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MLB Trade Value, Part 2

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Everybody Loves Mike

How a lanky kid from South Dakota became the trusted confidant of LeBron James and Tracy McGrady — and seemingly everybody else in the NBA

When the Orlando Magic traded Mike Miller in 2003, Tracy McGrady’s constant complaining about the deal irritated coach Doc Rivers. Miller had been McGrady’s best friend on the team — and one of his best friends in general — when Orlando made Miller the centerpiece of a deal with Memphis for then-rookies Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek. McGrady and Miller had been inseparable as Magic teammates and had lived near one another in Florida. “We are good friends off the court,” McGrady told an Orlando radio station in 2002. “I call Mike my little white brother. They trade Mike Miller, I’m retiring. Simple as that.” McGrady did not retire, but he stewed so much after the deal that Rivers initially worried whether his franchise player would ever move on. Then, McGrady erupted for 52 points in his first game without Miller. “I asked T-Mac if he had any more friends,” Rivers joked to the Orlando Sentinel. “If so, we’re going to trade them all.”

More than a decade later, Miller is no longer the slashing playmaker of his NBA youth. He’s now the smooth-shooting veteran on the revamped Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s a role he’s seemingly been preparing for his entire career: to be there at the right moment for the right shot or the right words. Wherever Miller has played, he has been a friend to the stars — and the scrubs, executives, coaches, and everyone in between. “He has the unique experience of playing in every situation,” said James Jones, a fellow Heat-to-Cavaliers transplant. “He’s been on rebuilding teams. He’s been on championship teams. He’s been on contending teams. He’s been a starter. He’s been the sixth man. He’s been out of the rotation. He’s been injured. He’s bounced back and came back. Every player in this league can relate to him on some level. That’s tough to find because you find that a lot of guys spend most of their time on the extremes. They’re either major rotation guys [who] get a lot of opportunities or they’re fringe guys that are grinding every day to maintain a position in the league.”

During Miller’s three years in Miami, his role would often change over the course of a season, going from seldom-used reserve in the regular season to major contributor in the playoffs. Miller rained so many 3-pointers in the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals that LeBron James was upset when Miami decided to amnesty Miller after the 2013 championship to save $17 million in luxury tax payments. When James signed in Cleveland, he asked Miller to join him on the Cavaliers. “You can put him in the starting lineup, he’s ready to go,” James said of Miller. “You can bring him off the bench, he’s ready to go. In Miami, there were times when he didn’t play at all and he was ready to go, and you got to have guys like that on the roster in order to win. You got to have guys that don’t care about ‘me’ — it’s about the team. And that’s what he’s all about.”

Miller’s range extends well beyond the 3-point line. He can be the glue that binds a championship team, thanks in part to lessons he learned over a decade of trying to break through in the NBA playoffs. There’s a reason why Kyrie Irving chose Miller to ask if the second game of this season was “similar to what a playoff game feels like.” It’s why last season with the Grizzlies, Nick Calathes spent almost as much time at Miller’s home as at his own. And it’s why, years earlier, Kyle Lowry did the same during the beginning of his NBA career.

“He’s a chameleon  meaning he can fit in any different room,” said LeBron James’s longtime friend and business manager Maverick Carter, whose relationship with Miller began shortly after Miller and McGrady attended one of James’s high school games. “I’ve seen him with high-level businesspeople and owners, kids, people from all different backgrounds. A guy from South Dakota, he’s not from one of the coasts, he’s right in the middle of the country and I think he really can adapt to any room.

“Plus he’s a cool guy.”

A little more than four years ago, when legions of reporters descended on Boston for Miami’s first regular-season shootaround with James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, Miller was shocked by how much attention the Heat attracted from media and fans. It took time to adjust to how the public digested and dissected every moment of every Heat game, how any minor mix-up could spiral into a viral crisis. But not this time around. In Cleveland, slightly before this season began, Miller said he knew what he would be getting into, and he looked forward to helping his new teammates adjust to playing under the NBA’s brightest spotlight. As a Cav, alongside young All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, Miller recognized that a large part of his job this season would be imparting NBA life lessons and preparing the team’s playoff virgins for the goal of a deep postseason run.

“What I do is, I understand people,” Miller explained. “I understand what they’re going through. For some reason, I’m always in a good mood. It’s a blessing for me. I understand it’s a team sport and if there’s going to be individuals inside it, how do I relate to every one of those players differently? The way I do stuff with LeBron during a game is completely different than what I’m going to do with Kyrie [Irving]. Some people need to talk. Some people need to laugh. I’m always in that good mood because at the end of the day, I’m [playing basketball] for a living.”

