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.

A Visual History of NBA Spacing

We’re living in the Pace and Space era, so spacing is kind of a big deal. So much so that I’d guess nearly everyone who isn’t a coach still undervalues its importance and the role it has played historically in dictating NBA tendencies and strategy. There was a time when the lane looked more like a rugby scrum than a spacious ballroom dance floor, and this post is a visual chronicle of that transformation. Jump in a DeLorean with me as we go back to a rainy November 12, 1955 grainy 1962…

Our first screenshot is from the ’62 Finals. Offensive players have white circles under them to denote their location, defensive players blue ones, and the ball handler is white surrounded by blue.

This was what an “open lane” looked like for much of the 60s. There are four defenders on the edge of the modern (16-foot wide) key ready to help on that ball-handler if he attacks. Notice, also, that if he drives left toward the baseline, something convoluted happens: He will try to use his teammates as screeners like they are offensive linemen in football, but help defense was easy because everything so tightly packed.

Guard play in the ’60s was also characterized by a palm-down (pronated) dribble. The effect of this cannot be overstated — guards simply were not allowed to dribble in any modern capacity, which made penetration into this congested traffic difficult. Bob Cousy didn’t dribble like this for fun, the rules demanded it.

The next image is quite grainy, but it was so typical of the times that it must be included. The ball is on the far wing, at most, nine feet from the man posting up (Wilt Chamberlain). There are eight players in the modern key!

It was common at the time for certain post plays to start with this much traffic, and it led to a practice I call the “free double-team.” Modern double-teams usually pay a price by leaving a player open. The free double-team is a costless defensive trap, in which the help-defender’s own man is still so close that he can effectively guard two players at once. Thus, despite being doubled, the ball-handler can’t create a shot for an open teammate.

In the ensuing years, teams and coaches were certainly aware of these issues. The Princeton offense — which now comes in many flavors — had a large emphasis on balanced spacing and opening the lane. Still, it was a slow crawl to where we are today. The inability to break down defenders off the dribble didn’t leave coaches dreaming of clear-outs.

If we jump ahead to the 1970 Finals, you’ll notice there’s a little more breathing room.

The Lakers have pulled two players (somewhat) high and wide on the weak side, and there’s now sufficient space between the entry passer (Elgin Baylor) and Wilt in the post. However, any drive from Baylor will encounter two fundamental problems. First, there are three defenders in the lane. Second, it will be hard to punish any help defenders. The best option is likely a kick-out for a long two, but the two spot-up players are within feet of each other and can be covered by one man!

From the same game, L.A. runs a more modern type of isolation for Jerry West, who liked to back his defender down from the high post. The screen capture is from the moment New York sends a double at West.

It’s not “free” in that L.A. is spread out enough for him to swing it to an open teammate at the top of the key. Notice how pinched down the weak side players are, allowing the Knicks to form a wall in the lane, deterring penetration. It’s an improvement from the early 60s, but it’s an “economy to economy-plus” improvement. This isn’t business class space.

There isn’t much footage from the 60s, but from the publicly available film, it wasn’t until the 1970 season that the NBA started easing up on palming. Players still dribbled with mostly pronated wrists, but the contact point of the ball could be held a little longer. (I credit the ABA’s free style of play for slowly relaxing the enforcement of these rules.) More secure ball-handling made it easier to penetrate into space…if there was any.

By the early 70s, offenses were starting to expand the court. Here’s our first example of some business class roominess (from 1974):

That screenshot was taken as the entry pass reached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the elbow. This kind of space was a game-changer; there would now be a hefty price for doubling Kareem with either the baseline defender or the diagonal defender near the foul line. And of course, Kareem himself has a lot of room to operate in isolation, and you don’t want to play Kareem one on one.

The ’70s were a mixture of viable spacing like this and the crammed confines of the ’60s. However, like a frog in boiling water, the dribbling rules continued to slowly relax . You can see some wrist rotation during this open court dribble from David Thompson in 1977, and then a full 90-degree wrist when he hesitates on the following play. By the early ’80s, players were fully turning their wrists over from the side (or underneath) the ball. Isiah Thomas was perhaps the most notable perpetrator, and the technique can be seen on his left-to-right crossover here.

In 1980, the NBA introduced the 3-point line, but it took a few years for spacing to expand to the arc. Here’s a typical Laker set from 1983, in which Magic Johnson’s entry to Kareem was four feet inside the stripe and the entire Laker offense is indifferent to the 3-point line. (Yes, Magic’s defender is daring him to take that shot.)

