In what could mostly inaccurately be called the post-LaPhonso Ellis era, it was in fact possible to be a fan of the Denver Nuggets basketball franchise. There was a thrilling high in the 1994 playoffs, when the eighth-seeded Nuggets came back from 0-2 in the first round to knock off the first-seeded Seattle SuperSonics 3-2, an upset somewhat bigger than 8-over-1, given the colossal talent of that Seattle team. This was followed the next season by a catastrophic injury to Ellis, and the beginning of a lost most-of-a-decade. The stretch was notable mainly for a lot of losses and a ton of coaches. Since there was precious little competent basketball, or aesthetically pleasing basketball, or any discernible characterological/winning-based narrative on display, being a fan of the Nuggets was based more on habit and tribal affiliation than on any base rooting interest.
The received wisdom has all this changing with the arrival of the unspeakably talented Carmelo Anthony, who, unlike St. James with his infirm Cleveland Cavaliers, carried his team into the playoffs during his rookie season of 2003-04. There the Nuggets absorbed a robust pounding, ousted 4-1 by the then-ascendant Minnesota Timberwolves, but as the Nuggets had been left out on a hillside to die of (under-) exposure for about a decade, the mere fact of playoff games in Denver seemed proof all at once of a return to competent basketball, fun-to-watch basketball, a story worth following.
In the next year, the Nuggets again regularly-season-achieved to the tune of a rugged first-round matchup against a juggernaut, distinguishing the 'Melo Era from the Ellis Administration. The Spurs that year boasted the typical Spurs-ian solidity, with Tim Duncan inexorable on the inside and Tony Parker inimitable if inconsistent on the perimeter. And in that initial playoff game of the 2004-05 Nuggets' season, competent and beautiful basketball ran all over the court. Sort of.
Both teams seemed out of sorts, shooting horribly (a combined 68-for-163) despite one team having 'Melo, The Best In the World, and the other having Duncan and Parker. But one team, which I might as well mention is my team, had Andre Miller.
And Andre Miller, for one half of basketball, transcended the underdog-in-the-playoffs narrative while apotheosizing the experience of rooting for a team in the league's second tier. The expectations are different down there: you just want to see some good individual performances sprinkled across a season; you just want to see an occasional stirring victory. Miller dropped 11 field goals in that first 24-minute half, while everybody else on both teams auditioned for starring roles in the Shotmissers Springtime Special Session. Miller wasn't just making shots, though: rarely will any fan see so resolutely ground-bound a player, let alone one also without exceptional speed, penetrate and perforate so wantonly and happily a defense as strong as San Antonio's. That is, unless that fan was watching that night: in that case, she will see Andre Miller get to the rim at will, with a near-unprecedented mix of invisible slivers transmuted to angles just generous enough for a first step, imperceptible shimmers and shoulder fakes creating space, and plain strength allowing him to finish over strenuous objections from straining shotblockers.
Miller finished with 31 points: a good game by anybody's standards, but that 11-field-goal first half was one of the most remarkable individual performances I've seen, from him or anyone else, ever. This was nothing more complicated than one guy playing well, standing as waves of opposition crashed around him...and somehow, the team even got the win. Normally, in similar one-on-many scenarios, the ending works more like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In this case, Miller was Cagney defiantly blowing himself up at the end of White Heat, but somehow surviving the explosion to become the first man on the moon.
That game converted me to Miller's side. I'd been skeptical for a long time. I'd become aware of Miller by reputation—the reputation of the league leader-boards, during one of my halting, easily cowed attempts at fantasy basketball, during the 2001-02 season . Miller was then averaging a ton of assists, out in the hinterlands of Cleveland, a city/team I'd essentially forgotten once Mike Mitchell and Brad Daugherty joined the ranks of the post-NBA.
Miller's reputation as an assist machine persisted through his queasy sojourn on the Los Angeles Sterlings; it now seems to have canalized into a reputation as one of the league's best throwers of the alley-oop. This latter narrowing is well-earned, but I've always been a little more skeptical about the relationship between "gets lots of assists" and its corollary "is good at running the team's offense." Watching Miller over the course of a couple seasons after that Spurs game, I started to feel as if Miller would pass only when doing so would guarantee him an assist—on an alley-oop, say. Probably this is inaccurate and certainly it would be near-impossibly difficult to pull off in an actual NBA game—if you and I sat down to watch a game closely, I'd be proven wrong. It was just one of those irrational fan-relationship judgments, and there's almost certainly nothing to it. But still, I've struggled with reservations about his passing ideology ever since.
Third verse, same as the first. Again the Nuggets found the playoffs, again they drew an opponent that promised to overmatch them, and again Andre Miller loosed the reins and let slip the dogs of dazzlingly fluent offense, stumping the Lakers' defense and helping his team pull out an unexpected road win.
The final numbers read 8-of-11 from the field, 24 points in 28 minutes, eight assists, all of it off the bench. From the wing, giant steps to the side for baseline jumpers. Curls into the lane for desperately contested floaters that always seem to drop. The characteristic alley-oop passes.
But if Andre Miller has a true signature, it's a shoulder-down barrel roll through traffic, usually with a hitch in the paint and a pause near the basket, in the spot where the defenders are densest, before flicking the ball up, often off the glass and usually in. In those moments, he gives the impression of someone moving through a fluid, somehow, as if basketball itself thickens and congeals around him, without impeding him much. Miller is slow, heavy but somehow buoyed, supported by the invisible currents of the sport.
There's not a great deal of obvious grace to Andre Miller's game, or in his frame. He lopes, a little, but while his lateral movement can be righteously quick, and while he gets off the floor fast and thoroughly enough to stuff Blake Griffin—6-10/250 of state-of-the-art rim-seeking explosive ordinance—in a dunk attempt, the overwhelming impression Miller leaves on the court is one of physical restraint, fires banked and energies husbanded.
From this point of view, that tendency toward long-distance alley-oop strikes seems one of resource allocation: easier to send the leather sphere 40 feet on its own than to haul Miller's 200 pounds there and back again. It's a long, long season, and Miller has only ever missed four games to injury; he is now in his 13th year, and he still needs to keep enough in the tank to mount one-man insurgencies against superior teams in the playoffs. So he needs to keep working to perfect the all full-court alley-oop attack".
It's peculiarly easy to focus on Miller's singular on-court presence, partly because he gives you so little off-the-court grist. The best pieces note his reserve and fill out a biography, if you need one filled out. I'm mostly happy just watching him play, though.
Andre Miller seems never to take part in a narrative outside the drama of each individual game—and I love that. Why I watch Andre Miller is that here is a man who might, in any given game, match any given opposing team, singlehandedly and in great style.
It is hard not to notice all these individual games piling up. Miller is in the NBA's all-time top ten in assists, and third on the Nuggets' career rolls despite playing just four full seasons with the team. He comes off the bench now, this time for a team that's expected to do more than win an inspiring game or two in the playoffs. Maybe this year, or next, Miller will become one of those veteran players with an old storyline. A cagey veteran looking for a ring; the mentor; poor old bad injury; some other story you already know. For the moment, though, he is still writing, telling, and living his own strange story. I watch because I know I won't be disappointed, but also because I know—because he keeps reminding me—that this is a story I haven't quite seen before, written in a way whose weird virtuosity keeps sneaking up. I don't know how it ends, or when. Turn a page, and another one is there, gripping as the one before.