In the past weeks, NBA TV has been showing top games from 2008-09. I happened to catch several, one being Tony Parker’s career-high 55 point game, which came on an early November night in Minneapolis. That’s right, Mike Miller and Randy Foye had the privilege of being on the court to witness. Naturally, I perked up to pay attention, and take some notes on what I observed of the two new Wizards.
Word of Minnesota’s offense slowing down at the unspoken decree of Al Jefferson (approved by Randy Wittman) were confirmed. But at least Big Al was willing to take charges, such early in the third quarter when Miller chose a horrible angle to close out on Michael Finley at the three point line. Miller had no balance, and his hands were neither active, nor high. The 35-year old Finley easily blew by, but lost focus during his open path and plowed into Jefferson for the offensive foul.
The very next time down the court, Miller found himself helping off Finley, who was again spotted up at the top of the key. Tony Parker was curling off a Tim Duncan ball screen on the wing, so yes, Miller had to help stop the penetration. But once the ball was kicked back to Finley, Miller hesitated on the close-out, letting Finley’s previous drive to the hoop get into his head. Finley only needed that split-second of space to start drooling. The wide-open three was easy money for a shooter like him. Miller was never in a good position to even give a half-hearted contest.
Clearly, Mike Miller is not too swift on his feet … but this is something we all figured. His defense might be an issue, but not because of a lack of effort.
Back to the relationship between Miller, Jefferson, and Wittman’s offense. One of the more telling plays came shortly after Miller’s bad close-outs in the third. I’ve illustrated in the screen shots below.
STEP 1: Miller comes off Kevin Love-Jefferson FT-line screen to get the baseline in-bounds pass on the wing with 11 seconds on the shot clock. He’s guarded by Bruce Bowen.
STEP 2: Jefferson comes out to set a pick for Miller. The intention seems for Miller to take the ball to the FT line and create from there. The first problem is that Miller doesn’t really take Bowen into Jefferson’s screen. But Bowen is a great defensive player, and probably recognized the play from a scouting report. The second problem is Jefferson’s pick. He seems to be set here, but was actually rolling out of it way before being set long enough to be effective.
STEP 3: The guards have filled in the open spots on the wing and in the corner, opposite ball side. Love posts up, which seemed to be the plan after his initial screen. Jefferson, however, loiters around were he set his second screen, clogging up the lane as Miller uses up a couple seconds trying to make a move to the basket against Bowen. Here, his right-to-left behind the back dribble seems to get him a step.
STEP 4: But eventually, Miller finds himself on top of Jefferson, and his only choice, seemingly, is to hand the ball off to Jefferson with six seconds left on the shot clock. The epitome of a broken down play.
STEP 5: It’s probably hard to grasp the full emotion in this screen shot … but as Miller went away from his hand-off with Jefferson, he shrugged his shoulders, and slightly shook his head as if to say “WTF?”
Remember, this was only Minnesota’s fourth game of the 08-09 season, and such body language conveyances already showing themselves is not good … not good at all.
Jefferson ended up jacking a fade-away jumper from the baseline and missed horribly. He could have gotten the exact same shot if he rolled baseline after setting the ball-screen for Miller. This would have left more room for Miller to operate with the clock running down. Nope.
Other Al Jefferson offensive attempts (in his 12-27 effort), included throwing up junk like a spinning, jumping off one wrong foot, one-handed, fading floater. Hard to imagine, but it happened. Wonder if any T-Wolves fans kept a running count on the times Miller appeared visibly frustrated.
It wasn’t all bad though. I did notice several positive aspects of Miller’s game which will make the Wizards better. With his size and handles, he can take smaller and bigger defenders off the dribble. A 2-3-4 combo of Miller, Butler, and Jamison sounds downright scary when it comes to taking advantage of mismatches on offense.
When the ball is in Miller’s hands, he can easily create for primary or secondary shooters (via hockey assist) off the dribble, or perhaps work a two-man pick and pop game with Jamison or Butler. And by the way, a big man like Fabricio Oberto playing with all of these offensive threats will be perfect. Talk about a guy who will absolutely nail fundamentals like setting a good pick, or boxing out and taking up space in the paint, while still allowing for the free flow of offense. Not like playing with an offensively clogged funnel like Al Jefferson.
Overall, there weren’t too many Miller or Foye offensive highlights. NBA TV selectively edits these games, and after all, it was Tony Parker’s show that night (hey, at least Minny pushed it to two OTs before losing 129-125).
Foye did once take Roger Mason Jr. off the dribble for a jumper, which was created by a Miller drive and dish. Miller finished the game with 30 points (5-7 from 3PT), six assists, and seven rebounds. Foye had 11 points, nine assists (only two turnovers), and five rebounds. The game was lost in the second overtime when the Wolves were taking the ball out from the side with a chance to tie the game. Miller clearly got held by Bowen, but didn’t establish enough position to get the ball as Foye’s mis-timed pass went sailing out of bounds to absolutely no one. Turnover.
Miller’s 08-09 was indeed a strange situation. But with a new team, higher quality teammates, and an unselfish set of skills, Miller, in his 10th NBA season and set to turn 30 in ’10, could be looking at his most successful season yet. Well, he doesn’t have to worry about being frustrated with teammates anymore (fingers crossed).
Plus, the guy is a straight hustla …
Al Jefferson Stat Check:
Jefferson’s 28.9 Usage % (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor), in 08-09 would have been good enough for 8th in the NBA had he played enough minutes to qualify among the leaders (1,836 to 2,000).
But his passing numbers were very sub par. Out of the top 20 Usage % players in 08-09, only Michael Beasley had a worse Assist % (7.7) than Jefferson (8.8)… which is no big surprise.
In fact, there have been only five seasons in Basketball-Reference.com NBA statistical history (usage % is available since 77-78) where a big man 6’9″ or taller had a Usage % above 27, a PER above 22, an Assist % below 9, assists/36 equaling 1.5 or less, and appeared in more than 40 games. One season belongs to Moses Malone (81-82), one to Alonzo Mourning (98-99, the strike shortened season), one to Chris Gatling (96-97, which was his only All-Star appearance), and two seasons belong to Al Jefferson … his two years in Minnesota.
The point is, Jefferson is Minny’s best player and #1 scoring option. For his team to be better, especially since he’s a focal point for opposing defenses, his assists/48 mins. (2.0) needs to be better than tied with Erick Dampier, and his Passing Rating (1.6) needs to be better than tied with Anderson Varejao.