Backpicks GOAT: #29 Reggie Miller

Key Stats and Trends

  • Historically good combination of scoring volume and efficiency
  • Unrivaled improvement in the postseason, driving elite team offenses
  • Fantastic consistency for more than a decade

Scouting Report

Miller was the progenitor of the modern 3-point centric wing and one of the most economical players in history. He had a below average handle, wasn’t a great leaper and lacked the footwork and panache of most skilled isolation scorers. But his decision-making made up for it, combining pinpoint shooting with deceptive quickness to attack defenses in a handful of ways.

In the half court, Miller was a three-level player, scoring from beyond the arc, the midrange or at the rim. But he went about this in a unique way. Many of his rim attacks involved few dribbles, like this staring contest with Michael Jordan in Miller’s rookie year, a year in which Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year:

In that clip, Miller used a ball screen, but sometimes he isolated on the wing and exploded with a dribble or two:1

At the second level, Miller almost exclusively called upon his leaning floater, shooting this anywhere from seven to 18 feet out:

This shot was unique enough, and Miller quick and aggressive enough, that it led to a sizable chunk of his free throw attempts too. The moment Miller felt contact or noticed his defender reaching, he would lean into the shot and rip his arms through like this:

While this flopping foul-seeking has become commonplace, it was rarely used before Miller. Of course, when we think of Reggie, we think of the third level, above the arc, where he’d fly off a screen and uncork a bomb:

Miller was the best player in history at using screens (rivaled today by Steph Curry), mixing savvy with quickness (and some clandestine pushing) to shake defenders. He had an amazing feel for when to flare, when to pop to the top or when to dive to the rim, as he did in this clip:

Miller’s cuts were a read-and-react game of cat-and-mouse. If the defense played the screen differently, he’d just as quickly fade to the corner. His off-ball movement was so good, and so relentless at times, that he didn’t always need screens. Here, Nick Anderson looks like he’s trying to stay with Barry Sanders:

And really, at the core of it all was the simple idea that Miller could not be left alone to shoot. (He was one of the most accurate volume 3-point shooters in NBA history.) This threat exerted value in two ways. First, it enhanced his creation despite posting low assist numbers — below is the classic example of the off-ball shot created:

Miller never touched the ball, but he vacuumed two Knicks toward him to free up a teammate for a layup, something he would do countless times throughout his career.

Second, Miller’s presence prevented defenders from properly helping off of him. This is the “spacing effect,” where defenders can’t collapse into the lane for fear of leaving a good shooter, but Miller’s effect is magnified because defenders are glued to him everywhere. “Gravity” has been used to describe this phenomenon, but I think in Miller’s case a more appropriate term is “tethering” — he keeps defenders close wherever he goes. They are then so preoccupied with his cuts that they can’t properly help:

At that point in time, most defenders needed to face Miller (not the ball) to chase him, rendering help an afterthought. In sampling Miller’s games over the years, I counted a clear tethering effect on layups like about once every 100 possessions.2 While this might not seem like much, it’s a high-leverage play that adds to impact not measured by assists. There’s the more subtle, classic effect as well — teammates like Rik Smits were often free to work in isolation because doubling off of Miller was a bet most teams would not place. Based on my tracking, Miller’s creation rates were around 4-5 per 100, with some mental curving required for his tethering / spacing effect (captured in his Box Creation estimate).

With that said, Reggie was not a great passer. He was aware and intelligent enough to make good passes — in my tracking, at about half the rate of John Stockton, so not bad — but some of his passes were too slow. He did, however, have the occasional great find in him:

He made up for his passing with excellent decision-making, moving the ball to vulnerable areas or — especially once Larry Bird became coach — finding opportunistic cutters while rarely taking questionable shots himself.

As mentioned, Reggie wasn’t a great ball-handler, and he would often losing it in traffic like this:

I tracked a “fumble” on about 2 possessions per 100, reflective of his struggles with the handle. Many of these dribbling hiccups weren’t turnovers, but they would derail the play.

On the other side of the ball, Miller was a feisty man defender, using his quickness and length effectively. Yes, the man he’s guarding in the next video is peak Michael Jordan:

And later in his career, with slightly less foot speed (and verticality), he bothers Michael into a tough shot:

Miller was vulnerable to penetration at times, and in my sampling he was slightly above average in defensive error rates. Although there were times when his awareness and positioning paid off, like this:

Notice how Reggie wisely cheated toward the hoop to put himself in the right place to react to a Ewing lob. However, there were plenty of moments where Miller took too many gambles or landed out of position — no doubt wanting to leak out in transition — such as this next one. He takes a nonsensical route back to Starks (and isn’t between a Knick and the hoop) instead of racing back toward the rim:

Overall, Miller was a mixed bag on D. He could be above-average on the ball, smart in team defense and had pesky hands, but he wasn’t a great defensive rebounder and took a good number of risks that backfired. But he maintained a solid level of play on defense until about 1997, when he started to slow down physically, and then again around the turn of the century, when his positive defensive attributes dwindled.

