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What to Think of Mike Miller and the Clippers?

[Note by Steve Perrin, 07/06/10 5:12 PM PDT ] Just read this post by Tom Ziller on Fanhouse from a couple days ago on the subject of Miller.  Apropos to the discussion.

By now you are probably aware that the Clippers had a three hour meeting with Mike Miller over the weekend.  (Why they needed three hours to talk to Mike Miller, but only spent an hour with LeBron James is a different question.)  You may also be aware that Miller, while a very good player (former rookie of the year and former sixth man of the year), has become strangely reluctant to shoot in the past couple of seasons.

Let's put this reluctance into some context.  Citizen Jax found this article by Steve Aschbrunner in Sports Illustrated from the middle of Miller's first year in Minnesota, the first year that he just stopped shooting.  After he was traded to Washington last June, the trend continued.  He took 8.4 field goal attempts per 36 minutes in Minnesota; 8.6 field goal attempts per 36 minutes in Washington.  This compares to 12.1 FGA per 36 his sixth man award year, and 13.3 the next season when he averaged 18.5 points per game in Memphis.


I think it's even more illustrative to put his field goal attempts in context of other players.  On a Minnesota team that lost leading (only?) scorer Al Jefferson 50 games into the season, Miller was 12th on the team in shots per 36, behind Sebastian Telfair, Sheldon Williams and Corey Brewer.  Miller, a 40% career three point shooter, was eighth on the team in 3 point attempts per 36, behind the likes of Telfair once again.  Yikes.

In Washington, on a team that desperately needed offense after losing Gilbert Arenas to suspension, Miller was 18th on the team in shots per 36 (there was obviously a lot of roster turnover in Washington last season).  Among the players who shot more than him were Shaun Livingston and James Singleton, to put it into perspective for Clippers fans.

Let's go a step further in the Clipper comparison.  In his last two seasons in LA, Quinton Ross took 8 shots per 36 minutes.  That's a half a shot per 36 fewer than Miller has averaged the last two seasons.  The thing is, Ross is one of the worst shooters in the NBA, while Miller is one of the best.

So what's going on?  Has Miller lost his touch?  Lost his confidence?  Lost his mind?

Well, he hasn't lost his touch.  Last season in Washington, he made over 50% of his field goals overall, and a career high 48% from three.  His effective field goal percentage was an astounding 59.6% and his true shooting percentage an equally astounding 62.3%.  He might have lost his confidence, but he certainly has no reason to have, given those numbers.  So maybe he's just lost his mind.

There is a school of thought that says that it's not a problem that he doesn't shoot.  He's an efficient scorer, and it's a good thing if he's passing up bad shots.  Unfortunately, given the teams he was on, it seems fairly obvious that he was passing up better shots than his team ended up with on their possession.

Leaguewide, teams shoot over 80 times per game, or to put it into per 36 stats, about 61 times per 36 minutes.  There are five players on a team, so if they all shared those shots equally, that would be a little over 12 shots per 36 minutes per player.  Miller took 8.4 per 36 in Minnesota, 8.6 per 36 in Washington, leaving lots of extra field goal attempts for Corey Brewer, Randy Foye (both years), Sebastian Telfair, Andray Blatche, Al Thornton and others.  Minnesota was 24th in the league in offensive efficiency in 08-09; Washington was 25th in 09-10.  Meanwhile, Miller was third in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage in the NBA last season, and first among non-centers.  So, the most efficient perimeter scorer in the league, playing on one of the least efficient offensive teams in the league, took far fewer than his share of shots.  That's not a winning formula.

Is he making up for the fewer shots in other areas?  Well, not enough.  His assists have been up about one per game over the last two seasons, which is nice, but doesn't make up for the two plus field goals he's no longer making himself.  He's always been a good rebounder from the small forward, and has been better the past two seasons.  Then again, most of that increase is coming on the defensive glass, so there's really no reason he can't be a better rebounder AND continue to shoot.  His turnovers per 36 are actually a little up over the past two seasons, which makes sense - if you just catch the ball and shoot it, it's impossible to turn it over.

Of course, we don't know what his coaches in Minnesota and Washington were asking him to do.  Maybe he was given a role and he was fulfilling it.  In the Aschbrunner article, then T-Wolves coach Kevin McHale was not critical of Miller, in fact praising him for being a facilitator. 

The psychology of playing for not just bad but seemingly star-crossed teams might have to be taken into consideration as well.  In 05-06 when Miller was sixth man of the year, the Grizzlies won 49 games.  The next season, they started the season with Pau Gasol hurt and went straight into the tank.  The next season, they traded Gasol to the Lakers.  The next season, he was traded to the T-Wolves in full rebuild mode, and Al Jefferson got hurt.  The next season, he was traded to Washington, where the Arenas gun incident immediately derailed the season.  Of course, signing with the Clippers might not be the best way to try to end a streak of four years of bad luck.

It is worth noting that, on paper, Miller would not have to take a lot of shots for the Clippers.  Chris Kaman took 16.6 shots per 36 last season, Baron Davis 14.5, Eric Gordon 12.7 and presumably Blake Griffin would be getting more than his share as well.  You could argue that both Kaman and Baron could stand to take fewer shots, while Gordon probably needs more, but the fact is that if Miller were the starting small forward on that team, you'd expect him to be shooting less than the others.  But he has to take open shots in order to spread the floor for Kaman and Griffin.  He can't just pass shots up.

And maybe that's what the three hour meeting was all about.  Maybe Neil Olshey was asking him what the deal was, and telling him how he needed to play to be effective for the LAC. 

Miller recently turned 30, and is looking for something in the range of the mid level exception or more.  According to J.A. Adande, he's getting plenty of attention and he'd like to play for a contender, which the Clippers without LeBron James certainly are not (yet).  It's therefore likely that he'd want a premium over the MLE to play for the Clippers.  Reports had the Lakers offering Miller 5/$30M, which is just a little less than the MLE.  That reported offer may have been bogus, but if it's true, one would assume that it would take a lot more to get Miller, since he's not a Laker today. 

The Clippers have over $16M in a non-Bron scenario.  Would $7M next season for the right starting small foward be too much?  $8M?  Maybe not.  The length of the contract would be the bigger concern for the 30 year old Miller.  The Clippers have six players under the age of 21, and they're not going to reach their peak for some years.  It doesn't make any sense to have significant money tied up in a mid-30s player just as Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon and others are coming into their own.

I've always liked Mike Miller as a player, though I certanily don't understand what he's been doing the past two seasons.  I think he'd be a good fit for the Clippers for the near term - but I'd be concerned with signing him over the long term.  In the end, the point is probably moot, as he no doubt wants to play for a contender for the first time in his career, and it looks like he'll get his chance somewhere.