As the seconds wound down on the Nuggets’ victory over the Clippers on Tuesday, Andre Miller plopped down into one of the cushioned seats on the Denver Nuggets’ bench, took a deep breath and began to untie his shoes. He looked a little like a factory laborer or a construction worker huffing down in his easy chair at the end of a long day, unlacing his boots to ease the pressure on his tired feet.
Miller’s hard day of work was much more lucrative, of course, but in his 14th NBA season his approach is just as workmanlike. On a Nuggets team stacked with promising talent, the veteran point guard is the one player coach George Karl can count on to give the team what it needs, night after night. Trade rumblings have invoked Miller’s name in recent weeks, but the surgical way in which the 36-year-old Utah product sliced up the rolling Clippers underscored how vital he is to a team that still harbors hopes of traveling deep into the playoffs.
Well before Miller finished with 12 points and 12 assists as the Nuggets ended the Clippers’ 17-game win streak, he had gained a following among old-school hoops fans not just in the Mile High City but also in previous haunts like Portland and Philadelphia. Best known around the NBA for two things — for missing six out of a possible 1,083 games in his career and as the best lob-thrower in the league — Miller may just be the key to Denver living up to the preseason hype that had some experts putting them in the 2013 NBA Finals.
“He’s just amazing,” Karl told The Denver Post after the Nuggets dressed down the team with the best record in the NBA. “I think he was the best player on the court. We don’t win this game without Andre. I am sure I wore him out. He just got us easy baskets, got a lot of guys involved, gave our team a lot of confidence just because of his control of the game.”
The Lakers have shown the danger of pinning one’s hopes to a 30-something point guard, but Miller might be nearly as important to the Nuggets as Steve Nash is to the Lakers. Unlike Nash, who is the undisputed floor general for his team, Miller usually splits time at the point with Ty Lawson. The two guards contrast styles with Miller’s slow-motion style and Lawson’s frenetic pacing, but with Lawson missing the Clippers game with an injured left foot, Miller was left to fill both roles.
Here is where Miller’s approach leads to some misconceptions. Because he is old, slow and does not shoot very well, many assume that he favors a deliberate, half-court game. In fact, few point guards push the ball as consistently and nobody throws as many heads-up, three-quarters-court chest passes to streaking teammates after a turnover or long rebound.
Miller is not as terrible a defender as his numbers suggest, either. Honestly, he will never be mistaken for Avery Bradley — he bears a much more striking resemblance to the late Richard Pryor — but many of his supposed failings on defense are just as attributable to poor defenders around him, like JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari. For all his high-flying potential, McGee is still a glaringly flawed defender, and Faried’s motor outpaces his understanding of defensive principles. Karl clearly trusts Miller more than anyone, since he scrapped his original plan to have defensive stud Andre Iguodala cover Chris Paul. Instead, Miller chased around the 27-year-old Clippers guard for 41 minutes, holding him to 10 points and six assists.
A shining example of the Nuggets’ inexperience-related inconsistency came when Miller was guarding Clippers backup Eric Bledsoe. Miller aggressively stepped up to guide the third-year guard to the right side of the hoop, almost straddling Bledsoe’s left hip to influence Bledsoe into an obvious trap. Yet when neither Faried nor Gallinari stepped up to help, Bledsoe simply breezed past Miller for a layup. It was obvious from the players’ reactions after the basket that it was not Miller who messed up — Faried looked over sheepishly while Gallinari jogged back up the floor, oblivious.
Moments like this reveal that Miller, for all his physical shortcomings, is often the lone Nuggets player who always understands what is taking place on the court. Iguodala is struggling to find his place in a new team culture after eight years with the Philadelphia 76ers, and Lawson appears to have hit his peak as a great No. 2 point guard masquerading as a starter. McGee, Faried and Gallinari still need someone to guide them through the NBA game, and Miller is the man with the map.
Thanks to an 8-9 start and numerous lowlight moments for McGee, the Nuggets have been dismissed from the conversation as contenders in the West and those who placed them in the upper echelon entering the year have been roundly ridiculed. With Miller at the helm and 30 of their remaining 49 games at home, though, the Nuggets should not be forgotten about quite yet.