FanPost

The Curious Case of Andre Miller: How we have bungled the gift of a very good basketball player

 


This is my first post:  I've been lurking for a couple years now, and only in the wake of Andre's explosion at practice yesterday, and Ben's post concluding that Andre must "Put up or shut up" which, as much as I love Ben, infuriated me, has my slowly seething unease for how the Blazers have mishandled Andre ever since we signed him boiled over into action.  I feel the need to say something.  It is long, it rambles, but it comes from the heart.  Here is my defense of Andre Miller.

  Andre Miller is a very good player, one of the few who makes everyone else he plays with better.  He is not a great player who you can build a franchise around, but he is a very good player.  A decade of consistently above average production and the active ironman streak are testaments to that.  Other than the truth of mortality, which manifests itself in the basketball world by telling us basketball players tend to decline past the age of 30, there was no reason to believe Andre Miller couldn't replicate the success he's had in career when he signed him this offseason.  In fact, his past two seasons were his two best since 2003-2004, which suggests he is the rare player who has gotten better as he ages. (I'm going off PER: his PER the last two years was 19 and 18.5, the previous 3 years or so it had been around 16.5-17.5, if you don't know how PER works go to the bottom of this article I try to explain it)*.  We also know that veteran point guards with high assist numbers tend to play at an elite level longer than the many who are in the NBA because of their superior athleticism that deserts them as they age (examples: Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups type players are good players longer then the Shawn Kemps and Charles Barkleys of the world).

 I’m more of a statistics guy then most (John Hollinger is my hero), but any way you slice it Andre is an upgrade over Blake from an efficiency standpoint, and that was with Blake having a career year (Andre's PER was 18.5 last year while Blake's was 14.5: Blakes had been around 11 the previous 3 years).  The only question was whether we could make it work with Andre, whose style of play was much different than what we had become accustomed to with Blake.

Despite the success we had last year, where our PG was an excellent spot up shooter that did little if any creating on his own and our great SG ran the show, it was clear in the playoffs that "The System" that McMillain adhered to last year, which was  a slow, methodical half court offense that was very effective per possession due to Brandon Roy's greatness (Brandon was one of the top 3 to 7 players in just about every offensive metric that rates per possession efficiency), LaMarcus's very goodness (PER of 19 last year, thats getting into fringe all-star territory), and the rest of the team's general offensive averageness to slightly above averageness.  Perhaps if this year's improved Oden had stayed healthy (and learned to stay on the floor longer), Brandon remembered how to play like the superstar he is while Oden is on the floor, LaMarcus hadn't gotten worse, and Blake replicated last year's shooting success, then Oden's improvement alone would have taken the team and system we had last year to the next level.  Between Oden's offensive efficiency and his defensive enforcing, Oden was a game-changing force when he was on the floor this year almost to the same level superstar Brandon is, and he was only going to get better.  Alas, it was not meant to be.  Get well Greg.

  So we bring in Andre Miller to make us a better team.  I thought it was a brilliant move.  We got him for a bargain basement price, a steal.  Here I must dispel a fallacy running rampant around BEdge and the other Blazer media outlets: we got such a good deal on Andre NOT because GMs across the league saw him as some sort of cancerous player who brings team mediocrity wherever he goes, but rather because there simply wasn't high demand for a veteran point guard in the market.  We were literally the only contender looking for a PG: the only other teams with $ to spend were young teams who already had point guards or had just drafted PGs.  Not only that, but many teams were being crushed by the recession and had to pinch pennies just so their owners didn't go bankrupt.  AND on top of that many teams were holding on to their cap space for next year's off-season when the LeBron/Wade/Bosh free agency sweepstakes would begin.  No, it was not because Miller is bad cheese: he is widely regarded as a good player around the league and a good guy whose only quality that can be seen as negative is that he keeps to himself and doesn’t talk much to the media.  The reason no one else signed him is simple supply and demand: Miller was a luxury good that few could afford or had any interest in at the time.  It was the perfect storm for us to get Miller at a low price.  In fact, it was so perfect that we could take our time courting him and pursue other guys who might fit "The System" better since we knew he'd probably be around later. 

