The significance of Mike Miller's strange 2008/09 season

Webster's dictionary defines an "outlier" as "a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample."  In layman's terms, an outlier is a subject's data point or moment that is very different than the general trend.

Webster's provides no example sentence to place the word in its proper context.  If it was taking nominations, this would be my entry.

Mike Miller's shooting touch during the 2008/09 season was an outlier relative to the rest of his career.

The above sentence is a fact.  Mike Miller shot worse last year with the Timberwolves than he has in his last few years with the Grizzlies.  In addition, Mike Miller shot way less last year with the Timberwolves than he has at any other point in his career.  As our special table below the jump indicates, this is also a fact.  Those are impossible to dispute.

The far more pertinent questions are: 1.  Why did Miller's shooting stroke and shooting confidence (or his trigger, however you want to phrase it) disappear last year? and 2.  What does this mean for Mike Miller next season with the Wizards and possibly beyond if he sticks around?  Those questions have more difficult answers that we'll explore below the jump.

There's really no arguing that Mike Miller's shooting was way worse last year than it has been over the course of his career.  Not only in terms of percentage, but also in terms of attempts. 

Year FGA/36 3PTA/36 eFG%/3PT% eFG% on jumpers % of shots as jumpers Usg%
2004/05 12.1 5.1 59.7/43.3 58 72 19.8
2005/06 12.1 5.4 55.7/40.7 52.9 77 21.3
2006/07 13.3 6.5 56/40.6 53.2 76 21.1
2007/08 12 5.2 59.6/43.2 55.8 71 19.8
2008/09 8.4 3.4 55.9/37.8 52.3 68 14.5

 

The bold categories are the ones where you see a significant drop.  The attempts are way, way down, the usage is also way down, and Miller's three-point percentage is also way down.  I'm not sure how his eFG% remained a little more steady with his three-point percentage so off, but perhaps he made a lot of long twos.  Either way, he shot less and shot worse.  

To compensate (or just because), Miller tried to contribute in other areas of the game.  His rebound percentage was a career high and his assist percentage was the second-highest in his career.  But when thinking about whether Miller's new "diverse" game of sorts actually helped the Timberwolves out, I'm reminded of Daryl Morey's quote that the person who invented the box score "should be shot." The Timberwolves brought Miller in to shoot, and instead, he passed and rebounded.  His assist percentage may have been a career high, but so was his turnover percentage (a 19.1% mark that was 2.5% higher than his next-worst total). 

Timberwolves beat writer Britt Robson of Minnesota-based online magazine The Rake, a guy Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer once called the "future of sportswriting," put what I just said far more eloquently.

But the writers of CSI should set to work on a script that explains Miller's lone season in Minnesota, which was one of the most perverse, distasteful wastes of a player's tailor-made role on a ballclub that I've ever witnessed. Instead of Mike Miller, the Wolves got a second-rate Jason Kidd, a guy who played like he wanted to patent the no-look inbounds pass; who frequently drove through three opponents in traffic so that he could leap at the hoop and then suddenly contort-spin himself for a zip-pass to an increasingly less surprised Telfair for a clanked trey; who angrily cited the fundamentals of hoops inventor James Naismith to a hapless beat writer who dared to ask why one of the game's best shooters wasn't shooting; who lay on the court in writhing agony at least 20 times during the course of the season (I don't think I'm exaggerating), then would either crawl on his belly to the bench, get helped off by teammates, or, most frequently, move as if walking on glass shards for a good two or three minutes, yet never allow himself to be taken out of the game. Miller was TOUGH and he was UNSELFISH, goddammit, and the more I watched him chew the scenery like Nicholas Cage as Macbeth while the triple-teamed Jefferson and the Wolves sank to the bottom of the league in FG%, the bigger the shingle I hung out as a Mike Miller hater.

So the question is, what the eff happened?  There are several possible explanations.

Miller lost confidence with his shot

This seems to be the least plausible explanation at first glance.  Mike Miller spent eight years in the best professional basketball league in the world as one of its best shooters.  He did so for two teams and for squads that made the playoffs.  Why would an exile to Minnesota suddenly rob him of his confidence?

But there might actually be something to it.  Miller was shooting okay, in terms of frequency, in November, when he played 35 minutes a game and took 133 field goals in 14 games.  But after getting hurt in December, Miller returned in January and was simply dreadful.  He shot just 39 percent from the field and a ridiculous 20 percent from three-point range during the month, all while shooting only five shots per game.  January was also around the time when Miller legendarily lashed out at a reporter questioning his confidence by saying "it's called basketball, James Naismith invented it a long time ago."  Kind of sounds like someone with confidence issues.

There's only one problem.  It would seem to follow logically that, if Miller lost his confidence with his shot, it would mean that he took more shots early in the month and fewer later in the month once the failure of hitting shots earlier in the month started to wear on his mind.  That's not exactly what happened.  The following chart has Miller's game-by-game shot attempts in the month of January.  

Mike_miller_s_shots_in_january_medium

We see a bit of a rocky trend here, though he was a bit down by the end of the month.  I'm not smart enough to figure out the slope of this data, but it's certainly not significant in any way one way or the other.  This indicates that perhaps there's no real point where Miller became gun shy due to a lack of confidence. 

(As an aside, the concept of shooting confidence and the "hot hand theory" fascinates me.  I get in chicken-egg discussions with people all the time on the question of whether confidence leads to good shooting, or vice versa.  My feeling is that good shooting leads to confidence more often than the reverse, but it's an interesting question). 

