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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson • Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon • Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson • Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell • Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash]
THE MATCHUP: Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
Ray Allen earned his first All-Star bid in his fourth season, but he really became a go-to player for the Milwaukee Bucks in his sophomore NBA season. After a tour as a primary option on the Seattle SuperSonics, he accepted a tertiary role with the Celtics in pursuit of a title, making three more trips to the All-Star Game in Boston before losing his starting role in his final year alongside Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. So, we’ll call his prime the 14-season span from Year 2 through Year 15.
From 1997-2011, Allen averaged 20.8 points (45.3 FG%, 39/9 3P%, 89.7 FT%), 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 37.5 minutes per game. In that span, his teams made eight playoff appearances, reaching the conference finals three times, the Finals twice and winning the title with Boston in 2008. Allen missed the playoffs six times in Milwaukee and Seattle in his prime and lost in the first round twice.
Allen made 10 All-Star appearances in that 14-year window. He was a Second Team All-NBA selection in 2005 and a Third Team honoree in 2001, finishing ninth and 11th in the MVP voting, respectively. He played with All-Star teammates Vin Baker and Glenn Robinson in Milwaukee, Rashard Lewis in Seattle, and future Hall of Famers Pierce and Garnett in Boston. Allen was the best player on a conference finals team that probably should have reached the Finals. (We’ll get to that.)
Miller made his leap in Year 3, when he made his first All-Star team in 1989-90, and remained a top-two option on the Indiana Pacers through Year 12 before ceding touches to Jermaine O’Neal and Jalen Rose on a team that lost in the first round.
From 1989-2001, Miller averaged 20.6 points (47.6 FG%, 40.2 3P%, 88.9 FT%), 3.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 36.1 minutes per game. In that span, his teams made the playoffs in all but one of those 12 seasons, losing in the first round in half of them. The Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals in the remaining five seasons, breaking through for Miller’s only career Finals appearance in 2000.
Miller somehow only made five All-Star teams in his prime, earning three Third Team All-NBA spots in a four-year window from 1995-98. His highest MVP finish came in 2000, when he placed 13th. Miller was the lone Hall of Famer on those Pacers, playing with four All-Star teammates, none of whom made appearances in the same season: Detlef Schrempf, Rik Smits, Dale Davis and O’Neal. He was the best player on the Finals team that lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Miller was the best player on a team that reached five Eastern Conference finals from 1994-2000, three of which ended in Game 7 losses. He was that close to four Finals. Miller was so consistent that we could really pick any of those seasons as his peak, so we might as well combine them rather than choose between the time he pushed Shaquille O’Neal to within a win of the Finals at age 29, did the same with Michael Jordan three years later or met Shaq again in the Finals at age 34.
He played at least 79 games in all four of those seasons — 1994, 1995, 1998 and 2000 — averaging 19.3 points (47.3 FG%, 41.8 3P%, 89.8 FT%), 2.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals in 34.4 minutes per game. His teams won an average of 53 games and entered the playoffs as a top-three seed in three of those years. During the playoffs, his scoring average rose to 23.3 points per game on 45/41/89 splits.
Allen’s peak depends on your taste. At age 25, he was the best player on a Bucks team that won 52 games and came within a historically controversial playoff series of reaching the Finals. At age 29, he was a top-10 MVP candidate who led the Sonics to 52 wins in 2005 before they fell to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round. And at age 32, he was the third option on a legendary Celtics team that won the title in 2008, when he had a real case to be Finals MVP.
In those three seasons, Allen averaged 21.2 points (45.1 FG%, 40.1 3P%, 89 FT%), 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals in 37.8 minutes per game. In the playoffs, that scoring average moved to 20.9 points on 46/42/91 splits, which is skewed, considering he averaged 25.6 points per game on 48/44/91 points in the 2001 and 2005 playoffs before that dipped to 15.6 points as a third option in Boston in 2008.
It’s hard to pick between these two apexes. On the one hand, you would take Allen’s 2007-08 season, when he averaged a 20-5-3 on 51/52/87 splits in the Finals and took home a ring at the tail end of his prime. But if you were a franchise looking at which player at their peak led their team more consistently to greater heights, you would take Miller pushing the Pacers to the top of the East for a seven-year span. Personally, I tend to lean slightly towards Miller at the peak of their careers.
Let’s get this out of the way: Both players are incredibly clutch. If you watched the entirety of their careers, you can picture both of them rising up for countless shots at the end of games — Allen in his picture-perfect motion and Miller with that odd form — and opponents were deathly afraid to leave either of them open, because everybody knew if they had a sliver of space the shot was likely finding the net.
In the playoffs during his prime, Allen averaged 19.4 points (45.2 FG%, 41.5 3P%, 90 FT%), four rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steal in 39.5 minutes over 110 games. In that span, his teams finished 12-7 in 19 playoff series. He played in two Finals in his prime, averaging 17.2 points on 43/41/91 splits. Allen shot a blistering 52.4 percent from 3-point range in the 2008 Finals, including 26 points on 12 shots (7-9 3P) in the close-out Game 6 against the Lakers, and could’ve been the Finals MVP.