  While I'm dealing with fallacies about Miller's character, the other character knock on him that I keep hearing is that he isn't a winner, that he's never made it out of the first round, that he's not a "championship point guard".   I think this argument is just a load of hog wash.  Do you know how many players there are that are good enough to make a team a contender on their own, let alone a playoff team?  There's one.  His name is Lebron James.  Kobe can do it with a little help, but I don't think he's there with LeBron (remember all those years the Lakers were Kobe, Lamar, and then riff raff like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown?  Kobe was great individually, but his team wasn't any better than a first round playoff exit.  There's a reason Bill Simmons lists LeBron twice in his top 10 players in the league: there is only one LeBron**).   Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade can get to a similar level to Kobe, depending on the year and their health.  Then there's a bunch of guys like Tim Duncan (who used to be like LeBron but age gets the best of us all: if Timmay could still play 40 minutes a game he could do it), Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Carmelo, and some other guys who can't quite carry a team like LeBron, Kobe, Paul, or Wade and need slightly more help.  These are the superstars, the best in the game, and many of them have not won championships and only have a few playoff series victories.  Brandon is, by my estimation, somewhere between LeBron and the rest of these guys right now, not quite on the same level as Paul, Wade, and Kobe, but getting closer. 

   The point I'm trying to make is that it is not fair to question Andre's ability simply because he hasn't made it out of the first round before.  He's a very good player, but he's no superstar, and he hasn't exactly played with all time greats.  Through no fault of his own, the best player Andre had played with before this year is either Carmelo Anthony in his first few years in the league when he thought he was God's gift to the world, shot every time he touched the basketball, and played ZERO defense, or Andre Iguadola, who, like Miller, is a good but not great player no matter how hard Philly fans cry in the night for him to be something more. 

  Our early season struggles against good teams were not the fault of Andre Miller coming in and disrupting "The System".   There is no question Andre was, until recently, playing more like a league average point guard then the consistently fringe all-star point guard he has been in the past (his PER had been around 15 for almost the entire season until recently, now its closer to 16: thats what a 22 point, 16 assist explosion can do for you). He has not responded well to the different and ever-shifting role he has played with the Blazers so far this season.  His early season struggles have been magnified by the fact that journalists blew his complaint about starting into a huge deal, he is a career long slow starter (he has always played his way into shape, whether or not  you think that is OK its something the Blazers should have known and taken into account), he doesn’t have a pretty jumper (its ugly, but before this year has been quite effective: he’s been a better than league average midrange shooter for his career), and the fact that we all have a natural inclination to favor Blake and Bayless as tenured Blazers.  

   Despite all this, Miller was not the reason for our early season troubles.  It was more because, aside from Oden's brilliance at center (PER: 22, a huge upgrade over Pryzbilla's last year PER of 15.4, and remember Oden's boost at center was partially cancelled out by Pryzbilla playing pretty terribly until Oden went down), production was WAY down from all other positions: Brandon was playing like a fringe all star instead of a superstar (PER 19 instead of 24, his hot streak has gotten it up to about 22 now), Blake was shooting atrociously and doing nothing else except turn the ball over (I remember his PER being 9 earlier this season instead of the 14.5 it was last year, its in the 10-11 range now), Martell despite some early season fireworks was a fair mark worse then the combo of Nic Batum and Outlaw (Batum was a 12.5 and a much better defender than Martell, while Outlaw PERd 15.5, a number that doesn't do  him justice: he was one of the best in the league at creating his own shot at any point in the game with any amount of time left on the shot clock. Outlaw could ALWAYS get off a shot that has about a 41% chance of going in, a useful skill that PER is unable to quantify.  Martell's recent great play has bumped his PER up to 12-13 range, I didn't see what it was before but it must have been in the 10-11 range), and LaMarcus has done the opposite of what he has done the last few years: taken a small step backwards instead of forwards (PER of 19 last year, 17.5 so far this year).  Blaming Andre for not fitting “The System” is ignoring the fact all these other guys were underperforming too, and I really doubt a veteran point guard with a reputation for unselfishness could mess things up so much that he was making everyone else play badly as well: Nate hadn't changed a thing offensively for Andre and he wasn't even starting!