Miller was a bad fit for Minnesota

In suggesting this as a possibility, we need to go deeper than the "they asked him to rebound and pass" explanation.  That's certainly not true.  Sure, the Timberwolves, in particular Kevin McHale, praised Miller's approach to the game publicly, talking about how he is important as a facilitator.  But let's get real, they wanted Miller to be a shooter.  They got him to be a kickout threat when guys double-teamed Al Jefferson.  And if they didn't?  Then they were misusing a guy.

In light of that, perhaps the problem is that Miller, as good a shooter as he is, isn't the type of spot-up shooter that thrives in a post-based offense.  Or, at the very least, the type of post offense Minnesota had.  Canis Hoopus took a lot at Miller's NBA.com hot zones charts in March and made a similar conclusion.  Apparenty, Miller was scoring just 0.62 points per game from the right wing at that time last year, compared to his previous low of 1.45 points from the right wing.  He was shooting worse than his career average from the right wing, but still better than from other spots on the floor.  Another commenter jumped in and noted that many of Miller's shots from the right wing were instead coming from the top of the key, where he was less efficient.

Perhaps the reason his shots from the right wing were so down was the presence of Al Jefferson?  That's what Stop-n-Pop suggested:

I think the main cause for this phenomenon is that Al Jefferson is a dominant player on the left side of the court.  It's where he lives and thrives, and if the Wolves were going to run an in-out game with Miller and Big Al, it would be on the side of the court that Big Al is most comfortable on.  We obviously don't have the type of data it would require to complete a full study on the subject, but perhaps we can come up with a simple theory: Miller is a "right handed" type of player--someone who is more comfortable operating on the opposite side of the court as the Wolves' best player, who is a "left handed" type of guy.  I'm sure the answer to this question is much more complex, but this is as close to a stat-based theory we can come up with considering the available data.

It's possible, but there are a couple problems here.  One, Miller played a lot of the year without Jefferson and didn't improve.  Two, Miller played a lot with Pau Gasol, a similar left-oriented back-to-the-basket guy and did fine in the past.  But perhaps this does prove that Miller is less adept at dumping it in to the big man and spotting up.  He's better at shooting off screens and getting shots in the flow of an offense.

Miller got infected with "play the right way"-itis

"We get in trouble when we don't move the ball,'' Miller said, offering what has become his boilerplate answer on the topic. "My job on this team is sometimes to pull up and sometimes to move the ball. We don't play well when we don't move the ball. If we just play on one side of the floor and take two, three dribbles and shoot, we're in a lot of trouble.''

"You just gotta take the shots that are there," Miller said. "It's a pretty simple game, really. You have to pick your spots. When you're open you just have to step up and shoot the ball."

Those sound like quotes from someone who either taught himself or was taught to play the Larry Brown-style of moving the ball and taking only perfect shots.  Indeed, Kevin McHale, Minnesota's coach, is the type of coach who prefers a post-oriented, right-way style to something a little more innovative.  Dump it into the bigs.  Keep the ball whipping around the perimeter.  Find the perfect shot.  Etc.  Miller either picked up that bug or taught himself those same things too. 

Miller was dispirited in Minnesota and didn't play his hardest

From the very beginning, Miller was speculated as a movable piece in Minnesota.  Chad Ford wrote a trade deadline column in late January that listed Miller's chances of being dealt at 65 percent.  One would think all that speculation would wear on someone, and we have some possible proof that it did.  In that same piece, Ford wrote that Miller was "reportedly miserable in Minnesota."  Robinson agreed later last year.

According to people close to the team, Miller was very aware of preseason trade rumors that had him going to LA (among other places) for Lamar Odom. To this day, he has kept his wife and children down in Memphis, where he toiled for the Grizzlies.

There is also the matter of being on yet another losing club.  Miller spent two years on awful Grizzlies teams, only to be dealt to a similarly messed up situation in Minnesota.  He couldn't have expected Minnesota to be too much better than Memphis, but surely even he didn't expect a midseason coaching change, major front office upheavel and an injury to the team's star player in addition to all the losing.  For someone reaching the point of his career where winning becomes way more important than accolades, last year had to be frustrating for Miller.  He even said so upon being traded to DC.

"I don't mind, as long as I help us win," he said. "If coming off the bench makes us better, I have no problem. I tell them right now, I don't mind coming off the bench, at all. I don't mind, I really don't. I've come off the bench before. I just want to win. I'm sick of losing."

The past three years, his teams have finished with 24, 22 and 22 wins.

"That's a long time in basketball years," he said. "When I work out the way I work out, it's hard to justify it, winning 20-some games."

With all that happening, you can't really blame Mike Miller for not giving it his all every night.  He surely didn't dog it like Vince Carter in Toronto, but he wasn't going to push himself to play to his strengths either. 

Which one is it?  Or is it a combination?

This is the question I ask you guys.  What could have possibly accounted for Miller's weird 2008/09, and what does that mean for the Wizards next year?

To me, the good news here is that the Wizards offer a foil for pretty much any explanation.  Flip Saunders is a very innovative coach that will find a way to get Miller his shots in his spots better than Minnesota's coaches.  The Wizards aren't a post-oriented team, which also helps.  Flip's also the type of flexible coach who should encourage a player like Miller to shoot it even while also moving the ball.  Finally, the Wizards should be good next year, so Miller will finally be back on a winning team. 

The only explanation that may linger is confidence.  Maybe Miller's confidence is killed for good.  But in a contract year, I think he'll be okay.  My expectation is the Miller we see this year will be much closer to the Miller of old than the Miller of 2008/09.  Then, the next question is whether we re-sign him.

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