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Blazing the Trail: Reggie Miller, the moving target

Blazing the Trail: Reggie Miller, the moving target

Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective skills.

In this fourth installment, Mat goes in-depth on one of the greatest shooters of all-time: Reggie Miller. He explains what made him different from the marksmen who came before him, with insights from his former coaches in Indiana — Dan Burke and Bob Ociepka — his former teammate Rik Smits and basketball analyst Mike Prada.

In his critically acclaimed, historical rendition of the NBA, "The Book of Basketball," The Ringer's Bill Simmons ranked NBA and Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller outside of the top 60 all-time:

“Reggie Miller was the most overrated ‘superstar’ of the past thirty years,” Simmons opined.

To Simmons' credit, however, he later retracted this statement in the sequel podcast, "The Book of Basketball 2.0." Revising his previous comments, Simmons suggested that in today's game, Miller would indeed constitute superstar status.

But what if Miller would have been a superstar in any era? What if he was an elite scorer and playmaker in ways that we couldn’t comprehend during his time? And what if he served as an inspiration to the most prolific dynasty of the NBA's pace-and-space era?

Let's find out.

WHAT MADE MILLER SPECIAL

As a child, Miller would regularly participate in 1-on-1 matchups against his older sister, Cheryl, who turned out to be one of the greatest women's basketball players of all-time prior to untimely injuries. (She's enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.)

Because of Cheryl's superior size and strength, Reggie going inside was a moot point.

“One of the reasons I practiced shooting from the outside was that Cheryl used to block my shots when I drove to the hoop,” Miller recalled in his autobiography. “It’s a bad feeling when your sister is knocking your best stuff into the rosebushes.”

To defeat his sibling, Miller needed to hone in on his perimeter game. 

That's exactly what he did.

Miller endured his sister’s challenges and triumphed to become one of the premier shooters the NBA had ever seen. According to Cerebro Sports' Three-Point Efficiency metric (a shooting metric that combines three-point volume and efficiency to show the most lethal shooters), Miller finished in the 97th percentile or higher in all but one year from 1988 to 2004.

(The 2002-03 campaign was the exception, where he finished in the 94th percentile).

Visual provided by Cerebro Sports

Even more impressive is how he earned his standing in this data set. Unlike many of the great shooters of his time — who made their mark primarily off standstill catch-and-shoot opportunities — a majority of Miller’s triples came while he was circling the half-court at top speed.

And again, much like his pickup contests growing up, this strategy was rooted in necessity.

“The chances for spot-up [threes] weren’t really there,” said Dan Burke, Miller’s former coach in Indiana and now an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers. “You have to have a real big, key player [you’re playing off of] to get spot-ups.”

To back Burke's words, think of one of the other notable three-point shooters of that time: Dan Majerle. Throughout his time in Phoenix and Miami, Majerle was gifted with potent penetrators like Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway, who could both consistently break down a defense and get two feet in the paint.

Meanwhile, Miller’s most accomplished backcourt mate, Mark Jackson, was more of a post facilitator than a downhill threat.

Instead, Miller achieved sage status in the art of movement shooting. And for those following along at home, his technique can be divided into three keys.

Key 1: Set up the Defender

Miller was an avid participant in basketball grappling — the practice of using physicality to manipulate and gain separation from your defender.

“[Miller] embraced contact and sometimes got the feel of a guy so [he] could push off him and get open,” Burke said.

The cunning sharpshooter also deployed harsh cuts and abrupt changes in speed to further decrease the likelihood that his opponent could shadow his movements.

“When you watch him, it wasn’t always the same speed,” Burke continued. “He changed speeds. He’d stop and go.”

Key 2: Read the Screen

Once he gained a step, Miller could interpret his optimal route-running path based on the direction his defender was chasing him. If his defender trailed outside the screen, Miller would juke inwards. If his defender rushed from the inside, Miller would retreat outside.

Miller's astute ability in this regard was largely based upon the continuity he achieved with his screen-setting bigs — Antonio Davis, Dale Davis and Rik Smits.

