For whatever reason, several of the league's more entertaining players have fallen off in recent years. Be it due to injury, confidence issues, rotation frustrations, a poor fit, or general ennui in a profession that can get tiresome, these players have disappointed of late. For the next few weeks, we're going to take a look at a list of familiar names that haven't produced familiar games over the last few years. Or, at least players that have produced games that we don't want to be in the habit of familiarizing ourselves with.
Today, we're looking at Miami Heat swingman Mike Miller.
Mike Miller, at age 32 heading into a season that will see him turn 33 midway through his team's year, is past his prime. We can hope for the finest of days and wonder if the worst is behind him, but all historical indications point out that the best isn't ahead of Mike Miller. At his age, even if he were to be coming off of a string of 82-game seasons (instead of 80 combined games in two years), that's just how this league works.
That doesn't mean Miller, who returned to the gym last week after two months of rehab in the wake of his turn on the champion Miami Heat, can't make this all work. And he can make this work, even hitting age 33 midseason, utilizing the same sort of mindset that he championed and we dismissed so easily during his prime years with Memphis, Minnesota, and Washington.
Forget the idea of Mike Miller, designated shooter. The guy can still stroke, but on a team that just added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, that sort of spacing isn't as paramount any more. Nah, forget the bombs. Please welcome, if his body is up to it, the idea of Mike Miller the point forward.
The designated passer. The skip guy. The extra dish after that up fake and drive that drove us so batty when Mike was passing up good looks from long range in Minnesota. The things that Allen and Lewis can't do. Returning from debilitating injuries to try and line up at pressurized 25-footer after sitting on the bench stiffening up for 30 minutes of real time is a tough gig for one of the greats — and Miller, that 40 percent career shooter from long range, is one of the greats. Doesn't matter. The new guys have one trick, you have two. Use the second trick to set up the other guy's one trick.
To fit in this ever-evolving Heat crew, Miller needs to pull off those warm-ups and play the old man game. Shane Battier attempts this as starter every so often, but he's not nearly as gifted or as quick a passer as Miller is. With Dwyane Wade and LeBron James helping to guard quicker opponents and Erik Spoelstra working with a deeper (if much older) rotation as the Heat attempt to defend their championship, the gravy that Mike (new nickname: "If Healthy") Miller could provide doesn't have to come in the packet form of "another potential shooter off the bench."
He could be the next guy to create shots, on a team that sometimes bogs down to obvious (if often brilliant) one on one play. All he has to do is get out of that James Jones mindset.
(After years of us asking him to take up the James Jones mindset. We've changed our, uh, mindset.)
Miller's assist rate (the amount of possessions he used up that ended in an assist) dumped down to single-digit marks in 2010-11 and last season; a shocking dip considering his work in the past. Consider that twice in his career Miller finished a season with a 22 percent assist rate, a mark that quite a few shoot-first starting point guards flirted with last year, and you can understand the drop-off. In terms of per-possession advanced stats, it's not as massive as Reggie Evans turning into a Brook Lopez-styled rebounder next season, but it is a precipitous fall.
All because he was brought in to be "the shooter." Now Ray Allen, and to a lesser extent Rashard Lewis, have been brought in to be "the shooter." As a result, Mike "If Healthy" Miller needs to come back to be "whatever the hell he wants."
And, considering his jerky tone when questioned about his over-passing in Minnesota a few years back (remember this prick move? "I take what's there. It's called basketball; James Naismith invented it a long time ago."), one would hope that Miller would take to acting as a mini-Rick Barry from the wing. Or a mini-Johnny Neumann. Not that one.
This isn't to say Miller has to think pass above all, it's just that his reputation is already intact. Half-asleep bench-mongers on the opposition won't think twice about lunging at his up-fakes from behind the three-point arc because the idea of Mike Miller as a lights out shooter can survive even a 3-32 streak from long range. Better for Miller, to his credit, is the fact that he shot a nasty 45 percent from three-point land last season (up from an NBA-average 36 percent the year before), and is coming off a 7-8 turn from behind the arc in Game 5 of the Finals last June, a performance that cinched Miami's title.
The Heat, for all their unselfish play and frustrating overpassing (at times), are still a squad filled with hungry hands that would love nothing more than to collect a lob and lay-in 12 times a night. We don't doubt that LeBron would love to lead the NBA in assists some day and that Dwyane Wade (after two titles and endless rehabs of his own) just wants to win even if he only contributes three baskets all night, but another creative touch that aides in their scoring wouldn't hurt. Scoping out a curling Allen or Lewis wouldn't hurt, either.
Miller can provide that creative touch. All he has to do is get back to the sort of play that had us bashing our heads against the wall while watching him in Minnesota and Washington a few years ago. And, while he's at it, completely recover from retirement-worthy back and wrist injuries.
If Mike doesn't feel like it? Then he'll always have that 45 percent three-point mark to fall back on. The percentage that out-paced every member of the Miami Heat save for Allen in 2011-12. Allen, to the decimal point, tied Miller at 45.3 percent.
So much gravy. Now get healthy.