It’s Hall of Fame week, which means players and coaches are going to say very nice things about former teammates set to be inducted on Friday. At any time outside that friendly context, I’d be worried that the Warriors had hitched their team to a head coach with cloudy judgment when it comes to pretty basic things. Their coach, Mark Jackson, said the following about Reggie Miller, set to enter the Hall on Friday (via Mike Wells of the Indy Star):
“When you take Michael Jordan and you take Kobe Bryant out of the discussion, he’s as good as any two-guard that has ever played the game,” Jackson said.
Miller was a fantastic player whose longevity, nearly unprecedented for a wing player, allowed him to pile up insane career numbers; only 16 players have scored more combined ABA/NBA regular-season points than Miller’s 25,279. And Miller isn’t just a longevity Hall of Fame case. He was the centerpiece of an Indiana offense that typically ranked among the league’s 10 best (and higher during the late 1990s/early 2000s), and he was ahead of his time in embracing the three-point shot as a game-changing weapon. Miller took more threes than five entire teams in 1989-90, and he relied on the triple for between one-third and nearly half of his shot attempts for the bulk of his career. He got to the free-throw line more than people remember, even if he had to use some shady leg kicks and flops to get there, and he dished a respectable number of assists — though an expected number, given how much attention he’d draw curling off screens on the wing.
He pulled a rare postseason double for most of his career, taking on an increasing burden within Indiana’s offense (more shots, higher usage rate) while also increasing his efficiency. That’s hard to do. Miller’s postseason career is littered with crazy clutch shots, most famously against the Knicks (especially in 1995) and his game-winner in the conference finals against Chicago in 1998, a series in which the Pacers came closer to beating Chicago than any other team during Michael Jordan’s run of titles.
And while Miller’s frail frame and so-so athleticism meant he was never going to be much of a defender, he was smart about positioning and played heavy minutes for very good defensive teams.
All that said: There is just no way Miller is anything close to the No. 3 shooting guard of all time. This isn’t quite the place for an exhaustive ranking of the NBA’s shooting guards — authors have devoted entire books to the subject — but here’s a quick and dirty list of guys who at least complicate Miller’s place in the hierarchy.
Clearly above Miller
• Jerry West: We start with a player who embodies two recurring themes that often arise when ranking Miller: the fact that several of these two-guards reached higher peaks than Miller and often did so while playing more of an all-around game. The best shooting guards can essentially man the point for long stretches, running pick-and-rolls, tossing assists and serving as the on-ball focal point of an offense. Miller could never do that consistently, though he was good at catching on the move and taking a dribble or two into the lane for a floater, layup or attempt at drawing a foul.
The Logo ranked among the league leaders in assists for most of his career and was considered an elite defender, with long arms he used to generate piles of steals before the league reliably tracked the stat. Despite a series of ill-timed nagging postseason injuries, West can put his clutch résumé against that of any other player. He’s still the only guy to win Finals MVP in a losing cause (for his work in the 1969 Finals).
• Dwyane Wade: If Wade picks up a couple of more rings and scores an efficient 2,000 points per season over the next half-decade or so, the West/Bryant/Wade argument for the No. 2 all-time shooting guard spot is going to be interesting. Wade entered the league four years after Bryant in terms of raw age and trails Kobe by nearly 15,000 points (!). He’ll close that gap once Bryant retires, but Wade is already 30 and showing signs of wear and tear; even some optimistic projections would leave him 10,000 points behind Kobe.
Wade is never again going to average 30 a game, as Bryant did three times and Wade has done once, but he has shot much more efficiently from the floor, matched Bryant as a foul-drawing threat and exceeded Kobe as a passer/pseudo-point guard. Both are elite defenders when engaged, though Kobe is longer and better equipped to defend small forwards.
Still, Wade has the sixth-highest Player Efficiency Rating in league history. Sixth! That’s higher than Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and several other luminaries, and 13 spots higher than Kobe. Wade’s greatness has gone weirdly underappreciated, and though Kobe has a clear historical edge now, the debate has the potential to be pretty close when both are through. Either way, both are far above Miller.
