quick to put Milicic in the starting lineup and keep him there, letting him play through mistakes other coaches hadn't, while getting a feel for what remained of the potential that got him drafted second overall in 2003. Despite finishing the year off horribly, going just 2-24 after Milicic arrived, the team liked what it saw from the Serbian. He was able to average 8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.4 blocks in 25 minutes a contest, putting in a few excellent performances: 16-7-4 against the Warriors. 15-10 and 4 blocks against the Kings. 16 points, 12 rebounds against the Lakers in March, then 13 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists against them again in April.
Milicic's contract extension over the summer was another reality check moment for Wolves fans and the NBA. The deal wasn't entirely out of line for the player Milicic was, but his reputation preceded him. Further, the team didn't seem to view him just as a defensive role player. There were visions of him being a centerpiece to the team, of giving him the ball regularly and possibly even running the whole damn offense through him.
For Milicic, the Timberwolves traded away Al Jefferson and declined to draft DeMarcus Cousins, staking a huge portion of their future on a player who had proven little beyond being a gigantic disappointment. It made no sense.
Early in the season, the naysaying appeared entirely justified; through the first 11 games, Darko averaged a meager 5 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists on just 28% shooting. His inability to make even point blank layups became a constant theme among statniks who rightly pointed out that Milicic has never been an efficient scorer, and the assists became something of a running joke for Kings fans, who started keeping a game-by-game comparative tab of dimes for Darko versus DeMarcus Cousins. The only part of his game that was even passable was his defense...2.4 blocks per game, and a massive on/off court difference (103 points per 100 possessions on the floor, 118 per 100 off it)
Yet through it all, the Timberwolves never wavered in their faith in the big man. Kurt Rambis stuck with Darko as the team's starting center, kept feeding him the ball, and kept defending him in the press. The team was convinced, when no one else on the planet was, that Darko would get it sooner rather than later. And in what is quickly becoming a regular exercise in defying logic, the team was right.
In a complete 180 from the first 11 games of the season, Darko has become a dominant force in the last 5, averaging 18 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 4.2 blocks. He's also shot 59% from the floor in that time, which has brought his shooting for the season above 40% again.
But more impressively, Darko is dominating games. For the first time, the NBA is seeing the Darko Milicic that his potential said he could be....the Darko Milicic everyone was expecting to see in 2003. The Darko who calls for the ball and abuses defenders in the low post. The Darko who comes out of nowhere to block shots and lock down the paint. The Darko who puts the ball on the floor, attacks the defense, and slings absurd passes to open teammates. The things that we're seeing from Darko now are the things all those scouts saw in him in 2003, when he was one of the top prospects in a draft that included Melo, Wade, Bosh and LeBron.
It obviously remains to be seen if Darko can sustain this type of play for a full season, much less the rest of his career, but for a player that everyone had given up on as a lost cause, his revival is nothing short of spectacular.
Good for Darko? Yes, of course. But better for the Timberwolves.
It's not just that Darko playing well helps his team in the sense that every player needs to contribute, or that Darko's integration into the system makes him a key player for the Wolves to execute. The mere fact Darko has improved at all is a testament to how Minnesota's plan is succeeding.
David Kahn and Kurt Rambis laid out a pretty simple plan for the Wolves: 1. change the culture of the team 2. develop the players that play for it 3. win. Yes, there are fine points to those steps, but in essence, that's the blueprint.
The culture has shifted, internally and externally, there's no question about that. Players genuinely want to be on the team. Fans genuinely want to see them play. Other fanbases have begun respecting what the Wolves can do, and other teams no longer take "vs. MIN" for granted. When I first joined the Timberwolves' Facebook page a year ago, there were less than 3,000 fans on it. Now there's over 27,000. The Wolves have accomplished stage one; NBA basketball is back on the map in Minnesota.
