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On the surface the rationale for Smith's transformation might seem simple—just stop doing what you're not good at—but it's not. First, NBA players are constantly asked to do more, not less, especially when they are as young and talented as Smith, who last year was second, behind LeBron James, in an SI player poll to name the league's best all-around athlete. Budding stars are urged to add elements to their game—think Garnett's jumper, Jordan's fadeaway—not subtract them. But in Smith's case he has defied conventional wisdom; by doing less he has become a more complete player.
Second, quitting is no easy feat. Charles Barkley was one of the greatest offensive rebounders ever, a dynamic post scorer who attacked the rim with the ferocity of a Bengal tiger on speed, and yet he couldn't help himself. Surely you remember the sight: Standing beyond the arc, sizing up his man, Chuck would chuck, and chuck, and chuck. (As he told SI's Jack McCallum in 1988, "Man, I love those threes.") However, Barkley's career percentage was 26.6%. In 1988--89 he launched 162 treys and connected on 21.6%; subtract the threes and he would have shot a sublime 63.6% from the field. Asked about Barkley's shot selection now, Jim Lynam, his coach with the 76ers, makes a case that "special players have a longer leash," and that "he wasn't a bad shooter, hitting, what, 30 percent?" Told it was substantially lower, Lynam reconsiders: "No, no, that's not a good percentage at all. You're right, he shouldn't have been shooting those. Next time I see Barkley, I'm going to remind him of that."
With Barkley and Smith it was obvious, but other times deciphering which part of his game a player needs to excise is impossible without peering deep into the numbers. Two good examples from this season are power forwards Chris Bosh of the Raptors and Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies. Both had a history of settling for midrange jumpers. This season, however, they have eschewed the in-between game to attack the hoop: Bosh has gone from 7.0 attempts per game in the post to 9.3 at week's end, and Randolph's average was up by 1.6 attempts. As a result both players have increased their field goal percentage and their and-ones. And, not coincidentally, both of their teams are winning more games.
The examples provided by Smith, Bosh and Randolph make sense at an intuitive level: Sometimes shooting less can help a team. Occasionally, however, this can lead to a mystifying condition when taken to an extreme. Call it the Mike Miller Syndrome.
If you were a casual fan and attended the Wizards' home game against Atlanta last Thursday, you could be forgiven for thinking you were about to see a star turn from Miller. After all, there he was on the cover of the program, with the headline MIKE MILLER IS READY TO SHOOT DOWN THE HAWKS. The 6'6" swingman is having a remarkable year. In NBA history only three players have finished a season shooting better than 50% from the field, 50% from outside the arc and 80% from the line (the players: Steve Kerr, Detlef Schrempf and Tim Legler). Going into Thursday's game, Miller was on pace to join them, shooting 53.4% from the field, 52.1% on threes and 82.5% from the line.
So naturally Miller came out gunning. At least for the first four minutes, that is. After hitting three of his first four shots, he didn't attempt another one until the fourth quarter. As usual, in the end he finished with fewer than 10 attempts—he's averaging 6.8 shots per game—which seems even more criminal considering that he's on a rebuilding team. This can't be explained away as just Miller's nature either; only three seasons ago in Memphis, Miller averaged 18.5 points while hoisting more than seven threes a game. So what gives?
Asked about it, Washington coach Flip Saunders sighs. "We try to get him to shoot, and he tries to come out looking for it," he says, "but if someone's open, he passes the ball." Saunders pauses, preparing to rationalize. "The thing is, he makes good plays, but if you're shooting as high a percentage as he is, you should be shooting more." As for Miller, he says things like, "Obviously I'd love to shoot more," and talks wistfully of his days with the Grizzlies. "Those were the best, man," he says. "We had Pau [Gasol] on the box, and they had to double him. It was a shooter's dream." Pressed on why he doesn't look for his offense more now, he says, "You try to think being unselfish is a domino effect, one of those things like taking charges that will catch on with the rest of the team." This is all well and good, but as Saunders says, "I just wish he'd shoot more."
So we are left with an interesting dichotomy. Both Mike Miller and Josh Smith believe they are helping their teams by doing less. It's just that only one of them is right.
The most remarkable thing about Smith's transformation may be that it happened at all, given his reputation for obstinacy. During his first five seasons he was known as a hothead, if not as downright uncoachable. Last season Smith was briefly suspended by the Hawks for cursing out Woodson.
Smith says the epiphany came last summer. He was watching film and realized "at this point in my career I'm not the best three-point shooter." Especially with a roster that includes marksmen like Johnson, Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford, Smith concluded he was better off working on his post moves and midrange game.