• Clyde Drexler: We’re getting into dicier territory now, but I’m comfortable putting the Glide above Miller. He ranks 79 spots above Miller on the all-time PER list, and like West and Wade, he was just a more dynamic creator than Miller. Drexler averaged between 5.7 and 8.0 assists per game for eight straight seasons in his prime and could help an offense in more ways. He was the linchpin of one of the great teams to never win a title (the late 1980s/early 1990s Blazers), and he had the size to play small forward in three-guard lineups without fatally compromising his team’s defense.
Interesting Miller-related cases
We’re going to go quickly now, by era:
• Allen Iverson: He played selfishly, shot inefficiently, gambled for steals and needed just the right context to succeed on both ends of the floor. He’s also in the top 50 all time in PER and the top 20 in points (for now), and his teams scored at dramatically better rates with him on the floor for nearly his entire career. Roster context had a lot to do with that, especially on those scoring-challenged Sixers teams, but Iverson’s all-around talent helped, too.
• Vince Carter: I’ve speculated at length on whether Carter will be the highest scoring player left out of the Hall, since his occasionally shaky postseason play and inglorious exit from Toronto justifiably mar his case. At his peak, Carter was a better player than Miller, but Miller’s postseason heroics, consistency and general work ethic/loyalty probably outweigh Carter’s superior statistical heights.
• Tracy McGrady: As is the case with his cousin, Carter, there will always be a subset of fans that question McGrady’s Hall-worthiness — and with reason. He never won a postseason series as an active player (the Rockets advanced to the second round in 2009 while he was on the injured list) despite a premature boast during the 2003 playoffs, though it’s hard to look at his postseason history and find a series in which his team clearly should have won. His coach and GM in Houston openly questioned his work ethic (something McGrady has done himself), and he had a relatively brief eight-season prime, with a mini four-season super-prime squeezed in there. He also brings the same positional issues as George Gervin, having played a lot of small forward, especially early in his career.
But, holy cow, was McGrady’s peak high. He was and is an ingenious passer, and that all-around ability propelled him in 2002-03 to one of only 16 30-plus PER seasons in league history. Again, McGrady was clearly a better player than Miller when both were in their respective peaks, but the other stuff — postseason success, work ethic issues, etc. — probably gives Miller the career edge.
• Manu Ginobili: This is going to be a classic longevity-versus-peak/rings debate, but I’d argue that Ginobili has been a better all-around player than Miller for most of his career. He’s 32nd all time in PER, a hair behind John Stockton, and he is good to great at every single thing a shooting guard is expected to do — long-range shooting, passing, the pick-and-roll, transition play, finishing in the paint, on-ball and off-ball defense, moving without the ball, etc. He put up assist numbers of which Miller could never dream. There are also the three rings, for those interested in counting pieces of jewelry awarded to teams.
Still, Ginobili has barely cracked 10,000 career regular-season points, the result of his coming to the NBA at the relatively ancient age of 25 and serving as sixth man under a coach far ahead of the curve in understanding how to manage minutes. Ginobili has produced at an above-Miller level when unleashed for extended minutes. Toss in a nearly unparalleled international career, both in the Euroleague and for his Argentine national team, and you could easily argue that Ginobili will end up a better Springfield candidate than Miller.
• Ray Allen: Perhaps the most similar player to Miller, in terms of his reliance on the three-point shot, his proficiency at it and his ability to remain a productive player into his late-30s. He has less than a one-point edge on Miller in PER, so the battle is close to even in terms of efficiency stats. Allen might not have a flashbulb postseason moment equal to Miller’s 1995 or 1998 moments, but he has a few very close candidates — the clinching basket of Boston’s mammoth Game 4 comeback in the 2008 Finals, those record-setting eight triples in Game 2 of the 2010 Finals and his 51-point masterpiece in Game 6 of that epic Boston-Chicago 2009 first-rounder.