What Darko's showcasing now is the second stage of "the plan". Player development is working. The coaching staff, for as much criticism as they take, appear to ultimately know what they're doing. Michael Beasley is starting to fulfill his potential as a fellow 2nd overall pick, averaging career highs in FG%, 3pt%, FTA, assists, and scoring average. Sebastian Telfair has revived his own career, and has been 'Sota's best point guard so far this season. Corey Brewer has gone from an out-of-control non-impact player to a slightly less out-of-control player who is starting to show the kind of defensive prowess he was known for in college. And Kevin Love, for all the disappointment he had over Kevin McHale leaving and all the clashes he's had with Kurt Rambis, has steadily evolved into one of the league's best young power forwards and the most dynamic rebounding force the league has seen since Dennis Rodman. And of course, there's the Big Manna, who is now averaging career highs in....well, just about everything (yes, Big Manna. Shaq is the Big Diesel. Duncan is the Big Fundamental. Garnett is the Big Ticket. Darko is the Big Manna)
In a lot of ways it would seem that the team was just making a wish and a prayer about Darko in the hopes that he'd develop into a real force, but at least by the comments Kurt Rambis made when Darko first arrived, the team believed it was just a matter of time.
‘We’re seeing glimpses of tremendous potential for him and for us. He made a pass to Ramon Sessions that Ramon wasn’t even looking for, probably assuming there was no way Darko was going to get him the basketball. He has such tremendous vision and passing capabilities. We really haven’t seen an exorbitant amount of what he can do scoring, but it’s there. That’s why we’re doing things in practice to encourage him to not only pass the basketball but also look for his own opportunities."‘
Hard work and repetition can improve any aspect of any player, but there are certain things that certain players simply know how to do better than others, no matter what. Talent, instinct, touch...call it whatever you want, we all recognize it when we see it. Glen Davis has all the height, reach, and athletic limitations that Kevin Love has, but has a knack for scoring around the basket that Love simply doesn't have. Love is undersized, with shorter arms and a low vertical, but has an instinct for rebounding that makes him superior on the glass to a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge. Ray Allen will always be a better shooter than Corey Brewer. Jason Kidd will always be a better facilitator than Derrick Rose. Shane Battier will always be a better defender than Rudy Gay. Some players just have a wire in their heads that others don't, and the best coaches are the ones that can see that.
One of the biggest keys to developing a player's talent...and being a successful coach...is understanding what each player on the roster is capable of. What can that player do right now, and more importantly, what could that player potentially do in the future? Former NBA point guard Mark Jackson once said in a broadcast that a huge mistake coaches often make is either overestimating a player's ceiling (Randy Foye) or underestimating it, and artificially limiting that player's potential (Chauncey Billups) His point was that a player can only be as good as he's allowed to be, and that the best coaches are the ones who recognize potential and give players the opportunity to realize it.
For most of his career, Darko was seen as average at best, terrible at worst. Larry Brown saw maturity and aggressiveness limitations that caused him to hold Darko back. Brian Hill didn't think Darko was physically strong enough. Marc Iavaroni and Mike D'Antoni saw him as just a defensive player.
Perhaps the biggest sign of Kurt Rambis' coaching ability thus far was his recognition that in reality, the only thing holding back Darko was Darko. All those things NBA scouts and executives saw in Milicic prior to the 2003 draft, Rambis saw in him when he joined the Wolves in 2010: shotblocking and defense, exceptional court vision, and the ability to score and dominate games offensively. Darko wasn't lacking in talent....he had all the innate instincts to be that type of player...what he lacked in was confidence, and a coach who would give him the right opportunity.
Credit coach Rambis for not artificially limiting Darko's ceiling when everyone else....coaches, execs, and fans alike...wouldn't have thought twice about it.
I've even been seeing fans around the league start asking if Darko should play in the All Star game this year. From hopeless to All Star consideration. That's a powerful testament to the sort of player development capacity the Timberwolves have this season.
Darko isn't the only player who's coming along under Kurt Rambis' instruction, but he is the most prominent example. If Manna were to be any sort of quantifiable metric, then let it be a measure of how much our players improve.
That is how Project: Timberwolves takes its next step. It has its players happy to be a part of Wolves basketball. Now it needs to get them to fulfill their potential and perform. So far, it's been going pretty well.