Notice that there are still five Denver defenders in the lane. However, offenses in the ’70s and ’80s distributed players evenly among the strong and weak side, particularly after the introduction of illegal defense in 1982, which permitted offenses to pull shot-blockers out of the lane. More on this in a second.

By the mid ’80s, the combination of improved spacing and efficacious dribbling made penetration and isolation more of a threat. This coincided with a steady improvement in offensive efficiency — in just over a decade, league-wide ratings exploded from the mid 90s to 107 points per 100 in 1982, within two points of the all-time peak.

Let’s hop forward to 1990 and snap an image of Chicago’s famed triangle offense, which emphasized spacing and balance:

Right away it should be clear that this is business class roominess. Michael Jordan is initiating the offense here, and Chicago’s spacing allows for, at the least, a drive-and-kick by Jordan. More importantly — at least for Shaquille O’Neal 10 years later — the post player’s life is easier with three teammates out beyond the arc and the opposite side big near the high post. This kind of spacing means the defense has to cover longer distances to rotate and makes interior passing more realistic.

Compare this to, say, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets, who liked to use “3 out” and “4 out” sets, pinning shooters to the 3-point line in order to punish an Olajuwon double. This next caption (from 1994) is snapped after the ball has been kicked out of the post.

Utah still has an amoeba-like wall in the lane, but the threat of the outside shot forces the defense to close out on the shooters, which can re-open a driving lane. This was very much a read-and-react game, in which the spacing allowed teams to move the ball to the best shot, and defenses scrambled to stop that shot. Here’s an example of a “4 out” set from the same year:

Now there’s only one Utah defender in the paint and some decent real estate to work with. At the same time, many teams were starting to abuse the illegal defense rules by pulling entire defenses out of the lane.

That group of Spurs bunched together on the right side of the screen cannot legally drop below the foul line because Utah has stationed the rest of its team above the arc. Some version of this play was run constantly in the ’90s, particularly by teams with good isolation players. As you can see, it frees up a ton of space to attack; David Robinson is on a basketball island defending Karl Malone. If something breaks down, defenders from above the foul line, like Tim Duncan, will have to race down to protect the rim.

At the same time, the seeds of the modern pick-and-roll dominant game were being sewn. NBA teams have been pick-and-rolling forever, but the 3-point shot and spacing have supercharged its power. Here’s a famous Malone-Stockton sideline pick-and-roll. Notice how much space is created by stationing two players at the 3-point arc.

This play is so difficult to contain that it forces the weak side defender to completely leave his man in the lower right corner. Just the setup can create an open shot with a skip pass.

Of course, by this point in time, you could completely supinate your hand when dribbling, pause, and continue dribbling some more. As a result, quick guards were nearly impossible to contain when given space to attack. Before 1995, hand-checking was permitted above the free throw line, which could somewhat mitigate this effect, but the flood gates opened in the mid-’90s. The defensive counter to eliminating true hand-checking was to bump and arm bar players when they moved off the ball, which was then eliminated in 2005’s rule change emphasizing “freedom of movement.” All of this laid the foundation for today’s game.

Let’s jump a few more years to an isolation-heavy offense, the 2006 Lakers, and a Kobe Bryant drive:

Look at all that beautiful open court to attack! If help comes from anywhere, Kobe should be able to find an open shooter or cutter. This was the same kind of read-and-react game from the ’90s, only with better spacing principles (increased 3-point shooting) and no illegal defense (abolished in 2002 for defensive 3 seconds). Some teams were even initiating offenses with all five guys around the arc.

This is really difficult to guard. The threat of the shooters, and the space needed to help off of them and then recover strains defenses, who must pick-a-poison whenever the player initiating the pick-and-roll is an offensive weapon (like Steve Nash). The NBA moved toward this approach during the last decade, as 3-point shooting became more prevalent and stretch bigs helped open up the court. This has driven up individual scoring rates, led to a rise in creation and helped the league set an efficiency record in 2017.

Finally, you’ve earned it. Let’s enjoy the first-class experience:

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a high pick-and-roll 10 feet beyond the 3-point line, with three shooters pinning the defense to the arc. This is the game today — lots of space, threats everywhere and minimal congestion on cuts. That wide-open shaded area in the above screenshot is at least 350 square feet, the size of a New York City apartment.

Or, in the old days, the home of most of the defenders on the court.