Impact Evaluation

Miller’s constant motion and crafty shot selection made him a hyper-efficient scoring weapon. Among players with 25,000 points, Miller is an outlier in efficiency, and among all players is second to only Kareem Adbul-Jabbar in seasons with at least 19 points per 75 and a relative true shooting percentage (rTS) of +8 percent or better.3 His emergence correlated with a decade of solid Pacer offenses, but his postseason brilliance pushed them into the elite.

Reggie joined an average Pacer team from 1987 that proceeded to have a nearly identical, and average, 1988 season. It wasn’t until 1990, when Miller leapt into his prime, that Indiana morphed from a below-average offense into a strong one, 3.4 points better than league average (rORtg). Those early teams were marginally talented but spun on a coaching carousel, churning through five coaches until they landed on Bob Hill for the entire 1992 season, playing at a 46-win pace (1.8 SRS), a mark they would stay above until 2001.

During those years, the supporting pieces were shuffled and upgraded, but only Reggie and Rik Smits remained constants. In ’94, the defensively-inclined Larry Brown took over as coach and the Pacers best on-ball creator (and arguably best isolationist) Detlef Schrempf was traded to Seattle for Derrick McKey in an offense-defense swap. Indiana jumped to a 51-win pace that year, regressing slightly on offense without Schrempf (+1.5 rORtg) and making the first of five Final Fours during the period. And in 1995, they upgraded a flimsy point guard situation by bringing in Mark Jackson, whose passing fit with Miller’s off-ball oscillations.4

Despite the moving pieces, Indiana posted eight rORtgs above +3.1 during Miller’s prime (!), peaking at +6.5.5 Reggie was metronomic, cranking out 11 consecutive seasons with at least 19 points per 75 and +6.5 percent rTS. His moderate creation rates and unexceptional passing prevent him from standing with the offensive giants, but his perpetual motion and additive spacing buoyed a decade of strong team offenses. Here’s how he stacks up against contemporaries in the scaled “Big 4” offensive dimensions of scoring, efficiency, creation and turnovers:

Miller’s three-year peak scoring is a level below Allen Iverson and George Gervin, but their efficiency pales in comparison to Reggie’s.6 Fittingly, Ray Allen, the player most historically linked with Miller, matches Miller’s efficiency with nearly an identical shape.

However, something remarkable happened in the playoffs. In the Second Season, most stars see a slight decline in their numbers, the result of facing harder defenses that game plan for them. But Miller shows (perhaps) the greatest improvement from regular season to postseason of any notable player in history. His scoring spikes with no drop in his efficiency. So, despite more modest regular season numbers, Miller’s prime scoring rates in the playoffs were in the 97th percentile, comparable to rates from prime Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Larry Bird, all while maintaining his elite efficiency. Here are the same “Big 4” data points, plotted using each player’s best three-year postseason stretch:

Miller expands in all four dimensions, separating himself from the pack in scoring and approaching Gervin’s rates.7 And while many of these players would decline if we examined other playoff seasons, any three-year Miller stretch from 1990-2002 tells a similar story. For instance, using the previous group, here are the players with consecutive postseasons between the ages of 32 and 34:

Miller’s typical postseason combination of scoring, efficiency and creation produced a similar Big 4 profile to the regular seasons of ’11 Dirk, ’16 Leonard and ’93 Barkley. And Reggie’s insane jump in playoff performance correlates directly with Indiana’s sustained playoff excellence.

Along with Magic and Kobe, Reggie is one of three players in history to play on two separate teams with five-year stretches of +5 playoff offenses.8 Below, I’ve plotted these “unique” five-year stretches by regular and postseason offense:9

During those years, the average defensive efficiency of Indiana’s postseason opponent’s was around 102, and yet the Pacers still scored 109.5 points per 100, near their regular season output. To borrow an economic concept, their Miller-centric offenses were inelastic against stiffer defensive competition.10 Not only did this decade of sustained playoff excellence coincide with Miller’s primacy, but when he missed most of the ’96 postseason with an eye injury, Indiana produced its only below-average postseason offense of the decade.

None of this is to say that Miller should take the lion’s share of credit and be viewed as an offensive megastar. It’s instead a reflection of how effective, and additive, his style was. In many ways, Miller is the poster child for a number of concepts in Thinking Basketball (efficiency, spacing, portability and scorekeeping biases), making life easier for Indiana’s isolation players like Schrempf, Smits and Jalen Rose, who faced fewer doubles because of Miller’s presence. Perhaps more importantly, Miller’s effect would remain on even better teams, as he would, for the same reasons,  make life easier for Jordan or Shaq too.11

Ironically, accolades have historically gone to floor-raisers like Iverson, and it’s worth calling out some of the All-NBA nods that were given to players instead of Reggie. During the ’90s, raw field goal percentage was all the rage, and the effectiveness of off-ball play wasn’t established; Miller’s pedestrian assist and rebounding numbers were viewed as severe limitations, and because of this, comparable (or weaker) offensive players were rewarded at his expense.12 Below is a comparison of all-league candidates, with Miller’s box plus-minus (BPM) in blue circles and his scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) in blue squares (available since 1994). The red circles and squares are the same data points for the players given an All-NBA nod over Miller:

