I don’t want to be a wet noodle, but we shouldn’t throw a party just because the Pistons signed Terry Mills. I know Terry. I like Terry. But facts are facts. He’s a question-mark NBA player with a history of weight problems and only a half- season’s worth of decent pro basketball under his expandable belt. Terry is a nice memory here, we watched him grow up, we cheered his championship season at Michigan.

But since then, his story is sort of Horatio Alger meets Burger King. He came out of college, went to Greece, got fatter, got homesick, went to Denver, got left behind in a fast offense, and was traded to New Jersey, where he got sympathy from Willis Reed, as well as a guaranteed contract. This is how he paid Reed back: by refusing to talk to him after the Pistons gave their offer sheet last month. Mills told Reed, his old mentor, through an agent, “I don’t want you and the Nets anymore. I want Detroit.”

So much for loyalty. Reed saw how much the Pistons were offering and said,

“Have a nice marriage.”

And the deal is done. Mills is a Piston. When Reed, the Nets’ general manager, was asked Wednesday what Mills would offer, he said, “Well, Terry’s supposed to have a low-post game. His agent keeps saying he has one, anyhow.”

You could hear snickering over the phone, which is kind of typical of this whole thing. The Pistons want to act like they’ve plugged the dam with bricks, the Nets want to act like Mills is rainwater; you won’t miss him once he’s gone.

The truth is, the jury is still out on Terry Mills. Way out. The guy has a 7.7-point career average and only showed serious potential for a few months last year, as a backup to Derrick Coleman. Maybe that’s a sign of great things to come. Maybe that’s all he’s got.

No. Wait. That’s not all he’s got.

What he’s got — as of today — is a nice, long, five-year, nearly
$10-million contract with the Pistons, who seem as determined to change as a teenage girl in an ugly dress. Nets add a few discouraging words

Privately, Pistons coaches say, “Hey, we would trade John Salley for Terry Mills straight up.” Good, because they pretty much did. Mills will be cheaper than Salley in the long run — let’s face it, Mills didn’t cost anything other than money, which is good — and the Pistons got a No. 1 draft choice in the Salley deal as well. But is Mills worth as much to this team as Salley was? Can he block shots? Can he defend? Will he offer anything in that critical-yet-always-overlooked area, locker room character?

Who knows? “Our feeling is Terry can play down low, he’s an excellent ball-handler, he runs well, he can rebound well, and he can really pass,” Tom Wilson said.

Well, if he did all that, Tom, he’d be Magic Johnson. The Nets have a different opinion. They claim Mills couldn’t really play down low, was just OK in other areas, and as for running the floor, Chuck Daly — you remember him?
— used this word for Mills: “Lumbering.”

Hmmm. That’s just what I want on my playing card.

“Terry Mills was drifting in oblivion until Willis found him,” Daly added.

In other words, thanks for using us, Terry, to get yourself a big fat deal. See ya later.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Mills comes to Detroit, is boosted by playing before hometown fans, finds his confidence, loses his appetite, reaches the potential that his large body promises, and turns into a topflight player.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Mills gets heavy, slows down the break, shows immaturity when things don’t go his way, feels too much pressure in his hometown, and, as he did in Greece, Denver and Jersey, ultimately wants out.

Take your pick. Pistons shouldn’t rush to make change

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not predicting doom. I am simply saying this is not a franchise-making acquisition. Mills is a nice kid who had a rocky go so far in the NBA. Maybe he works out. It should be noted that the Pistons have a weight clause in Mills’ new contract: He steps on the scale every couple of weeks and gets fined heavily if he’s more than 250 pounds.

It should also be noted that, with Mills’ new salary this year, the Pistons have reached the cap. They can’t do anything else unless they trade or cut someone — and I am wondering if Wilson, Ron Rothstein and company see Mills as justification to trade Dennis Rodman.

I hope not. That would be a mistake.

Mills might rebound. And Olden Polynice might rebound. But Dennis Rodman is a unique talent. When properly motivated, there is still no player who can match him in the NBA — on the boards or on defense. Sure, he’s immature, and he needs the right coach. But isn’t that the rap on Mills, too?

Whatever. Time will tell. Meanwhile, the Pistons now seem addicted to change. And that’s OK. But you roll the dice whenever you do that, and they have rolled the dice on Mills. I hope he works out, I really do. But a sure thing? If you ask me, the only sure thing we know after seeing a kid with two mediocre years in the NBA sign a contract worth nearly $10 million is this:

We should have been basketball players.

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