It’s a role that Miller has seemingly been preparing for his entire career: to be there at the right moment for the right shot or the right words. Wherever Miller has played, he has been a friend to the stars — and the scrubs, executives, coaches, and everyone in between.

In Miami, he learned that part of keeping his teammates happy meant always being ready to contribute, even when he was playing only a handful of minutes per game. “Every time LeBron or D-Wade or Chris Bosh passed you the ball — no different this year — they’re going to expect me to make it,” Miller said. “When I was in Memphis, I’d shoot 14, 15, 16 times a game. I had to get used to being in Miami, where I would shoot three or four shots a game, but they’d expect me to make every one of them. Mentally, you had to get better at that. The whole reason I came there is I wanted to test myself.”

In many ways, joining Miami and the Big Three’s multi-championship quest represented one of the final steps in Miller’s NBA journey. Before he landed as a clutch playoff marksman in Miami, Miller’s career had been a 10-year odyssey in which he experienced almost everything the league can throw at a player, from lottery finishes to playoff runs and from individual accolades to debilitating injuries. The only thing that Miller hadn’t done was play for an NBA championship.

miller-mike-mcgrady-tracy-orlando-magicPhelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

The Magic selected Miller out of Florida with the fifth pick in the 2000 draft. He entered the NBA as a scorer, a 6-foot-8 wing who could put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. “I didn’t know you were a shooter,” Grant Hill once told Miller after a particularly impressive shooting display in practice. At the time, Orlando believed it had a dynasty in the making. In the four years since Shaquille O’Neal left to sign with the Lakers, the Magic opened enough salary-cap space to sign three premier free agents. They focused on McGrady, Hill, and Tim Duncan. Duncan chose to stay in San Antonio, but the Magic landed McGrady and Hill and looked forward to a bright union between two of the league’s best young wing players. Instead, Hill was plagued by ankle injuries that kept him out of the lineup for long stretches, year after year. Miller, who was drafted the same year that Orlando signed Hill, was forced to play early and often in his absence.

In 2001, Miller beat out top overall pick Kenyon Martin for the league’s rookie of the year award. Miller averaged 11.9 points and connected on 41 percent of his 3-pointers while filling in ably for Hill, who played only four games that season. “There was a lot of pressure put on him that he didn’t know he’d have,” Rivers told USA Today. “When you know all summer that you’re going to have to carry a team, you prepare for that. Mike was like a kid at camp thinking he’d get taught by the counselors. But the next thing he knew, he was the one teaching the camp. That made things difficult for him, but he handled it all really well.” Orlando made the playoffs, but the Magic lost 3-1 to Milwaukee in the first round.

Throughout his first few years in the league, Miller talked to veteran teammates like Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, Patrick Ewing, and Horace Grant about what it took to have staying power in the NBA. Miller knew that most players who make it to the league don’t last longer than a handful of years, and he was determined to not become one of them. “You’ve got to master one craft or you’ve got to be really, really good at everything,” Miller said. “And I felt like my best chance was to lock the gym door, shoot ’em up, and give myself an opportunity to be around for a long time.”

To McGrady’s dismay, Orlando embarked on a mini-rebuilding project in 2003 when the franchise traded Miller to Memphis. Miller could score and shoot, but the Magic were concerned that he had been inconsistent. Memphis, on the other hand, coveted Miller’s all-around game. “We were looking for a guy that would be a 3-point shooter, but more important, a guy that could handle the ball and be in the middle of the break because we were always fast breaking, and he was perfect,” said Hubie Brown, who coached the Grizzlies from 2002 to 2005. “He’s one of my favorite players and it’s because he’s a total professional and he has a high IQ for the game and he can play multiple positions.”

“There was this kid from South Dakota that was rebounding, bringing the ball up the floor, shooting 3s, posting up, making passes, making plays. I had never seen a white guy play like that.” —Udonis Haslem

In those years, the Grizzlies were transforming from a hapless franchise that had never had a winning record into a Western Conference playoff team. Miller became one of the premier scorers on a talented young roster with teammates like Jason Williams, Shane Battier, and Pau Gasol, but despite fielding five players who would go on to win NBA championships with other teams, the mid-2000s Grizzlies never made it past the first round. “Little did I know it took a lot more than [talent],” Miller said. Those Memphis teams were swept from the playoffs in three consecutive years: 2004, 2005, and 2006, the year that Miller was named the NBA’s sixth man of the year. That summer, Memphis drafted Kyle Lowry out of Villanova, and Miller helped the young point guard adjust to professional basketball.