All of these players struggle when stacked up against Miller in the Big 4 offensive dimensions, and none of them were figureheads on quality offenses. Richmond’s best offense in Sacramento was +1.5. Strickland’s best offense in Washington was +0.1. Dumars at least played on an above-average offense in 1990 (+1.8 rOrtg) and was given preference for his defense. But as you can see, both plus-minus data and BPM often favored Miller, and sometimes considerably so (e.g. 1994 and 1998). Simply put, voters missed the boat.13

Miller’s career reached into the Databall era, and his statistical footprint there is strong but not overwhelming. In scaled adjusted plus-minus, his first seven seasons (1994-2000) are above the 75th percentile, with three seasons between the 93rd and 96th percentile. His game-level plus-minus is steady, a rung below the superstars. So while Reggie lacks the indicators of a monster peak, all signs are that his economical scoring, spacing and moderate creation made him a valuable offensive weapon for a number of years. And we have modern evidence that a lighter version of Miller — a Miller-Lite, if you will — has a significant effect by warping defenses with his tethering and gravity.

While Miller is on many top 50 lists, I’ve never seen him in the 30s on any major GOAT publication. However, this particular exercise reveals the (surprisingly) incredible value he brought to Indiana over the course of his career. Not many players in history played well for so long, which is why he’s 20th in career VORP (since 1974), tucked behind Stockton, and 12th in career Win Shares. Most people have no issue ranking Stockton highly, yet balk at the idea of Miller landing on similar ground, despite neither sniffing a peak worthy of a weak MVP.

All told, I grade Miller with nine to 11 low-level All-NBA years — he should have been a mainstay on that team — and 13 All-Star seasons. If I’m slightly less positive about his defense, he’d still be pushing Bob Pettit for 30th in this exercise, despite a peak that’s outside the top-50. Even when knocking his valuations down a peg to “only” All-Star levels, his sheer longevity still results in a top-40 career. Given the evidence in his favor, I have a hard time scoring his seasons much lower. Either way, it’s safe to say that Miller authored one of the most underrated careers in NBA history.

  1. While Miller is thought of as using screens primarily, in my tracking, his half court offense was a near-even mix of screen-based and non-screen based scoring attempts.
  2. Sample was an estimated 560 possessions, primarily consisting of games from 1990-2000.
  3. Kareem had nine such seasons, Miller and Adrian Dantley eight, Charles Barkley, Oscar Robertson and Kevin Durant had six. Since 1977, a scoring rate of 19 per 75 is in the 82nd percentile.
  4. Dale and Antonio Davis provided muscle (and some occasional offense) as well.
  5. In 1997 Indiana’s offenses was just below league average. They were ravaged by injuries that year, first losing Smits for 30 games to start the year, then McKey for 32 games at the end of the year (just as they re-acquired Jackson at point). That would set the table for Miller’s best team, the 58-win pace (6.3 SRS) ’98 Pacers coached by Larry Bird. That team added shooting from the aging Chris Mullin and a dangerous bench with blossoming players like Jalen Rose and Travis Best.
  6. Other notables like Mitch Richmond (close to Pierce), Alex English (slightly ahead of Pierce) and Dominique Wilkins (just ahead of Iverson) scored more than Miller too. Richmond’s overall shape is comparable to Pierce’s, English’s a lesser version of Gervin’s and Wilkins’ was less efficient than Drexler with less creation than Miller.
  7. Mitch Richmond played 21 playoff games in his entire prime. During that small sample, he wilted, matching Gervin’s creation, Drexler’s efficiency, Ginobili’s turnovers with scoring near the second notch on the axis.
  8. Kobe was a peripheral figure in 1997 and a sixth man in 1998 on LA’s Shaq-centric offenses. Steve Nash just missed being the fourth, leaving Dallas after four playoff runs.
  9. “Unique” seasons are the best five-year stretches without any overlapping seasons. For instance, the best stretch for Indiana before Bird coached was from 1991-95, thus the 1992-96 stretch is excluded because it shares seasons with the ’91-95 period.
  10. Here’s one examination of players facing harder defenses. Miller fared quite while against the stiffened competition.
  11. I take the Olympics with a grain of salt, but Miller played on the second and third Dream Teams. In ’94, Miller was second to Shaq in scoring at 17 points per game on 84 percent true shooting (best on the team by 14 percent) and in ’96 he was second again at 12 points per game. In both situations, he led the team in minutes by a landslide. A small, yet notable piece of evidence that Miller easily fits with great talent.
  12. For example, in The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons reduces Miller to a “20-3-3” player, as if they are all the same. Allan Houston, cut from Miller’s cloth, was a “20-3-3” player, however he scored far less in the playoffs at far lower efficiency, his turnovers were much higher, his creation lower — to say nothing of his defense — and as a result his scaled adjusted plus-minus figures peaked at +0.8 and were often negative during his prime.
  13. A particularly egregious oversight took place in 1999 too, when John Stockton, on limited minutes, earned All-NBA honors over Miller, despite Indiana posting its best relative offensive rating in franchise history behind another big Miller scoring year.

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