Over the course of the playoffs, Andrew Unterberger will be taking a deeper look at some of the more interesting characters at the center of the drama of the second season. First up: Denver Nuggets point guard Andre Miller.
You’d be forgiven as an NBA fan, especially before this weekend, for not knowing that Andre Miller had never won a playoff series. It’s an 0-fer that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as that of, say, Tracy McGrady, or of either Grant Hill or Miller’s old teammate Carmelo Anthony before they finally got to the second round. But indeed, the 37-year-old Denver Nuggets point guard has made it to the postseason eight times before this season, with three different teams (four if you count his two stints in Denver separately), and thusfar he’s 0-8 — though for what it’s worth, he’s been inching ever closer to second-round survival, lasting five games in his first three postseasons, six games in his next four, and seven games in his eighth, last year’s showdown with the Lakers.
This year might very well be his year. Dre himself had a good deal of say in that during the Nuggets’ playoff opener on Saturday, where he scored a season-high 28 points, including the game-winning layup in the final seconds, to propel the Nuggets to a dramatic 97-95 victory over the Golden State Warriors in what was easily the best finish of any game this weekend. The Nuggets now lead 1-0 in a series that they were heavy favorites in even before the Warriors’ lone All-Star, David Lee, was ruled out for the rest of the season with a torn hip flexor. After the game, the veteran point guard called his last-second layup the first game-winner of his career on any level, which while slightly unbelievable (depending on your definition of “game-winner,” anyway), would be sort of fitting for Andre Miller.
Like few other players in the league, Miller has had a standout career of never really standing out. In addition to never winning a playoff series, he’s never made an All-Star team, never received an MVP vote, never been named anything besides an All-Rookie first-teamer. Casual NBA fans might only have passing recognition of his name and face, and if you’re not a fan at all, there’s basically no chance that you’ve even heard of him. If you watched him for a few minutes in an average game, you might be stunned by how unimpressive he looks, with his set-shot jumper, stilted drive to the basket, and ugly overhead release. When he eventually retires in 2029, there’ll be little more than the minimum of discussion about his Hall of Fame chances, and after perhaps a couple of courtesy appearances on the ballot, his name and his game will be lost to the ravages of time.
Yet he’s put together some of the best counting numbers of his generation, currently ranking in the top 10 among active players in assists (3rd), steals (8th) and games played (9th). And even at age 37, he continues to play at a higher level than nearly anyone in his 1999 draft class – especially the seven players who were drafted above him, five of whom were All-Stars, but only three of whom are still playing in the league, and none of whom played more than 22 minutes a game this year. (Miller averaged 26.2.) He’s had the career of one of those guys who, where 15 years from now, people are going to be playing Sporcle quizzes and being stunned when his name keeps coming up as an answer. “Andre Miller’s in the top 10 all-time in assists? He led the whole league one year? And he actually scored 52 points in a game???”
A handful of factors have led to Andre Miller’s career-long relative anonymity, something that shouldn’t really be possible for a player that’s been as good as he has as consistently and for as long as he has. First and foremost, he’s had a journeyman’s career uncommon to a player of his stature, never lasting more than three full seasons on any one team at a time, having been traded three times and having left as a free agent twice. He’s never stayed with any franchise long enough to take root as a core player, and thus has spent his career as more of a hired gun, a player shuffled from one team to another as the situation dictated, providing dutiful service for a reasonable price (Miller’s salary has only once sneaked into double-digit millions for the year), but always leaving town before the sun comes up.
That fits Miller especially well, because he’s never appeared to have any particular attachment to any team or playing situation he’s been involved with. In fact, Miller might be the single least sentimental player in the NBA, whether bolting from the Clippers (an ostensible hometown team, with Miller hailing from Compton) after one disastrous season, responding to questions about his tenure in Philadelphia with “Philly’s alright, ya know, as long as I got a job, I’m happy,” fighting over ball control with Brandon Roy in Portland, and griping about coming off the bench in each of his last two stops. For such a great on-court leader, Miller has been consistently hesitant to be particularly rah-rah off the court, even counting himself among the doubters about this year’s Nuggets team’s postseason ceiling, saying “I don’t even think you can even advance in the playoffs without that marquee player.” The NBA is full of journeymen, of course, but only Andre Miller seems to perhaps prefer it that way, always keeping one eye on the front door, readying for his next move.