“I was living by myself,” Lowry said. “I was all alone. He knew I lived out near him and Mike basically gave me the passcode to the gate to his house. [He] let me go in his gym, his wife would make dinner, and I would eat dinner like I was one of the family. He just accepted me for everything.”

Lowry, like Miller and many other Grizzlies of that era, has since become a key contributor for one of the better teams in the league. But none of them experienced that success in Memphis, and by the summer of 2008, after two straight 22-60 seasons, the franchise decided to change direction. A couple of hours after that year’s draft had ended, Memphis traded Miller in a multi-player deal centered on Minnesota receiving Miller and the fifth overall pick, Kevin Love, for the third pick, O.J. Mayo. The announcement surprised Miller. His name had been dragged through the rumor mill for years, but the draft seemed to have passed without him changing teams. He thought he was safe, until he received a call while attending his brother’s wedding. “It’s going to be tough to leave,” he told The Commercial Appeal. “That’s what makes it the hardest — the relationships I’ve built. You develop relationships inside the organization and in the community.”

Miller spent the next two seasons in NBA lottery-team purgatory. In Minnesota, he was chastised for not shooting enough on a team that lacked players who could score from long range. “There’s times when I sometimes maybe don’t shoot enough, but I’ve always played the way it was supposed to be played  or tried to anyways,” Miller said. “Looking back at it, I probably should have shot more. But you play within a system and I’ve always tried not to go outside that.”

The following year as a Washington Wizard (he was part of a multi-player deal that allowed Minnesota to draft Ricky Rubio), Miller joined a team that was about to endure one of the worst train-wreck seasons in NBA history. Everything that could go wrong did. After 32 games, Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton were suspended for the rest of the year for possessing guns in the Wizards locker room. “I never in my life would assume that I would be sitting in front of a grand jury an hour and a half before the basketball game,” Miller recalled.

Also during the 2009-10 season, Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson vehemently objected to Miller wearing LeBron James’s signature Nike sneakers, because Stevenson considered James to be a rival. (The Wizards finished 26-56 that year and missed the playoffs, while James’s Cavaliers won 61 games.) “That was on the cover of the paper,” Miller said. “I understood what their problem was, but I didn’t see my shoes making a difference. But I like DeShawn. DeShawn was a great teammate.”

As rare as it may be to hear Miller say anything bad about a teammate, it may be even harder to find a teammate of Miller’s who would speak ill of him.

“With that team, the guys on that team, not being professionals, joking around all the time, having a guy like Mike made it [so] I felt like I had somebody on my level,” said Antawn Jamison of that lost year in Washington. “I felt like I had somebody who wanted to accomplish the same things that I wanted to, and it makes the season doable because Mike was somebody who I could talk to. He was somebody I could express my frustrations with.”

Some days, Jamison tried to take Miller’s lead. He told himself that no matter how frustrated he got with his teammates, he would be like Miller and keep his smile. But Jamison couldn’t always manage it. He could never quite figure out how Miller stayed cheerful during one of the gloomiest, most dysfunctional NBA seasons of all time.

For Miller, a cheerful demeanor has always been a key to success and a way to find acceptance with teammates and coaches. “As a kid from South Dakota growing up, trying to make it,” Miller said, “I had to find ways to fit in.”

miller-mike-cleveland-cavaliers-nakapameywangGene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Boy or girl, you really didn’t have a choice of whether you played basketball in the Miller family. “Basically, in our family, they put a ball in your hands the day you were born,” said Ryan Miller, one of Mike’s two older brothers. The Millers are a South Dakota basketball dynasty. Mike’s father, Tom, and his two younger brothers all starred at Dakota Wesleyan University, where Mike’s uncle Alan ended his career as the state’s all-time leading scorer.

“My family, we shot,” Mike Miller said.

South Dakota is anything but a basketball hotbed. The only NBA players it has produced besides Mike Miller are Eric Piatkowski and Jared Reiner. But the state, especially Miller’s hometown of Mitchell, possesses an affinity for the sport. Gary Munsen, coach of the Mitchell High School Kernels, is the patriarch of the town’s basketball culture. He was hired in 1973 and walked the sideline at the Corn Palace — an arena and tourist destination whose façade is covered with murals made of corn — for almost four decades, until he retired in 2012. Munsen put Mike Miller on his varsity team beginning in Miller’s freshman year, but the coach didn’t need the rail-thin teenager at first because Ryan and Jared Miller were already stars for the Kernels. When Jared missed a game with an injury during Mike’s sophomore year, Munsen gave the minutes to Mike, who responded by scoring 36 points.

