WITH CLOCK TICKING, DARKO HAD TO GO

He was the firecracker that we watched as kids, standing in a circle, hands in our ears. It fizzled. It went poof.

“Is that it?” we asked.

Darko Milicic never exploded. You knew it. I knew it. Anyone who watched him play over the years knew it. He looked tentative. He looked lost. With that long, nimble frame, you kept wanting him to turn into something great, someone worthy of being one pick behind LeBron James, so much so that any little move he made – one dunk, one block – was greeted with “Aha! There’s the potential!”

And there goes the potential – after fewer than 100 regular-season games and a career average of less than two points a night. It was only three years ago that Joe Dumars and Rick Carlisle sat by a TV in a New Jersey arena and hollered with joy when Detroit got the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery. The two men walked down the tunnel high-fiving each other.

But time moves quickly in the NBA. Carlisle is gone. Now, so is Darko. And if this was a rare miscalculation by Dumars, you have to say this: He doesn’t sit around and let mistakes fester.

“It was time to move on,” Dumars said Wednesday night in an e-mail. He pulled the trigger with the philosophy that has guided his so-far stellar reign in Detroit: Don’t be afraid to say good-bye.

Darko wasn’t going to contribute

Remember, this is the same Pistons president of basketball operations who parted with beloved Grant Hill, who dealt superstar Jerry Stackhouse, who gave up on previous first-round picks Mateen Cleaves and Rodney White. Dumars has overhauled the entire roster since his arrival, including several big-name coaches. He doesn’t get sentimental. He can’t afford to. And the one thing you can say about those who leave here: They rarely go on to prove Dumars wrong.

“There was not one moment,” Dumars answered when asked when he knew it was time to pull the plug on The Darko Experiment. “It was simply evaluating the situation over the past 2 1/2 years and coming to the conclusion that it would be best for both sides.”

Remember, the clock is always ticking in the NBA, toward free agency, toward middle age, toward the inevitable flame-out of a coach.

Darko was not going to make a difference this season. Dumars saw that. New coach Flip Saunders hasn’t been able to milk anything more out of the 7-foot Serbian than Larry Brown did. And once this year is over, the Pistons have money issues with Ben Wallace as a free agent and Chauncey Billups likely to seek a contract extension.

It’s a wonderful thing to have the best starting five in the NBA.

But it ain’t cheap to keep them.

Darko simply didn’t work out

So the Pistons gain cap space here, plus a future first-round pick, plus another big body in Kelvin Cato from Orlando, a veteran whose contract is expiring, but still has career numbers three times those of Darko. He could provide depth. Carlos Arroyo will be missed, but backup guards are not hard to find.

As for those who say the Pistons blew it with Darko – they could have drafted Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade instead? Well, factually, that’s true. But had that happened, these Pistons wouldn’t be these Pistons, because somebody else would be gone. And these Pistons, during Darko’s stay, have one championship and one near-championship.

It’s hard to argue the results.

“We loved his talent when we drafted him, but it didn’t work out here in Detroit,” Dumars wrote.

It’s best for Darko. It’s best for the Pistons. It just wasn’t best for Darko and the Pistons. Maybe others want to harp on what could have been. Dumars seems intent on looking forward and betting that the boom we never heard in Detroit won’t be haunting him any time soon.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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