“We would run through our sets almost every practice,” Smits recalled to Basketball News. “[A lot] of dummy offenses. Just run, run, run. We really concentrated on getting good screens set just to take full advantage of everything [Miller brought to the table].”

"Reggie would talk to those bigs too," Burke added. "'Just stand there, I’ll use you.'”

Key 3: Footwork

Miller boasted balletic footwork, akin to that of a peak-Torture Chamber Kevin McHale, able to stop and pop effortlessly regardless of his travel velocity and angle.

“[Typically], if you are right-handed, you want to come off [a pindown screen] going to your left so that your shoulder is closer to the rim,” Burke said. “It didn’t matter with Reggie. He could come with his right hand or with his left hand.”

Miller's ambidexterity is a testament to his impeccable footwork. The direction didn't matter because his stride was sound both ways. And his ability to maintain balance during these sequences is even more impressive when you consider the defensive physicality that was accepted during his era.

“Every time a guy like Reggie cut through the lane, the goal was to smack him. We used to say, ‘Pinball him,’" Burke recalled. 

“The league allows no ‘impeding’ cutters now. There was much more holding then. But Reggie would stay locked and still get a rhythm jumper.”

Here are all three of those keys in action:

ON-COURT PRODUCTION

Miller’s shooting served as a double-edged sword for his reputation. On one end, he was revered as one of the game’s top snipers. On the other, he’d been pigeonholed into a singular role on the floor.

However, Miller was more than a marksman. He was a three-level scorer who utilized the triple-threat position to score from the mid-range and at the rim.

“One thing Reggie worked on, we used to call it ‘Pete Newell,’" Burke explained. “Pete Newell was an old coach who used to have a big-man camp. His whole thing was: Jab, catch, create space. If the guy doesn’t honor your jab, you go by him. If he backs up, you raise up and shoot it.

“It was a series. And [Reggie] really worked on it.”

This combination of three-level scoring and high conversion rates from the most efficient spots on the floor made Miller arguably the best backcourt scorer of the 1990s not named Michael Jordan.

To compare the two, from 1989 to 1999, Miller tallied nine seasons where he ranked in the 90th percentile in both scoring volume and efficiency, while Jordan only touted two such seasons. 

Additionally, Miller’s unpredictable tendencies coming off screens and counter-laden arsenal made him one of the few stars to rarely improve his volume and efficiency during postseason play.

For instance, in 1994-95, Miller averaged 23.9 points per 75 possessions on 62.0% True Shooting. In the playoffs, those averages ballooned to 28.0 points and 63.2% True Shooting, respectively. 

To show how rare that is, there was an inverse trend of that with John Stockton and Mitch Richmond — two guards who were (wrongfully?) regularly awarded All-NBA selections over Miller. 

WEAVING THE THREAD

The first guard to function as an off-ball superstar was John Havlicek. When "Hondo" wasn’t ripping and running in transition, he was usually curling off screens for leaning mid-range jumpers.

A post-three-point line precursor to Miller was Joe Dumars (who coincidentally probably also took some of his All-NBA accolades). Another one of Miller’s coaches in Indiana, Dick Versace, spent time as an assistant on the Detroit Pistons before becoming the head coach of the Pacers in 1988.

“Joe Dumars had that knack for getting free off screens,” said Bob Ociepka, an assistant on Versace's staff in Indiana and a 23-year NBA coach. “Coach Versace, coming from [Detroit], ran a lot of the things Chuck Daly did — [like Dumars] coming off those staggered screens from the baseline.”

Miller expressed a great admiration toward Dumars, even going as far as to call him the "unsung MVP of Dream Team II" in his book.

Dale Ellis was another sniper from that generation who cratered defenses using floppy action — a play in which a player, positioned under the basket, can choose whether to cut off a single screen to one side or a double screen to the other, per Basketball Dictionary.

However, because of the typical constraints placed on 2-guards at the time, neither Dumars nor Ellis could fully leverage their shooting prowess to their advantage.