“He could play point,” Munsen recalled. “He could play off guard and then I could put him at center. We just kind of moved him all over. He was such a good kid that he didn’t care. It was all about team basketball.”

The Millers may have been basketball royalty within South Dakota, but it took a concerted effort to gain exposure on the national scene, where the state was viewed as a hoops backwater. Mike played AAU ball for Paul Seville’s Dakota Schoolers, driving as far as Las Vegas and Los Angeles to compete against elite talent from all over the country. “Back in the pre-Internet days, it was very difficult,” Seville said. “You didn’t have websites. You had scouts out there like Bob Gibbons and Clark Francis. They’d seen [Miller] play, but there weren’t as many people out there. There weren’t blogs. There were rankings, but you got them once a month.”

Teddy Dupay recalled watching Miller for the first time at a tournament in Las Vegas a few years before they became teammates at Florida. Miller was only about 6-foot-1, but Dupay remembered thinking, Man, this kid can really play.

The next summer, Dupay attended the same tournament, where he ran into Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey. Dupay had already committed to the Gators, and Pelphrey was there to scout Miller. He motioned to Miller, and Dupay barely recognized the player who’d impressed him the previous year. “I didn’t know it was Mike,” Dupay said. “He took a rebound off the glass, made an in-and-out at the top of the key, went coast-to-coast and hit a 3. He was like 6-8.” Udonis Haslem, who also went on to play at Florida, watched the same game. “There was this kid from South Dakota that was rebounding, bringing the ball up the floor, shooting 3s, posting up, making passes, making plays,” Haslem said. This is the next Larry Bird, Haslem thought. “I had never seen a white guy play like that.”

By then, Miller was being pursued by a who’s who of college coaches. “He just kind of exploded,” Munsen said. “Billy Donovan was at Florida. Tubby Smith was at Kentucky and Roy Williams was at Kansas at that time. Dr. Tom Davis was at Iowa. Steve Lavin was at UCLA. Denny Crum was still at Louisville. Rick Majerus was at Utah. They were all here, every one of them. The town was buzzing for about three years.”

Miller was named the first McDonald’s All American from South Dakota. The team traveled to North Carolina in his senior year for the prestigious Glaxo Wellcome Holiday Invitational, and Miller broke the tournament’s single-game scoring record, previously set by Penny Hardaway, with 54 points. “We knew we were good in our little state of South Dakota, but we hadn’t been challenged on a national level,” said J.J. Kippes, one of Miller’s high school teammates. “So we go down there and there’s a bunch of D-I recruits, [and] that’s when we realized what a special talent he was.”

Florida pursued Miller more doggedly than any other school throughout his high school career. Gators coach Billy Donovan’s 1998 recruiting class had been anchored by in-state standouts Dupay and Haslem, and he believed that landing Miller could put the team in contention for a national championship. Donovan visited South Dakota often and practically dispatched Pelphrey to live there. “We went to Vegas and L.A. and they drove behind us the whole way,” Miller said. “I’m telling you, I think some of the NCAA rules have been changed because of that. If we stayed in a Super 8, they stayed in a Super 8. They wanted to be seen every day.”

Seville, Miller’s AAU coach, remembered seeing Florida coaches wherever he brought his team: “They didn’t break any rules or anything, but if we went to the mall, they were at the mall. If we went to dinner, they were at dinner. Back in those days, before the NCAA changed the summer rules, the coaches could talk to summer coaches at the events. It was like a wedding reception line at your games. You’d have 30, 40 coaches lined up. It took an hour, hour and a half after the game to get out of the gym.”

Miller and Donovan established a bond. “Every coach keeps telling me how great I am,” Miller remembered telling Donovan. “How they’re going to put the ball in my hands, how they’re going to build their program around me. I don’t want to hear any of that stuff. I want to hear what I’ve got to do to get better.” Donovan said he was direct with Miller about his vision for how Florida would play with him in the lineup and how Miller’s game would develop in Gainesville. “We were almost talking every single day,” Donovan said. “I think it got to the point where he just believed in me.”

miller-mike-florida-2AP Photo

Miller surprised the college basketball world when he committed to Florida. He had chosen a football school over powerhouse programs like Kansas, Kentucky, and UCLA. “When we were able to get Mike to come  the McDonald’s All American  it was like everybody believed that was the final anchor for that class,” Dupay said. “That made everybody feel like, Yes, we made the right choice. We got a big-time recruit over Kansas.”

