Is Darko Milicic getting better?

As I watched in disbelief as Darko Milicic hit his fourth bucket in the first quarter I thought to myself, "Self, Darko looks better this year. I don't want to stab myself in the eye every time he touches the ball." And since I am a very firm believer that one should almost never believe ones' self in these situations without checking the numbers, I did just that. Caveat: Sample sizes Yadda Yadda Yadda.

Did someone knock some sense into Darko?

Here's Darko so far this year:

Raw Stats
Milicic 143 .071 0.2 17.1 12.8 0.7 2.7 1.3 1.0 5.0
Milicic 2010 1685 -.052 -1.8 17.3 10.3 3.0 4.3 4.0 1.5 6.5
Milicic 2009 685 .022 0.3 15.1 10.6 3.3 2.5 2.4 1.5 5.7
Average C (2010) 1372 .099 2.8 18.2 12.8 2.4 2.6 2.0 1.2 5.4


Shooting Efficiency
Milicic 51.3% 51.3% 0.0% 50.0% 51.3% 52.4% 13.1 1.31 7.4
Milicic 2010 46.9% 46.9% 0.0% 55.7% 46.9% 48.2% 16.5 1.05 3.3
Milicic 2009 49.0% 49.3% 0.0% 53.6% 49.0% 49.7% 14.3 1.05 2.0
Average C (2010) 50.7% 51.1% 31.4% 67.9% 51.0% 54.8% 14.3 1.28 5.4


Well, it looks like relative to the prior two seasons, darko is rebounding more, assisting less, turning the ball over less, blocking less and fouling less.  His shooting has improved a bit and his field goal attempts are down.

One of the things about bad players is that they are almost by definition inconsistent; if a guy was consistently terrible he'd be out of the NBA quickly -- most terrible players are bad a lot of the time, but then show occasional flashes of brilliance that convince their coaches to keep playing them and general managers to keep paying them. "If only he would always..." and "Why doesn't he always..." are my favorite phrase that's attached to bad players. Turns out the reason they don't always do those things is that they just aren't good enough.

And that's why this seven-game stretch actually has me a teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy bit more encouraged than I should be from a random sample: he isn't so much better because of some massively improved statistic. He's better because he's doing some things less. Here are some basketball things that Darko gets better by doing less of:

  • Shooting
  • Assisting/Passing (well, truly, handling the ball in general)
  • Blocking

You might think the latter two make no sense but I'll explain in a minute.

Shooting should be obvious. Darko has quite simply never been very good at it. Therefore he should only do it when he absolutley has to. This is the thing that made Dennis Rodman one of the best power forwards of all time: he was a terrible shot, but it never hurt his team because all his shots were assisted layups, putback dunks, or desperate heaves when the shot clock is going off so he had no choice (and in those cases, the blame lies squarely on whoever passed him the ball in that situation). By shooting less, Darko hurts his team less. As a bonus, the shots he does take are higher-percentage shots.

In 2010, Darko had career highs in FGA/48 (ignoring his 159-minute rookie year) and Turnover/48 and his 2nd-highest AST/48 numbers. The upshot is that Darko, who had always been a bad player who didn't generate many wins, became a terrible player who actually produced losses with a -0.052 WP48 (yes, negative).

And this, as any Wolves fan worth his salt should know, squarely the fault of Mr. Kurt Rambis.

Here's a scenario that I remember vividly from the first quarter of nearly every Wolves' game last year: For the first 10-15 possessions, the Wolves would make an effort to "establish Darko in the post" or "get Darko going in the offense" and consistently, purposefully pound the ball into Darko in the low post, where he'd make a couple of embarassingly small pivots for a man with the legs of a 7'+ person, then completely ignore the wide open pivot over his left shoulder that his defender is conceding him, and settle on a contested hook or baby-hook turning over his right shoulder (which the defender is more-or-less standing on top of). Which would hit about...oh...45% of the time. This is undoubtedly why he had so many FGA's: he was having plays run deliberately for him for the first time in his career, in the name of "establishing a low-post presence."

This leads me to the assist issue: when Darko was not posting up, his other duty in Rambis triangle offense (which, by the way, usually depends on having great, athletic wing players who make good decisions with the ball, which aren't words used to describe Beasley, Johnson, Ellington, or Webster, so yeah, good choice there, Mr. Rambis), as it is for any big man in the triangle, was to act as a high-post distributor; triangle offenses love having the big men flash to the strong-side high post corner, and when they get the ball, the wing cuts past him, causeing possible mismatches to happen depending on how the defense reacts to the ball-carrier-as-screener in the high post. This probably led Darko to having a near career-year for assists.

But here's the thing: you do not want a player like Darko having lots of assists because this means you have him handling the ball a lot. And, seriously, watch the guy play: he has awful hands. He's a complete butterfingers. He's the second coming of Bill Cartwright, a player for whom Phil Jackson famously told Michael Jordan "not to pass it so hard". If Darko's getting more assists and more field goal attempts, then I guarantee you he's also causing more turnovers. I refuse to believe it is a coincidence that he had so many turnovers last year.

Lastly, there are blocks. You might think blocks are a good thing, and you are somewhat correct, but it turns out blocks just don't correlate nearly as highly with wins as any of the other box score stats, probably because they often do not cause a possession change. In other words, blocking a shot isn't as good at preventing field goals as stealing the ball. If Darko is getting lots of blocks, he's also getting lots of fouls, and given his proximity to the basket, this means he's giving the opponent a lot of free throws. Furthermore, if you get a lot of blocks, you usually are trying to get a lot of blocks, which means when you fail to block the shot, you usually have a terrible rebounding position because you are too busy landing from being in the popcorn-machine.

The first two areas are why I am optimistic: Adelman's offense is nothing like the triangle. Adelman prefers an offense where a couple of primary ballhandlers dominate the ball, while the other players take lots of Princeton-style backcuts and move/react to the pick-and-roll. This means that Darko rarely touches the ball (because he's not a primary ball handler) and does not post up a lot because Adelman prefers to post up Love or Beasley (ok, ok, one problem at a time, please). And when Milicic does catch the ball, it's usually in a good position to make a decent shot (you know, because..."Ruuuuuuubioooooo!") and rarely in a spot where he is expected to do any play-making. This leads to fewer shots (good), and fewer ball-handling opportunities (good), which lead to assists (whatever, I'll happily take the trade-off).

As for why his blocks are down, I have no great analysis (I'd have made a terrible defensive coordinator) as to why he seems less eager but I'm just going to put on rose-colored glasses and assume that Adelman has been telling bigs to stay on their damn feet.

Of course, Darko is just as likely to rip off a seven-game streak shooting 33% and make me look like a fool for searching for stories behind the numbers. But trying to find the stories behind the numbers is what makes basketball analysis more fun, so I'll just continue to happily delude myself.