Allen played in another seven-game conference finals when his Celtics were on their last legs in 2012 and two more Finals as a reserve for the Miami Heat at the end of his career. He played many playoff roles in his career, so his scoring wildly fluctuated in advance-or-go-home games. He played a total of 12 of those in his career — 11 Game 7s and a first-round Game 5 against Miller’s Pacers in 2000 — finishing with a 7-5 record in those games (4-3 in his prime). He shot 37.3 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3 in those situations, including some duds.
In the biggest game of his career as the primary option — a Game 7 road loss to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 Eastern Conference finals — Allen totaled 26 points (8-18 FG, 4-7 3P, 6-6 FT), six assists and two rebounds.
Miller averaged 23.5 points (45.6 FG%, 40.7 3P%, 88.8 FT%), three rebounds, 2.5 assists and a steal in 38.9 minutes over 104 playoff games in his prime. His teams finished 11-11 in 22 playoff series during that span. He played in the 2000 Finals, averaging 24.3 points on 41/38/98 splits. In the close-out Game 6 against the Lakers — a 116-111 road loss — Miller totaled 25 points on 19 shots (2-10 3P).
Miller played in nine advance-or-go-home games in his career (five first-round Game 5s and four Game 7s (three in the conference finals), finishing with a 3-6 record. He shot 47.3 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3 in those situations. The only dud was Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference finals, when he scored 12 points on 13 shots opposite Dennis Scott in a 105-81 loss to Orlando.
All three of Miller’s conference finals Game 7s weigh equally as the biggest of his playoff career, and the dud was one of them. In the other two — opposite the 1994 Knicks and ‘98 Bulls — he scored 25 and 22 points, respectively, on 47 percent shooting (7-11 3P). Both games ended in brutal two-possession losses.
Miller and Allen met twice in the first round of the playoffs, and the former’s Pacers beat the latter’s Bucks both times, but they were at different points of their careers — Allen just entering his prime and Miller exiting his. Allen averaged a 22-7-4 on 53/47/62 splits at age 23 to Miller’s 26-3-2 on 36/29/93 splits at age 33 during Indiana’s 1999 sweep, and Allen’s eight-seeded Bucks nearly knocked off Miller’s top-seeded Pacers in the first round of the 2000 playoffs (the only year Miller reached the Finals). Allen was again more efficient and impactful outside of scoring, but Miller scored 41 points to Allen’s 18 in a 96-95 victory in the do-or-die Game 5.
Again, we can argue about the merits of their clutch-ness all day. Each player could make a decent case as the guy you would want taking a final shot with the fate of a Finals on the line. Only Allen had that chance, though, and he made the most clutch shot in NBA history. That in my mind is enough to outweigh Miller’s famed heroics against the Knicks — the Spike Lee choke-sign game in Game 5 of the 1994 conference finals and his eight points in nine seconds in Game 1 of the 1995 semis.
• Allen: two-time champion; 10-time All-Star; two-time All-NBA selection (2005 Second Team, 2001 Third Team); all-time leader in 3-point field goals; 1997 All-Rookie Second team selection; 2001 Three-Point Shootout champion; 2000 Olympic gold medalist; 1995 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year
• Miller: five-time All-Star; three-time Third Team All-NBA selection; 50-40-90 club; 2002 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year; 1996 Olympic gold medalist
For once, this is not close between Allen and Miller. You might take Allen’s award résumé over Miller’s without the two titles. With them, it’s Allen by a mile. Throw a 32-year-old Miller on the 2008 Celtics and bring a 37-year-old Miller off the bench for the 2013 Heat, and maybe he too would have a couple rings. But he doesn’t.
For the culture
That is what’s fascinating about Allen and Miller — the career choices that shaped their legacies. Allen is a man without an NBA home, touring through four cities and burning a couple bridges along the way, but he has two titles to show for it. Miller stayed with the Pacers despite overtures elsewhere, and he was rewarded as the greatest player in franchise history, an Indiana legend, but without a title. Miller has his No. 31 retired at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and Allen is still waiting on that call.
It’s all about how you would prefer to be remembered. Miller wrote a strong rebuke of Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors and prides himself on trying to build a champion in Indiana, even if he fell short. “A king should never leave his kingdom,” he wrote. In his prime, Miller turned down opportunities to join powerhouse teams in L.A. and New York, and the ‘08 Celtics even tried to lure him out of retirement. Instead, he joined a list of Hall of Famers who never won a ring.
Allen, on the other hand, feuded with George Karl in Milwaukee, earning a trade to Seattle, where he spent a handful of mostly irrelevant seasons, before resurrecting his profile with the Celtics, and then started a blood feud with Boston in order to chase another ring in Miami. That all led to the final seconds of Game 6 in the 2013 Finals, when his corner 3 saved the Heat and immortalized him forever. Miller never really gave himself that chance, even if he had a few legendary moments in Indiana.
I do not know exactly how each player feels about his legacy. I imagine both have their regrets. Miller would surely rather unburden himself of the weight that is being a ringless star, and Allen undoubtedly would prefer to be in the good graces of Boston, a city he helped lead to a title as an invaluable member of a beloved team.
Miller is still regularly in our lives as a Turner Sports commentator, and Allen is comfortable out of the spotlight on a golf course somewhere, but for me the cultural legacy between these two players comes down to this: Miller played a supporting role behind Kyrie Irving in the 2018 film “Uncle Drew,” and in 1998 Allen co-starred beside Denzel Washington in “He Got Game.” Jesus Shuttlesworth forever.
THE DAGGER: Ray Allen is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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