Miller averaged 12.2 points in his freshman year, and Florida advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 1999 NCAA tournament, where the Gators lost to Gonzaga. But the most memorable shot of his college career would come the following year, when Butler threatened to upset Florida in the first round of the 2000 tourney. With Florida trailing by one and seconds remaining in overtime, Dupay received an outlet pass and began racing upcourt, intent on scoring. But he slipped near the elbow and lost his balance. “Made a little move, didn’t really have my footing,” Dupay said. “[But] Mike always makes the right play. Had I been on balance, he probably would have moved to the corner, but he saw that it wasn’t right. His feel for the game is so good and he curled right around me. Had he not done that, I would have looked like a real  it would have been a terrible thing.”

Dupay shoveled the ball to Miller with about 2.5 seconds left. It seemed as if Miller, who was known as a shooter, might just rise for a potential game-winning jumper. But Dupay remembered a moment earlier in the season when Florida had lost to DePaul at the United Center. Miller had played a sparkling second half and had a chance to win the game with a late 3-pointer, but DePaul center Steven Hunter got a finger on the ball and blocked the shot. After the defeat, Donovan told Miller that he would entrust him with the ball late in games. “You’re our best passer, best facilitator,” Donovan remembered saying. “You’ve got size. You can get to the basket. You cannot settle for trying to win games from the 3-point line. You’ve got to put the ball on the floor. You’ve got to get to the lane.”

So with Florida’s season on the line against Butler, Miller drove to the paint, split two defenders, and lofted a floater just before the buzzer. He didn’t even see the shot go in. He crashed to the floor, and before he could glance at the rim, he found himself buried underneath a pile of celebrating Florida teammates.

“It changed my life and a lot of lives around us,” Miller said of the Butler game winner. That win breathed life into the Gators, who won their next four games and stormed into the national championship game. Florida’s run included a Sweet 16 upset over a juggernaut Duke squad that featured Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Jay Williams. “The one thing about us is we were a young, naive team,” Miller said. “We felt like we should be favored in every game.”

The Gators lost the final, 89-76, to Michigan State. Still, the foundation for Florida’s future success under Donovan was laid down that year, largely thanks to Miller, Dupay, and Haslem. Miller helped set the path for Florida’s eventual Final Four appearances and back-to-back national championships.

After his sophomore season, Miller declared for the NBA. “This is another challenge that I think that I’m ready to face,” he said at his announcement. “The challenge is going to be difficult, without question. I think that going into college, I wasn’t prepared to play college basketball. And going into the NBA I don’t think that I’ll be prepared to do that. But there’s one thing that’s certain. I’ll go in there and play 100 percent. I’ll play as hard as I possibly can. Hopefully, the best will come of that.”

miller-mike-miami-heatIsaac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

Billy Donovan remembered the call he got from Miller in the summer of 2010. “Coach, I think LeBron’s going to the Heat and he’s asking me to go,” Miller told him. “I’ve got a lot of people telling me I can get paid more somewhere else, but I know the Heat are going to have a chance to win it all.”

Miller had just endured two unsatisfying seasons in Minnesota and Washington. Those teams had not qualified for the playoffs. In his career, Miller had still never made it past the first round.

“Mike, I know this about you: You have always put winning as a first priority,” Donovan said. “I’m not here to tell you what type of financial decision you should make because I don’t know your financial situation, but I know what you’re about. I just hope in the process you stay true to what you’re about.”

Miller chose Miami. “I say this with pride,” Miller said of his three years with the Heat. “It was overwhelming.”

Miller’s friendship with LeBron James began when James was still in high school. In 2002, Miller and McGrady made time to attend one of James’s nationally televised high school games with St. Vincent–St. Mary. “What I liked about him even then is he impacted the game without scoring,” Miller said. “I saw three minutes of basketball where he didn’t make a bucket. He made a pass that I was like, Oh, OK. This kid has a chance to be really, really special.”

Miller and James remained in touch as James began his NBA career, and the two became closer when Miller played with Team USA in the qualifying tournament for the 2008 Olympics. Miller even named one of his sons Maverick as a partial nod to Maverick Carter. “He helped me with a lot of stuff early and I tried to help those guys whenever I could,” Miller said. “On top of it, it’s a cool name.”