Of course, you could say that the reason Andre’s never stuck anywhere for long is simply because he’s never been anywhere worth sticking. For a guy who’s become synonymous with “old” in the NBA — even 51-year-old Jeff Van Gundy was calling him “Old Man Miller” on yesterday’s broadcast — ‘Dre keeps finding himself stuck with a bunch of kids. Over his 14-year career, he’s been acquired to make sense of the Clippers’ mess of young talent in the early ’00s, to pair with a young Carmelo Anthony on the increasingly unhinged Nuggets teams of the mid-’00s, to see the young, rebuilding, Andre Iguodala-led Sixers through the post-Allen Iverson era in the late ’00s, and to help a young, up-and-coming Blazers core take the next step to contender status. Key word in all of those situations, of course: Young, young, young.
It’s not totally by coincidence, of course — despite his lack of obvious athleticism, Miller’s incredible court vision and ability to find his teammates while on the move (particularly with his breathtaking alley-oop passes) makes him an ideal choice to lead a young-legged run-and-gun team. But such youth-and-athleticism-based teams rarely find sustained success in the postseason, and Andre’s never had that opportunity to slip in to a role as a stabilizing force on a contending, veteran team, like Jason Kidd did with the Mavericks, and now the Knicks. Consequently, this Nuggets team is the first team Miller’s played on to win over 50 games, and the first to be the clear favorite in their first round series. The only other time Andre’s even had home court advantage was on the ’06 Nuggets, which had a mediocre 44-38 record (worse than the sixth-seeded Clippers they would eventually lose to) and only got to the three seed by virtue of winning a decrepit Northwest Division.
And that’s not even to say that this team is any kind of change of pace for Miller. Again he finds himself surrounded by young’ns looking to turn basketball into track and field, the only player on the team not currently in his 20s. (Rookies Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller were both five when ‘Dre led Utah to the NCAA national championship game in 1998.) It’s just that this is by far the best, most comprehensive of the many youth-and-athleticism-based teams Andre Miller has played on, one where just about any player on the floor at a given point in time is a threat to leak out on the fast break for one of his length-of-the-court outlet passes, or slam down one of his on-a-rope, halfcourt alley-oop lobs. It’s weaponry of a caliber that Miller’s never quite had before, and you can believe he’s made the most of it:
But there is one difference between this season’s Nuggets and just about any other team Miller has played on as a pro: On this team, he also gets to close.
On his past teams, crunch time has generally belonged to the likes of Anthony, Iguodala and Roy, but in his second go-round with the Nuggets — especially after marksman Danilo Gallinari was lost for the season to a torn ACL, and leading scorer Ty Lawson missed time with foot trouble — Miller has been improbably (but not inaccurately) tabbed as the team’s most reliable late-game scoring option, the one player with the moves and savvy to always be able to at least get up a decent shot, generally pulling up for a jumper off a drive, or hopefully even getting all the way to the basket.
So last Saturday, when Warriors guard Stephen Curry hit a ridiculous-for-anyone-else corner three to tie the game at 95-95, the Nuggets didn’t hesitate on their next play to draw up a clear-out — and I mean ALL THE WAY out — for Andre Miller at the top of the arc, versus Draymond Green, Golden State’s skilled-but-inexperienced defensive stopper. Green’s 14-year advantage in athleticism was no match for Miller’s 14-year advantage in craftiness, and the veteran guard was somehow able to sneak around and underneath the long wing defender for a reverse layup. Not only was it Miller’s first game-winner (according to him), but at age 37, it was his first nationally televised, high-stakes, individual standout moment, a time where Andre Miller made absolutely positive that you would remember his name the next day.
Whether he can break that postseason streak and finally get to the second round this season is still to be determined, and as good a win as Game One ended up being for the Nuggets, they have to be at least a little worried that the Warriors were in that game at all. But until the series re-commences tomorrow night, Andre Miller and the many hoop heads who have loved following his creaky, awkward, and bafflingly successful game over the years can rejoice in what a singular moment this was for one of the NBA’s most under-appreciated players of the 21st century. Even if they lose the series, and it’s on to the next one for Miller in free agency this offseason, we’ll never look at him quite the same way again.