I’d give Allen the edge for his work as the centerpiece of Seattle’s offenses in the mid-2000s, when Allen worked an off-the-bounce/pick-and-roll game that led to a brief but significant uptick in assists and shots near the basket. But it’s close.
• Joe Dumars: A Finals MVP and super-plus defender who has to rate a notch below Miller. Dumars can’t touch Miller’s scoring or efficiency and didn’t have to carry a burden as heavy as Miller’s until very late in his career, when the Pistons slid down the NBA’s hierarchy.
Moving even more quickly now as we enter the era before the three-point shot:
• Rick Barry: Very close to getting into the above “clearly better than Miller” category, and he probably belongs there. Barry was difficult to deal with and may have sabotaged Golden State’s chances at a repeat title in 1975-76 by (allegedly) refusing to shoot in Game 7 of the conference finals against Phoenix.
But, holy cow, was this guy a wizard on the floor — a dynamite passer who could control an offense both on and off the ball. He carried Golden State to the 1974-75 title, finished with the exact same number of combined ABA/NBA points as Miller, drew a ton of free throws and shot the three-pointer well during his pioneering time in the ABA. When focused and at peace, a better all-around player than Miller.
• George Gervin: Gervin switched from small forward to shooting guard midstream and absolutely tore up the ABA and the NBA, including a few seasons in which he approached 55 percent (!) from the floor for those fun (and weirdly unremembered) late-1970s/early 1980s San Antonio teams. He has Miller lapped in PER and earned more free throws. The passing numbers are similar, but Gervin was by his own admission an indifferent defender.
• Pete Maravich: He dominated the ball as something like a point guard for most of his college and pro career, and Maravich obviously blows Miller away as a passer. His field-goal percentages are so-so and he had a reputation for selfish play, but one wonders what his scoring numbers would look like had the league implemented the three-point shot during his prime. He did not win a playoff series until working as a bench player in Boston during the 1979-80 season, though a knee injury interrupted his most promising season with the Jazz. Injuries were a recurring theme of Maravich’s career, limiting him to just five seasons of 70-plus games. Miller had the better career.
• Earl Monroe: He probably has to rank a bit behind Miller despite some gaudy early-career scoring numbers and a place on one legendary title team, the 1972-73 Knicks. Monroe semi-willingly sublimated his scoring game to fit within New York’s share-the-ball philosophy but remained a pretty efficient per-minute scorer during the latter stages of his career.
• Dave Bing: The Detroit mayor swung between guard positions throughout his career. He was a prolific scorer and passer during his point guard days, but he was never especially efficient, and his Detroit teams — which included Bob Lanier — never won a playoff series. Bing ranks well below Miller in PER and career points, and belongs behind him in the all-time two-guard hierarchy.
(Note: There are some other names we could toss on this list to be super-inclusive, including Lou Hudson, Gail Goodrich and a few others, but the arguments become tough and space is tight.)
Very early NBA — and thus very hard to evaluate
• Bill Sharman: He was a star on Boston’s early Bob Cousy-era teams with a career shooting mark (42 percent) that looks bad now but looks fine in the context of the very bricky 1950s NBA when teams shot below 40 percent. Sharman is in the Hall as a player and a coach, having advanced the coaching profession during his title-winning work in both the ABA and the NBA, the latter with the early 1970s Lakers. It’s hard to make a case for him over Miller.
• Sam Jones: Sharman’s heir as the designated shooter on Boston title teams. Jones shot a solid 46 percent from the floor, averaged about 20 points per game and has a laundry list of famous clutch shots to his name. He played a central role on all eight of Boston’s title teams from 1958-59 through 1965-66. Jones has an argument for a place above Miller on the all-time list, but these kinds of historical comparisons are basically impossible.
• Hal Greer: The leading scorer in the history of the Nationals/76ers franchise, and the second-leading scorer on Philadelphia’s 1966-67 title team — considered in some quarters (not these) the greatest in NBA history. Greer never topped 17.5 in PER in any season and was not particularly great at anything outside of scoring two-point baskets. A very hard player to evaluate, but not one obviously deserving of a place above Miller.