Andre Miller spent 17 years as an NBA point guard, the better part of three of those with the Sixers. Never seemed to be moving all that fast, but always seemed to get where he needed to go. Never seemed to jump all that high, but always seemed to jump just high enough.
His game served as a reminder that on-court IQ matters at least as much as raw athleticism, that there are many ways to skin a cat — if in fact skinning is even required. He would poke and prod, feint and flit. He would go placidly amidst the noise and haste around him, but more often than not accomplish what needed to be accomplished.
In a recent phone interview he argued (albeit mildly) that he was “more athletic than a lot of people would think” and then asked, “If I wasn’t super fast, why were a lot of the teams that I played on top five in fast-break points?”
NBA observers, he added, “expect point guards to be super fast or super athletic. Sometimes it’s not that. It was just the feel for the game. I monitored the game as need be.”
This comes to mind now, as Miller — weeks away from his 47th birthday and seven years removed from his playing career — is in his first season as head coach of the Grand Rapids Gold, the Denver Nuggets’ G-League affiliate. Again he is feeling his way. Again he is determining just what it is he might need to do in order to ensure success.
“Just wanted to take a look at this — if this is something that I can do, if I can handle it, if I can give back in that type of way,” he said.
Through Feb. 25 the Gold was a league-worst 6-15, but Miller said he has enjoyed himself, while adjusting to a game that has become even more three-happy than when he played — “chaotic” is the word he used to describe it — and sorting out the best way to communicate with modern players.
NBC Sports Philadelphia studio analyst Jim Lynam, a former long-time coach who once crossed paths with Miller as a Sixers assistant, believes Miller certainly has the acumen to succeed as a coach, should he choose to pursue the profession long-term.
“I’m incredibly fond of the guy, and as a player his intellect and understanding of the game is above and beyond — the highest,” Lynam said. “I would put him on a pedestal with whoever you would put in that category. … What he did good, he did as good as anybody that ever played this game.”
Lynam fully understands the strategic adjustments a new coach like Miller must make, given the game’s evolution. As an example, consider that several years ago Lynam was asked to voice over video of the Sixers’ championship-clinching victory over the Lakers in Game 4 of the 1983 Finals. He was stunned to discover that that iteration of the Sixers, great as it was, ran nary a pick-and-roll that entire night. Nowadays, he said, teams will combine to run about 200 a game.
That’s because it’s “literally unguardable,” in his estimation, unless an extra defender is brought into the mix to help on the screener/roller and ball-handler. That leads to open shooters on the weak side, the ball being swung and teams routinely hoisting over 30 three-point attempts a night.
“I was able to play around (that style) a little bit,” Miller said, “but it’s just on a whole different level.”
He also believes the relationship between players and coaches has changed, even since he played — that the my-way-or-the-highway coaching style has gone the way of the peach basket.
“Not the group I have, but the newer generation in general (is) pretty fragile,” he said, “so you have to be careful how you approach them, considering what things may affect them personally, and try to communicate with them in a way that’s as positive as you can, and try to get the best out of them.”
While Lynam cannot speak to the specifics of Miller’s situation, he believes players can be reached — that indeed that was always the case, and always will be. To illustrate his point, he harkened back to the early ‘80s, when the late, legendary Jack Ramsay wanted to hire him as an assistant in Portland. Lynam, at that point coaching St. Joe’s (his alma mater and the place Ramsay had first established himself), was wary: Would NBA players listen to a guy who until then had only coached in college?
“You can put that thought to rest,” Ramsay told him, “because these guys are ready to listen as much as (those in) any gym you’ve ever been in, for one reason — money. Once you have their confidence, which you’ll get quickly, they’ll know you can be a factor in them making a lot more money.”
And perish the thought that Miller — “a low-key dude,” in Lynam’s estimation — might not be able to reach guys. Lynam was an assistant under Maurice Cheeks, a man with a similar disposition, in Philadelphia and Portland.
“The transformation when Cheeks walks into the gym as a coach, those who know him could not believe it,” Lynam said. “Literally, you could not believe that that’s Maurice Cheeks. When he played he put on his playing mask, I used to tell him. And then when he coached, he put on his coaching mask. And if he was going to rob a bank he’d put on his rob-a-bank mask. And he’d be good at whatever he did.”
Lynam was in fact part of Cheeks’ staff when the Sixers acquired Miller from Denver on Dec. 19, 2006, in a trade for no less a player than Allen Iverson. Granted, Iverson was on the downside of his Hall of Fame career at that point, but he was (and is) obviously an iconic figure.
Was Miller bothered by this?
No. No, he was not.
“It wasn’t stressful at all,” he said. “The stressful part was the surprise of being traded, because we had a pretty good thing going in Denver.”
He enjoyed two of the biggest scoring seasons of his career with the Sixers in ‘07-08 and ‘08-09, respectively, averaging 17 and 16-plus points a game for teams that were the very definition of mediocrity, going 40-42 and 41-41 and bowing out in the first round of the playoffs each year. Lynam said he was nonetheless “amazed” at Miller’s abilities.
“I had no idea,” Lynam said. “You knew he was a good player. You play against him, you follow the numbers, but had no idea how special he was.”
Then Lynam underscored his point.
“He would throw a pass to you and literally call your name as the ball’s in flight,” he said, “because you didn’t know you were open. He’s the only one in the building that knew you were open. It sounds like I’m trying to make a joke, but I mean it literally. He was one of a kind.”
Also known for his reliability — he played in 632 consecutive games at one point in his career, 239 at another — he averaged 12.5 points and 6.5 assists while toiling for nine different teams (and 15 different head coaches, including George Karl three times) in his 17 seasons. He never made an All-Star team, though he believes there were a handful of times his play warranted such an honor.
“That’s a popularity contest,” he said. “At least I know I got the respect from my peers.”
Miller settled in San Diego when he was done playing, just down the West Coast from his hometown of Los Angeles, and said he spent a year or two “basically just resting and recovering,” after undergoing foot surgery. He did coach at a San Diego prep school one season, and gave some thought to coaching in college.
But last year, he said, he was chatting with Denver general manager Calvin Booth, once his teammate in Philadelphia, about another matter when Booth mentioned that Jason Terry, the Gold’s coach in ’21-22 and a former NBA guard himself, had taken an assistant’s job with the Utah Jazz. Booth wondered if Miller might be interested, and Miller agreed to the interview that resulted in his hiring.
Miller has no idea how far he wants to take this, no grand plan to someday wind up on an NBA bench.
“Right now I’m just going off the flow and the feel of an ex-player,” he said, “and just some of the stuff I learned along the way from college up ‘til now.”
Just going with the flow. Same as it ever was.