SACRAMENTO, Calif. – With 3:31 left in the first quarter, Andre Miller(notes) finally shed his warm-ups, left the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench and stepped onto the court. Miller’s delayed entrance to the game wasn’t because of injury; as the NBA’s reigning ironman, he hasn’t missed a game in more than six years. Nor was Miller being punished for violating a team rule.
The reason for the benching was simple: The Blazers aren’t ready to call Miller their starting point guard, even if he was the team’s most significant acquisition of the offseason.
Instead, Miller finds himself battling for the job with Steve Blake(notes) – the same guy for whom the Blazers spent the summer searching for an upgrade. After coming off the bench for Portland’s first two preseason games, Miller started Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers. He played well and is expected to start again in the preseason, but Blazers coach Nate McMillan still seems to like the idea of bringing Miller off the bench.
For Miller, the unexpected competition is only one of a handful of issues that have made it challenging for him to get settled with his new team.
“If I was told right out when I had my meetings that I would be a backup, then I wouldn’t have come here,” Miller told Yahoo! Sports this week.
McMillan has said he told Miller during their summer meeting in Las Vegas that he very well might make him a reserve. What is clear is that Miller wasn’t Portland’s first choice on the free-agent market. The Blazers initially thought they had a deal with forward Hedo Turkoglu(notes) only to see Turkoglu leave for Toronto. They then signed forward Paul Millsap(notes) to an offer sheet the Utah Jazz matched.
Through it all, the Blazers also wanted to find a veteran floor general to help lead one of the league’s most talented, yet youngest, rosters. The Blazers inquired about trading for Steve Nash(notes) and expressed some interest in signing Jason Kidd(notes), but both players stayed with their respective teams, so they gave Miller a three-year, $21 million contract. The $7 million third season is at Portland’s option.
Miller has shown flashes of how he can help the Blazers. He’s a smooth, smart point guard who throws a great lob pass. He should help the Blazers, one of the league’s slowest-paced teams, improve their fast break, even though he’s not exceptionally athletic himself.
Miller has started every regular-season game but one since his rookie year, but McMillan is seriously considering having him lead the team’s bench. Greg Oden(notes) also got his first start of the preseason on Friday, and the opening lineup looked ragged at times. Miller is clearly a better all-around point guard than Blake – who is a much more dependable 3-point threat – but McMillan says it’s more important who closes games than starts.
“We will look at what works for this team,” McMillan said. “He’s played well with the starting group as also the group he’s coming off the bench with.”
Miller has long believed he is one of the NBA’s most underappreciated point guards, which makes the current situation even more difficult for him to swallow. He averaged a well-rounded 16.3 points, 6.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds for Philadelphia last season and has played in 530 consecutive games, the league’s longest active streak.
“I feel like I have to continue to prove myself,” Miller said. “I don’t think I’m respected as a player. I have no idea [why].
“There are only so many point guards you can talk about and their accomplishments and stuff like that. I have a pretty good, solid resume, but I don’t think it’s respected. Head up, I think I’m just as good as any point guard in this league, defensively and offensively.”
The biggest knock on Miller is that he has never won big. He’s made the playoffs five of the past six seasons, but has never advanced past the first round. He’s not a good 3-point shooter and few people remember the last time he dunked, so wide-spread popularity has never followed him.
“Dre is a baller and he knows how to play the game,” McMillan said. “I would put his IQ up there right with the top point guards in the league as far as knowing what to do in this league on the basketball floor with the players that he has.
“You look at guys like a [John] Stockton, who give the ball to the players and understand the time and score situation. You’re talking about the top guards as far as basketball IQ and taking advantage of what they do as well as their teammates can do.”
Miller arrived at Portland on Sept. 14 to get acclimated to his new teammates and city, but his first month in town hasn’t endeared him to the locals. The Oregonian reported Miller was the only player with a guaranteed contract who didn’t pass a conditioning test at the beginning of training camp. Miller admitted he didn’t pass the test – which required running baseline to baseline and back 10 times within a minute – by eight seconds, but he also said he wasn’t the only player that failed. While the paper reported Miller was punished with a week of extra conditioning with the strength and conditioning coach, Miller said he actually chose to do the work.
Miller said he weighs 213 pounds now, hopes to be in the 203-206 range during the season and is in the same shape that he’s always in this time of the year. He also points to the fact that he’s missed only three games his entire career as evidence that his conditioning has never been an issue.
“I know I didn’t make it,” Miller said. “And if I didn’t make it, there were probably two to four other guys that didn’t make it. And afterward, those guys came to me and told me that their times were fixed.”
The Blazers have a collegial spirit to them that is unique in the NBA. Miller is a self-described loner, which has raised questions about how he’ll fit in with the we-are-family franchise. The Oregonian reported Miller didn’t have a lengthy conversation with Roy during the first week of practice and Miller has been slow to discuss his private life with local reporters. When a caller to a Portland radio station said Miller didn’t sign an autograph for his son at a mall, that sparked further questions about his affability.
“I just come get the work done, go hoop and go home,” said Miller, who, at 33, is much older than most of his teammates. “There are a couple other players probably quieter than me. Nicolas Batum(notes) don’t say nothing.
“I’m sitting on the baseline and I’m hearing fans in the audience say, ‘Sit with the team.’ I just got here. [The fan] said, ‘Sit with the team. Stop acting like that.’
“I was like, ‘Damn.’ They wouldn’t have said that if [the media] didn’t give a false impression. I never have had any problems with any fans. I socialize with fans at appearances and in public.”
Since the end of the “Jail Blazers” era, Portland fans are understandably sensitive about the character of their players. If it makes them feel better, Miller has a young son, is not married, loves dogs and has stayed out of trouble after being raised by his mother in the tough streets of Watts in Los Angeles. Miller hopes the fans will focus more on what he can do to make them a championship contender than how he would choose to spend his time on a deserted island.
“I’ve always been a team player, always been about winning,” he said.
Miller maintains he wants to be in Portland, and why wouldn’t he? The Blazers have surrounded him with the best collection of talent he’s had in his career. He just wants to focus on the job at hand.
“The big thing for Andre is we know who he is,” Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard said. “He just has to be Andre. He is the most cerebral player we’ve had in a long time.
“And trust me, the city will embrace him and wants to embrace him. We are known for the mantra of, ‘Keep Portland weird.’ Dre will fit in.”