“[In that era], the shooting guard was supposed to be Jordan-esque,” said Mike Prada, editor at The Athletic and "Spaced Out" author. “You were an all-around player, you got a lot of rebounds and assists, you went 1-on-1 a lot, you were explosive, you could dunk on people — sort of that Platonic Ideal.” 

Miller was different from those guards; he didn’t possess the same ball-handling or rebounding acumen. He was an outlier who weaponized his extraordinary gift to buoy an offense almost entirely through his off-ball presence.

Notably, the Pacer legend pioneered a term deeply entrenched in today’s basketball jargon: gravity.

Dangerous from deep, Miller made doubling down on his big-men teammates in the post a conversation killer. Teams would rather face guard him at the three-point line than send reinforcements to the interior, which opened up room for his low-post executioners to make decisions.

Smits expressed a great deal of gratitude for the space Miller provided him to operate.

“I was glad he was on my team. I could tell you that,” Smits laughed. 

Miller’s landscape-altering effect is felt when you look through the lens of historian Ben Taylor’s passing and playmaking statistics.

For example, in 1993-94, Gary Payton finished in the 80th percentile in Taylor’s Box Creation stat — a metric that estimates playmaking (per Backpicks.com). Payton did this while simultaneously scoring in the 94th percentile in Passer Rating.

In the same season, despite only scoring in the 37th percentile in passing, Miller finished in the 77th percentile in playmaking.

Miller wasn’t the on-ball initiator that Payton was, but this conveys that the former was still able to operate as a high-end creator thanks to the attention he garnered from his opponents.

“The thing that Reggie Miller had that we didn’t know how to identify back when he played — but now it’s a no-brainer concept — is this idea of gravity,” Prada said.

IMPACT ON TODAY'S GAME

In many circles, Ray Allen is often cited as the disciple who bears the most resemblance to Miller. Along with Allen, Richard Hamilton, JJ Redick and Kyle Korver have all played the part of "offense unto themselves" by utilizing their off-ball gravitational pull.

In the current NBA landscape, Miller’s most obvious descendants share the same squad.

“Two guys on the same team,” Burke pointed out. "Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson."

The dynastic Golden State Warriors have become famous for pushing the boundaries of time and space by exploiting the shooting gravity their dynamic duo wields. 

And, as fate would have it, Miller also once teamed up with a fellow gravity co-founder, Chris Mullin. 

Mullin was arguably the closest comparison to Miller at the time, and together, the tandem caused wide-scale chaos and confusion — the likes of which the league would not see again until the Splash Brothers coalesced in the Bay Area nearly two decades later.

Tell me if these sequences look familiar:

In both plays, the two pairs create a defensive breakdown simply by running past each other in the opposite direction.

Even more poetic, take a look at the Pacers’ opponent in the first clip. Who was a reserve on that team? None other than Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

“All of the stuff that the Warriors did in the early days with the Steph/Klay combo — the crazy, figure-eight-type stuff — was very much ripped right from the Pacers,” Prada explained.

Golden State expanded on Miller’s semi-contained havoc, turning half-court offensive sets into absolute anarchy.

Miller’s movement authored a great deal of mayhem, more than anyone of his time, but he was still forced to rein it in a bit to accommodate the structure of his offense. Nowadays, engines like Curry and Thompson have the discretion to graze the terrain as they see fit.

“[For Miller], his was set plays, so it was easier for teams to really dial in,” Burke explained. “Curry is more of a constant, built into a random system.”

But it was still the audacious Miller who paved the way. He crawled so that the Golden State empire could walk.

“He was this type of player that, in an era that did not have a blueprint for this style of play, he provided it,” Prada concluded. 

He's the player responsible for the outline that triggered a dynasty.

Are we sure Reggie Miller was overrated?

Tune in next week for Part V of Blazing the Trail, which focuses on Andrei Kirilenko — the five-tool defender.

Click here to read Part III: "Shane Battier, the data-ball defender."

Click here to read Part II: "Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4."

Click here to read Part I: "Steve Nash, the magician who danced in the paint."

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