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Darko’s magical journey

Have you seen the irony yet?

The last time the Pistons sent a supposed "cornerstone" player to the Magic, they received Ben Wallace in return. This time around, they're doing it to clear up enough money to re-sign Big Ben.

But whereas trading Grant Hill for Wallace and Chucky Atkins was about getting the most value out of a player that was going to leave anyway, giving up Darko Milicic and Carlos Arroyo for Kelvin Cato and a future first-rounder is utterly and completely about money.

While Darko may have his (un)fair share of detractors in the stands at the Palace, there's no denying the allure of a 20-year-old seven-footer with a deft outside shot and a penchant for blocking shots. No, he's not as tenacious on the boards as you'd like, but he doesn't have to be playing next to 19-year-old Dwight Howard, who, if you haven't been paying attention, is leading the league in rebounds.

You can't tell from his demure on-court performances the past couple of years, but before he was drafted it was his competitive makeup that really impressed the scouts. Can you believe it? When was the last time Darko looked anything that even resembled competitive wearing the red and blue? What happened?

I think I have an idea -- bear with me...

I was one of those kids who rarely had to try in high school. Good grades simply came easily -- perhaps a bit too easily. The transition to college was a huge eye-opener. It wasn't terribly difficult, but it required constant effort, which I simply wasn't used to giving. Toss in living on my own for the first time, a fondness for partying and a couple of shiny, new credit cards, and it was a recipe for disaster.

I made plenty of mistakes. Some more than once. Some more than twice. But I made them in the privacy of anonymity, and when I finally came out on the other side, I emerged smarter and more responsible, with the rest of society none the wiser of my collegiate escapades.

But Darko's situation was obviously much, much different. Plucked out from his home country, handed millions and millions of dollars and given much, much more free time than the average fan realizes, the worst thing that he ever did was get a couple of traffic tickets and act embarrassed when 22,076 fans mockingly chanted his name at the tail end of a blow-out loss.

I'm telling you, if I were in his shoes, I would have been shown the door long ago -- think William Bedford, Roy Tarpley and Chris Andersen all rolled together. Don't get me wrong, 27-year-old Matt Watson is a law-abiding citizen, but I can't vouch for 18-year-old millionaire Matt Watson, whom I've never met but have a hunch would have enjoyed sleeping on a great big pile of hundred dollar bills, groupies and cannabis every night.

So yeah, Darko is a little sensitive, resented being a novelty act, and didn't talk to the press much due to a language barrier. I can understand that, I probably would have been the same way -- at least he didn't tell America's youth to 'stop snitching.' I wish he showed a little more effort, but he didn't, and in the end it never really bothered me because he never actually lost a game for the Pistons. And while he never directly won a game for Detroit, either, I don't think the Pistons could have won the title in 2004 had Dumars drafted any other player.

With one extra ready-made contributor available, the Pistons wouldn't have been as inclined to trade for Rasheed Wallace, whose arrival sparked the team's ascension to the top of the league. But even if they still acquired 'Sheed, Carmelo certainly couldn't have made that block on Reggie Miller in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and he definitely couldn't have played clamp-down defense on Kobe Bryant, which was necessary for the Pistons to get away with playing man coverage down low on Shaquille O'Neal.

The Pistons won in 2004 and came within minutes of repeating in 2005 because of their team chemistry. Adding a player like Carmelo who dominates the ball and once refused to re-enter the game after his teammates criticized his shot selection would have completely disrupted everything the Pistons had going. Sure, in hindsight, maybe they could have molded one of those young guys into being a selfless sixth-man, but more than likely Larry Brown would have browbeat them into playing "the right way," destroying their confidence and stunting their development along the way.

But while I don't think Detroit would've won in 2004 with one of those players, I could certainly find room on this year's roster for Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade. (For the sake of my ears and the throats of talk radio hosts all across Detroit, I hope Flip Saunders avoids leaving Bosh or Wade on the floor when he inserts the four Piston All-Stars into the game this weekend.)

But you can't have it both ways, and winning one title, coming within minutes of another and sporting the league's best record at the break this year is reason enough not to wish Darko any ill will as he moves on to Orlando. He's joining two of the nicest guys in the league in Grant Hill and Dwight Howard, and I wish him all the success in the world.

And, sadly for Detroit fans, I'm quite confident he'll still find that success. Much like how Portland fans shake their head at Jermaine O'Neal, Hornets fans regret trading Kobe and Boston/Toronto/Denver/Orlando/Minnesota fans wish they held onto Chauncey Billups, Darko will most likely move on to enjoy a long and prosperous career on a team different than that which originally drafted him. On a championship-caliber, All-Star-laden team, there just wasn't enough room for him to develop.

Maybe it's just fate's way of setting things right, since Darko was never supposed to be on the Pistons in the first place. Otis Thorpe was a fine, fine player, but he was on the downward slope of his career when the Pistons dealt him to the Grizzlies for a future first-round pick in 1997.

The Grizzlies renaissance never quite happened, and after years of protecting the pick and delaying the inevitable, the Grizzlies were forced to give up the second overall pick of the 2003 draft to a team that came within two games of making a trip to the NBA Finals. Maybe the future first-rounder Orlando is giving up (top five protected in 2007, no protection in 2008) will end up just as high.

And if not, well, the team was playing with house money in the first place. And at least Pistons fans can take solace in the fact that their real first-round pick from 2003 -- 23 picks after Darko -- is looking like a keeper.