Miller’s game projected as a near-perfect fit for the team that Miami was building around James, Wade, and Bosh. Miller could space the floor with his shooting, plus he’d be a willing passer and smart team defender. That first year, however, Miller’s body betrayed him. Wrist, thumb, and back injuries forced him to sit out half the regular season, and he struggled to find a steady spot in coach Erik Spoelstra’s rotation.

Even worse, Miller’s wife, Jennifer, was dealing with a complicated pregnancy, as prenatal tests suggested their child would be born with heart abnormalities. “There might have been two weeks during that whole year and the whole season that I was actually excited or happy, because every appointment I went to, they found something new that they needed to check or something else wrong,” Jennifer recalled. “It was extremely taxing on Michael because he was still playing basketball. [He] still had to go out there and perform and all he could think about was the possibility of our child having to deal with a life full of struggles if she was born with the worst-case scenarios of what they were telling me.”

Their daughter, Jaelyn, would be born a month premature, with five holes in her heart. Miller hardly practiced with the team during the final weeks of Jennifer’s pregnancy, shuttling back and forth between the hospital and Miami’s games. “Oddly enough, it made the games easier for me,” Miller said. “Because it was three hours of peace and it put things into perspective. If I missed a jumper, it didn’t affect me the same way.”

Miller recovered enough from his injuries to become a key reserve for the Heat in the 2011 playoffs. But even though Miami charged through the Eastern Conference and seized an early 2-1 lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals, Miami suffered a now-famous collapse, losing the series in six games while James appeared to struggle with the pressure of carrying the Heat to the title. The Heat lost the deciding game on their home floor, then watched Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki celebrate the Mavericks’ championship in a Miami nightclub.

As Miller stood near the scorer’s table with James, Chalmers, Chris Andersen, and Ray Allen, he said: “Guys, we’re either going to do something in the next five minutes or we’re all going to be pissed off for another five, six months.”

“We had to learn what sacrifices everyone was going to have to make,” Miller said of the Heat. “Everyone was going to have to be OK with those sacrifices. It’s easy to say, ‘to sacrifice.’ You might have to sacrifice shots. You might have to sacrifice minutes. You might have to sacrifice money. The hardest thing about sacrifice is the unknown. If you don’t win a championship, that sacrifice, is it really worth it?”

Miller’s injury woes worsened the following season, which was shortened by the 2011 NBA lockout. During the compressed 66-game schedule, which was filled with grueling four-games-in-five-nights stretches, Miller’s back pain was often unbearable, and he found himself wondering if the Heat might use the amnesty provision to release him. Between Miller’s chronic health issues, his relatively high salary, and the luxury taxes the Heat incurred by exceeding the salary cap, Miller suspected the worst. “I knew it was a possibility the day we signed the new collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “You do the math: OK, the Miami Heat are going to pay $23 million in taxes this year. Is it really going to be worth it to them? And then you’re looking down the line and I was the fourth-highest-paid player. They’re not going to do it to the three [top] guys. So the writing was on the wall.”

In the playoffs, however, Miller patched himself together and showed flashes that would make Miami postpone any plans to let him go. As the Heat took a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 of the NBA Finals against Oklahoma City, Miller told himself: If I’m going to leave my stamp on this game, I’ve got to be aggressive early. “I knew Coach  rightfully so  would have a short leash with me,” he said. “If I didn’t make an impact early, they would have to go with someone else because of my health.”

Miller subbed in for Wade about eight minutes into the first quarter. About a minute later, Mario Chalmers fed him for a corner 3  his first of the game. He had wondered how he would respond in this situation, when the ball found him in a crucial moment with a championship within his team’s grasp and he needed to find the bottom of the net. As a kid, he had watched role players like Steve Kerr, John Paxson, and Robert Horry rise to the occasion in clutch situations. As he released that first 3, Miller said he felt like he was in a movie and he could press pause. Throughout the game, the ball kept finding him in the perfect place at the perfect time, and Miller kept burying jumpers until Oklahoma City had also been buried.

“I had some good runs in the league and scored good points, but I never shot on a big stage,” Miller said. “I’d never been out of the first round of the playoffs. I wanted to see how I would react. Being injured that whole time and then doing it  it was the best feeling. Getting in that zone is something you can’t prepare for.”

Miller made seven of eight 3-pointers and Miami romped to a 121-106 win over the Thunder to claim the first championship of the Big Three era. “All the stuff he went through, nobody remembered him not playing,” Haslem said. “Everybody remembers him for being big for us in the biggest moment.”