  Wanting Andre to fit "The System" was doomed from the beginning:  The system requires that your PG be very low risk by not pushing the fast break and slowing it down so that we can work mechanically through Brandon's greatness, and, most importantly, the system's PG must be able to drain a three when BRoy draws the double team.  When the Blazers signed Miller, nobody had any delusions he could shoot the three.  Pritchard didn't.  McMillain (I hope) didn't.  Andre certainly didn't: he never shoots a three unless there is no time on the clock.  Also unlike “The System”, one of Andre's strengths is that he can push the break and get easy buckets.  For all the Blazer offense's success last year, the fast break was probably its greatest shortcoming: despite having some long, fast players who can finish at the rim in transition(LA, Rudy, Outlaw, Batum), we did not have the ball handling chops nor the coaching desire and possibly wherewithal to fast break.  I thought Andre was supposed to change that, as well as provide us with the second penetration option in the half court that it was clear we needed after the Houston series.  I envisioned an even more destructive offensive machine: one that looked for easy buckets with highflying fast break finishes thanks to Miller and still had the killer half court game that revolved around BRoy.  I thought that the system would adapt some to play to Miller's many strengths as well as lessen his one glaring weakness (3 pt shooting), and that Miller, as a smart veteran player with a long track record bereft of confrontation with his coaching staff who came here to win, would in turn adapt by deferring to Roy in the half court and understand that, with the offensive weapons the Blazers already have, we didn't need to run and gun or rely on him as much as he had to do to get victories with a less talented roster in Philly.  Instead of making these changes, of creating a symbiotic relationship with Miller, from Day One of training camp it was clear that McMillain wanted to stick with "The System" without adapting it for Miller much at all, and to stick with Blake at starting PG.

   I have a simile for McMillain's choice to stick with Blake over Andre, and "The System" from last year instead of some integrated new offense that uses Andre's gifts.  Its like McMillain is a Medieval King, lets call him King of Blazeria, and he has the best army in all the land (The Blazers offense last year was the most efficient in the league).  His battle strategy relies a lot on the bow and arrow (Steve Blake).  Then, someone in Blazeria invents the gun, and gives it to McMillain to use in his army (we sign Andre).  Now the gun is clearly a much more deadly weapon the the bow and arrow.  That's not to say that the bow and arrow doesn't have some advantages: it could shoot farther than the Medieval gun (Blakes a better 3 pt shooter), and it doesn't backfire (last year's Blake was a lower risk option than Andre).  Despite these disadvantages, the gun is widely regarded as a superior killing machine then the bow and arrow even though it must be implemented differently then the bow and arrow in combat.  However, instead of changing his battle tactics to best utilize his new weapon, King McMillain says to himself "Well, I've had a lot of success with my battle strategy in the past, so instead of adapting to best use my shiny new weapon I'm just going to stick the guns where all the bows and arrows used to be and see how that goes." It doesn't go very well: the gun works quite differently then the bow and arrow.  As a result, the King gets uncomfortable with his strange new weapon, doesn't know how or want to change to make his already great army an even better killing machine, and simply puts his guns away, busts out all his trusty bows and arrows and says "It worked pretty well last year!  Get em Blakey!"

  That's why it pains me to hear that McMillain told Miller "You don't play the way we want to play!"  Andre Miller is a finished product, a damn good one at that, and there was no way he was going to change enough to be an effective cog in Mcmillain's "The System".  Did Nate McMillain EVER talk to Andre about what his role is on this team?  Has he approached Miller to talk to him?  I know McMillain has an open door policy, but as head coach shouldn't he go talk to a player if he feels that player might be upset about something or not on the same page?  Did they ever have an open dialogue before yesterday about how to integrate Andre's gifts into McMillains system?  This is a player's league: coaches exist to serve great players, not the other way around.  Thats college basketball.  In the NBA a coach cannot force a team to fit his system and win because his system is best: there are too many great individual players and too many coaches willing to adapt to their players to maximize success.   Instead, the coach should adapt his strategy to fit his players strengths.  If McMillain thought that making such a shift to best use Andre would hurt the rest of the team, then 'Dre shouldn't of been signed in the first place. I think Nate's inflexibility and lack of communication with his players are Nate's greatest shortcomings.

            Despite all the ways he has been mishandled, confused, and, most tragically, underutilized, Miller has pretty much held his tongue until now.  I must say I’m surprised. Put yourself in his shoes.  He has been almost deceived by McMillain as to what his role would be on the team, at least that is the impression we get from what Andre said about how he thought he was coming here to start.  He has been given no leeway as a veteran.  From the moment he showed up for training camp out of shape, something he’s done his whole career and been fine, he has been in Nate’s doghouse, and the media egomaniacs have gone to town on him(Seriously, we should all write the Oregonian to fire Jason Quick: he’s the biggest cancer in that locker room.  Canzano’s bad too, but he’s more of a clown: harmless, a muckraker, the sporting equivalent of a tabloid writer: simply stirring the bees nest for the sake of chaos and publicity.  It is lazy journalism but hopefully everyone understands that.  Plus he has my man John Strong on his talk show, and I have to give him props for that).  He has been treated like a rookie by McMillain in the sense that he has had to earn his playing time, something I find ridiculous: Andre has earned his playing time with his long, successful career.   Yet he held his tongue as he sat behind Steve Blake.  When McMillain decided to give Bayless more burn, a second year player who everyone believes is having a break out year (which he is of sorts) yet is STILL a less effective player than Miller has been this year (Bayless PER: 14.7 right now, Miller’s is 15.7), he held his tongue.  He knew he was going to be taking a back seat to Brandon, LA, and maybe even Greg, but to Steve Blake and a second year guy who didn’t play at all last year?  He still held his tongue.  Only now, when he has finally gotten a chance to show what he can do with Blake getting pneumonia, being in better shape, finally having the jumper he’s made his whole life fall a couple games, and the final straw being on the bench in that Memphis game we probably would have won if he had been in the game to do what a veteran point guard knows how to do, take care of the basketball and manage the clock, does he explode.  

