A couple of weeks ago, Carmelo Anthony sat down with his ex team-USA colleague Dwayne Wade on Instagram live for a friendly chat on numerous topics. His most interesting comment was ceartinly the one about probably having 2 or 3 rings had he been the one drafted by Detroit in the famous 2003 draft, instead of darko Milicic. That unconventional way of thinking sparked numerous debates in the basketball world about what could have actually happened, and if he could ever fit in a team as defense-oriented as the Pistons were at the time. It also sparked the ever-present debate on the radio show hosted by Chris Broussard and Rob Parker about the greatest NBA players without a ring. People called in with old names most usually mentioned in such discussions: Malone, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, Nash etc. However, what got me thinking was the one guest whose choice was a Pacer legend Reggie Miller. Having in mind Reggie’s legacy as a shooter, and many notable accomplishments throughout his illustrious career, It’s really curious how rare his name gets brought up in discussions of this kind. In order to make a case for his name among the greatest without a ring, I’m going to take a look at the reasons why it just never happened for Reggie, while also making it clear that his play was never one of those reasons.
Reggie Miller retired with the most 3-pointers made in NBA history at the time, the feat later surpassed only by Ray Allen before Curry emerged onto the scene, and with him a complete and swift change in the way basketball was being played. Dominant big men are now few and far between, and bigs in general are required to shoot in order to space the floor for the snipers of this era. This came as a result of the rise in importance and influence of analytics.
When you look at the way teams like Houston, Portland and Golden State play, and the sheer number of threes their star players attempt, you can’t help but wonder how Reggie would fair in today’s game. He had a unique knack for getting himself open, using his hands and fighting through multiple screens like no other at the time. Now, he would have a lot more space to operate, which is a dream for any shooter. We can never really know. Maybe he still wouldn’t have a ring, but there is no way he wouldn’t be seen as a far more valuable asset than he was. Unfortunately for Reggie, he played in an era which saw a drastic decrease of pace. That trend reached its slowest point in the 1998-1999 season, which coincided with Reggie’s prime play and undoubtedly didn’t favor his talents.
That trend was no coincidence, but rather the consequence of a plethora of extremely talented centers. The thought process at that time was that there would be no possible way of winning it all without at least one dominant big man. The fact that Michael Jordan was picked third in the draft only goes along to show how true that statement is. Just taking a look at the list of centers of that era is simply staggering: Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning. Those were the obstacles which stood in front of the Larry O’Brien trophy, and there was no avoiding them if you are Reggie Miller.
His time in the league was marked with dynasties dominating in stretches. His first 5 years marked the end of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and dominance, and the emergence of the Detroit Pistons, who were the team to beat at the time. Now famous for their rough style of play, with pound it inside offense coupled with suffocating defense, “bad boy Pistons” went to three straight finals, winning 2 of them. Indiana was a perennial playoff team at a time when even Michael Jordan and the Bulls had an answer for one of the hardest, most physical teams ever in Detroit.
When Reggie blossomed as a player, he had to run into the Larry Bird’s Celtics twice, who were still too much for the inexperienced Pacers. Then came a period in which Reggie had the most memorable and legendary moments in two hard fought playoff series against the Knicks team which is still considered to be one of the best in franchise history. Despite Miller’s heroics and a performance in which he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of one particularly memorable game, Pacers unfortunately lost on both occasions.
However, Reggie and the Pacers got their revenge in the ‘94-‘95 season, when they beat the Knicks in an epic 7-game series before losing to the Magic. The most notable moment came in game 1 against the Knicks, with Pacers down 6 with 16 seconds remaining. In a movie-like sequence, Reggie scored 8 points in 9 seconds to help seal one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.
It is moments like these which got me writing this article. Unlike Malone, Harden, Nash and many other ringless greats of the sport who had their worst moments in the most crucial games of their careers, Miller was the exact opposite. When the lights were the brightest, he was the deadliest with many clutch shots and game winners to his name. You only have to look at his playoff numbers, which were consistently dwarfed the regular season ones. His team, however, was never as star-studded as other 90s powerhouses.
In the meantime, Jordan got the all-star teammate he needed in Pippen, and thus began his rule of the league, which only halted for a short 2-year period when he decided to leave the sport. In those years of dominance, Jordan and the Bulls won 6 championships, they never went to a game 7 of any of those 6 finals, and they had a record setting 72-10 season. Miller was the one player who really went at Jordan, and even thrived on those occasions. The Pacers went down in history as the only team to beat the Bulls twice in that incredible 72-10 season. They even topped that achievement in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, when they pushed the Bulls to a nail-biting game 7, which they lost agonizingly close: 88-83.
That series helped Miller settle his reputation as one of the famously clutch performers in the game. His game winner in game 4, where he lost Jordan for a go-ahead three-pointer is yet another highlight moment carved in history. The only stage left for him to prove himself were the finals, and he did eventually manage to secure the first finals trip in Pacers history in 1999-2000 season. Unfortunately for Reggie, yet again, the opponent was another dynasty, this time the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. They lost in 6 games, mostly close and entertaining, with Miller averaging 24 points and playing terrific basketball.
His later years were spent on a differently structured Pacers team, mostly known for defensive schemes and lockdowns. Even though his frame was not imposing, he never looked out of depth or overmatched both offensively and defensively. You might even say he was an underrated defender throughout his career. He was always somewhere in the picture, but the ring just kept slipping away right up the very end. He retired in 2005, ending a career spent with only one team. He was a 5-time All-Star, 3-time All-NBA third team, a member of the prestigious 50-40-90 club, a Pacer legend, and one of the greatest shooters of all time.