That night, Miller didn’t go out to celebrate with his teammates. He went home to rest. “An hour after the game, you ask my wife, [getting] to the bathroom was hard,” he said. Miller thought he had over-trained throughout his career and he suspected it was catching up with him and his body was breaking down. He debated retiring, and told Miami’s front office that he’d walk away from the sport if he couldn’t get healthy.

But Miller returned to Miami and made it through another season in 2012-13. He managed to play 59 games, 20 more than he played the previous year and 18 more than in his first year in South Florida. And when June 2013 rolled around, there were Miller, James, and the rest of the Heat, playing for an NBA championship for the third straight time. Miller made several big plays in the back-and-forth seven-game series against San Antonio that will likely go down as one of the greatest Finals in league history, but he saved his most spectacular moment for an epic Game 6. With the Spurs up 10 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter and holding a 3-2 series lead, San Antonio seemed on the verge of adding another Larry O’Brien Trophy to owner Peter Holt’s mantel. As Miller stood near the scorer’s table with James, Chalmers, Chris Andersen, and Ray Allen, he said: “Guys, we’re either going to do something in the next five minutes or we’re all going to be pissed off for another five, six months.”

So began Miami’s comeback. Chalmers started the quarter with a 3-pointer. James followed with a layup. Soon after, Miller lost his left shoe while defending a Tiago Splitter post-up. “I couldn’t get it on, so I just threw it to the sideline [and] tried to space the floor for LeBron,” Miller said. “That’s all I was thinking. Stay out in space, let him go to work and I’ll foul someone next time down.” Gary Neal made the mistake of assuming that Miller, playing in one sock and one sneaker, was now neutralized, so Neal ran off to double-team James. “He left me and there was nothing else I could do,” Miller said. “If I had tried to dribble, I had sweaty socks on  I was going to slide all over the place. So I do what I do best. Let it fly, brother.”

The shot didn’t even draw iron as it passed through the net. “Shoes on, shoes off, high heels, boots, whatever, he’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen,” Haslem said. “Once he let it go, I knew it was going down.”

Miami won Game 6 in overtime after erasing a five-point deficit with 28 seconds left in regulation. Miller’s shoeless 3 might have gone down as the shot of the series, if not for Allen’s series-saving, backpedaling corner 3, which tied the game with 5.2 seconds to play, and which many believe is the greatest shot in NBA history. “Ray Allen hit the biggest 3-point shot in my life,” Miller said. The Spurs came back strong in Game 7, but Miami pulled away in the fourth quarter to clinch the series and earn consecutive titles.

During the Finals, the Heat announced they wouldn’t use the amnesty provision on Miller, but they changed course in the offseason. “I understood the bigger side of it,” Miller said. “Believe me, I get all that stuff. I learned that for 15 years. The thing that was tough was that we had the chance to do something seriously special. Even if it was waving a towel, I wasn’t there to do it. That’s tough.”

miller-mike-james-lebron-miami-heatRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Miller returned to Memphis for the 2013-14 season. He told Jason Levien, then the team’s CEO, that his body had never felt better, but given Miller’s injury history it would have been easy to forgive Levien for being skeptical. Miller wound up playing all 82 regular-season games. “There were actually moments last year when I was hoping he would play less because I didn’t want him to get hurt,” Levien said. “But he’s such a competitor that he always wants to be out there.”

Memphis started slowly, with both Tony Allen and Marc Gasol missing large chunks of the season to injury, but the Grizzlies got healthy and found their stride as the postseason approached. The Grizzlies earned the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs and pushed Oklahoma City to seven games in the first round. Memphis still believes it would have had a strong chance to defeat the Thunder if Zach Randolph hadn’t been suspended for striking Steven Adams in Game 6. “[I] was able to win a playoff game there for myself for once, which was big, and the West was unbelievable,” Miller said. “We had the chance to knock off OKC, and who knows what would have happened if Z-Bo doesn’t get suspended Game 7.”

Miller hoped to re-sign in Memphis after the season. “I thought I was going to finish my career there,” Miller said. “I really did. I was happy there. I wanted to play another three, four years, [and I] thought I could get that done in Memphis.” Instead, the Grizzlies pursued and signed Vince Carter in free agency, which essentially took away Miller’s roster spot.