  I think he held his tongue this long for a very noble reason: Andre wants to be a Blazer.  He wants to win.  Andre continues to say he wants to stay in Portland despite clearly being angry all season with how we have mishandled him.  He cared enough to explode at practice explode yesterday and say how he felt instead of just deciding “I’m paid, I don’t care” or making it a big deal he wasn’t starting at the beginning of the year because he wants to win.  He needs Brandon and the rest of the talented young Blazers squad to win.  He knows he’s a trade away from being back on a mediocre team, back in NBA purgatory, with no rings in sight for the rest of his career.  Here, with Brandon, the best player he’s ever played with, he has a chance.  Its too bad they all aren't better communicators, this would have gone so much better.  

  I think we need him too.  We haven’t even given him a chance to be the player he has been his whole career, a starting point guard who plays lots of minutes and finishes games.  The player he has been the last couple games and the player he has been for the past couple seasons would be a huge asset to our team. I honestly think if Roy keeps playing like a superstar, Andre keeps playing well, either Bayless and Rudy can be a consistent 6th man scorer for us, and if we can swing Blake and Outlaw’s expiring contracts for a serviceable center (I'd take Dalembert, he's league average and all we need is a big body), we can still contend this year in spite of everything.  If Lamarcus figures it out than too than we could be really, really scary.  I know that is a lot of ifs, but really all I'm asking is for 3 players to play like they have in the past (Roy, Andre, LA) and one of two talented young guys to take the next step (sorry Bayless fans, but he’s still been too inconsistent for me to say he's truly arrived.  For a few games there I was on the bandwagon, but now I remember why its so hard to be good for a long time in the NBA: despite Bayless’s heroics, he’s a below average player in terms of efficiency for the year at 14.7!  Andre has proven he can produce for a long time, lets not be too hasty to hand the keys to the car to the snazzy young whipper snapper while we still have a very good vet around). 

  Everyone saying trade Andre, put up or shut up Andre, cut the cord and lets move on, lets take a deep breath.  Lets not get too tied up in the moment, lets remember that day to day happenings and week to week stats are not always the best indication of what will happen in the future.  Lets remember that Dre has been a good player and an admired person in this league for a long time: we all hit rough spots, we all lose our cool, we all struggle to adapt to new places, we all know what its like to feel unappreciated and misused, and to want the chance to prove what we can do even if we don't feel like we should have to.  Lets hope Nate gives him a real chance now (pray would be more appropriate, I don't know how Nate is going to react to this) to play as he has in the past.  Andre is not not  perfect player, nor a perfect person.  No doubt about that.  But he’s a very good player, one of the most fun to watch in the league when he's on, and someone who I think would fit very well if we tried to meet him halfway instead of taking a hard line with him.  Let Andre be Andre for a little while, and I think all of us, you, me, Ben, Andre, Brandon, and Nate, will all be singing a happier tune.

 

*      For those of you who don’t know how PER works, check it out here: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?columnist=hollinger_john&id=2850240.  The short version is that it is a measurement of how effective a player is.  A totally average offensive player compared to the rest of the league is a 15.  Lebron is about a 30.  BRoy is a 22 right now, was a 24 last year, and during his recent hot streak has been a 28 or so.  If you’re above 18 and you play a lot, you’re very good and getting close to an all-star type player.  If you’re above a 21 you’re generally an all star.  Anything above 23 and you are usually one of the top 10 in the league.  If you’re a 10 you’d better be really good at D or something, because you aren’t doing much offensively.  Anything less than that and you’re getting into Michael Ruffin territory

** Here’s a link to Simmons article, he mentions the top 10 with LeBron twice in the New Orleans section: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/091223&sportCat=nba

Yes BRoy makes his list, hooray!

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