NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com on Tuesday night that the Pistons and Orlando Magic were close to completing a long-discussed trade that would relocate Milicic, 2003's No. 2 overall pick, to central Florida. The trade could be completed as early as Wednesday, sources said, with only one potential snag.
The sides, according to sources, are bartering over the extent of lottery protection Orlando would have on the first-round pick it has agreed to send Detroit along with center Kelvin Cato for Milicic and guard Carlos Arroyo.
It's thought Orlando is seeking to retain this year's first-round pick -- and convey its 2007 first-rounder to Detroit instead -- if the Magic's pick winds up in the top seven of the June draft. The deal would collapse if the sides can't come to a resolution -- with Detroit looking to reduce Orlando's level of protection by a few spots -- but it's clear the Pistons have made the decision to move Milicic before the Feb. 23 trading deadline after giving him a chance to earn a rotation spot under new coach Flip Saunders.
Milicic hasn't played much more for Saunders than he did for Larry Brown, unleashing a new wave of second-guesses on Detroit's decision to draft the Serbian 7-footer over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade ... even though the Pistons won the championship in Darko's rookie season and came within one game of a repeat title last season.
Yet, even if Milicic had established himself as a rotation regular under Saunders, it's doubtful the Pistons could have afforded to retain him beyond this summer. With Ben Wallace bound for free agency in July and Chauncey Billups expected to seek a lucrative contract extension before becoming a free agent in the summer of 2007, Detroit needs Cato's expiring contract ($8.6 million this season) to create the salary-cap space to re-sign both comfortably and keep together its vaunted starting lineup.
After Wallace and Billups re-sign, all five Pistons starters will possess contracts averaging at least $10 million per season -- an NBA rarity but a necessity for Pistons president Joe Dumars given the success and relative youth (Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace are both 31) of the group.
While Orlando continues to explore its Steve Francis trade options, this move would give Milicic a chance to play immediately alongside franchise forward Dwight Howard. It might also eventually give the Magic two highly touted but unproven European big men for its frontcourt rotation, with the Magic still hopeful they will have 2005 first-round pick Fran Vazquez (who controversially elected to play in Spain this season) in the near future.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.