But Miller wouldn’t wait long for his next opportunity. Soon enough, his old friend and teammate LeBron James came calling with a new mission.

miller-mike-cleveland-cavaliers-milwaukee-bucksNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Cleveland would be a challenge for Miller. It meant moving his family for the third time in three years and finding yet another new home in a new city, another new school for his kids. But Miller couldn’t turn down the opportunity to play alongside James and try to win another championship.

“The history of this city, if they go on to win one and I’m somewhere else  that’s the decision I couldn’t live with,” Miller said. “So when it came down to the money, unfortunately I left a lot on the table again. It is what it is, but I’d have a hard time [waking up] every morning if I would have went somewhere else and not had the opportunity to win [a title].”

Even though the Denver Nuggets offered Miller a three-year deal worth $12 million, Miller chose to sign in Cleveland for about half as much over two years. “It means everything,” James said of having Miller on the Cavs. “I know how instrumental he was to our championship run in Miami and hated to see him go last year, but I’m happy to be back with him and hopefully we can put together something special here and make a real run at it.”

The Cavaliers, as Miller expected, have undergone a somewhat shaky start. Sixteen games into the season, the team is 9-7 and struggling to live up to the championship expectations that get heaped on any franchise that employs LeBron James. There have been players-only meetings, rumored arguments between James and Irving, Love’s gradual adjustment to playing within a new offense, and questions about David Blatt’s effectiveness as a coach and manager of NBA personalities.

“What I do is, I understand people. I understand what they’re going through. The way I do stuff with LeBron is completely different than what I do with Kyrie. Some people need to talk. Some people need to laugh.” —Mike Miller

“We dealt with that in Miami that first year,” Miller said. “Every last one of us from one to 13. Because we had a talented roster. When you tell somebody to sacrifice and it’s uncertain if you’re going to win and it [will] be worth [that sacrifice], it’s tough. That’s what we’re dealing with here in Cleveland now. We’re asking guys to do something that they’re unaccustomed to doing. They’re going to have to buy in.”

Early in the season, Miller’s sacrifices have been obvious. He’s been a fringe player in Blatt’s rotation, averaging 1.6 points in about 12 minutes per game. He’s recorded DNP–Coach’s Decision stat lines in three of his last four games. “You don’t win championships in November and December,” Miller recently said in response to questions about being stuck on Cleveland’s bench. “So you keep focusing on what we’re doing. Our team is getting better, which is great … Sometimes your job is different. Leadership doesn’t show sometimes, but you can tell when it happens.” And in classic Miller fashion, he rose from the bench in the second half of Tuesday’s victory over the Bucks, after not playing in the first 30-plus minutes of the game, and made several key plays to help bring Cleveland back from an 11-point third-quarter deficit. Likewise, Miller won’t be surprised if the Cavaliers call on him to play the familiar role of late-season savior with a playoff game on the line and the need for someone to hit big shots. “I’m not concerned about makes or misses [in December],” he said. “I’m concerned about makes or misses when they count  and I like my chances.”

Miller’s steady leadership and guidance will also be key to helping young talents like Irving, Love, and Dion Waiters learn to play for a team with championship aspirations. “Our core guys that we are going to demand a lot from have never been in a playoff game,” Miller said. “How do we help them with that? That’s stuff that we’re working on now. How do we prepare them for that? It’s how you handle the expectations, and it goes back to what I was talking about with sacrifice. It’s so easy to say we’re going to sacrifice. But to jump right in and sacrifice [without] knowing the outcome? It’s very, very difficult.”

Miller has already become good friends with Irving, and he has a solid relationship with Love dating back to Miller’s 2008-09 season with the Timberwolves.

“What I really am is a friend first,” Miller said. “I like to be cool with people. Like Kyrie  that’s my guy. He’s a great kid, unbelievable point guard. I think I can help him be better. Not a better basketball player. Just understanding things. Dion Waiters, great kid. Sometimes he gets a bad rep. If he fits into his role here, he’s going to be really, really good. I think I can help with that. Kevin Love’s a monster. And LeBron, I’m always going to be on him with positive stuff.”

But how does a player who seems to be chummy with everyone in the NBA remain competitive when he faces an opponent who’s also a friend?

“It’s like a code,” Miller said with a laugh. “Everyone knows that. When the ball goes up, whatever happens between those lines, it ain’t nothing personal.” 

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Miller and Tracy McGrady attended a high school game featuring LeBron James in Philadelphia in February 2002.

Filed Under: NBA, Mike Miller, LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic, Tracy McGrady, Florida Gators, Billy Donovan, Dwyane Wade


Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams