New Book Ranks Reggie Among NBA’s 50 Greatest

by Conrad Brunner

December 17, 2003

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book, “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball?” Written by veteran NBA historian Elliott Kalb and published by McGraw/Hill ($14.95, paperback), the book challenges the NBA’s 1996 list of its 50 greatest players by offering a list of its own. And Kalb’s list includes one Reggie Miller.)

In writing “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball? Mr. Stats sets the record straight on the 50 greatest NBA players of all time,” some tough choices had to be made. Surprisingly, the toughest calls I had to make were at the bottom of the list. There were only a few spots left, and a lot of worthy candidates remaining. In this article, I’ll explain why Reggie Miller’s name was chosen, ahead of something old (Bill Sharman), something new (LeBron James), something borrowed (one of the many great international players, including Dirk Nowitzki), or something Carolina blue (James Worthy).

Reggie Miller has the career record for most 3pters by a country mile. He has converted 89% of his career free throws. He’s been remarkably consistent in the regular season—and consistently terrific in the postseason.

Miller averaged at least 18 points per game in 12 different seasons. There are only five other players to have accomplished that (using the standards for qualifiers of 70 games played or 1,400 points in a season, which eliminates Jerry West and Charles Barkley). Only Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Karl Malone, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, and Moses Malone had a string of a dozen or more seasons averaging at least 18 points per game.

Miller was drafted in 1987 by the Indiana Pacers. Pacers fans were upset that local hero Steve Alford wasn’t selected.

In 1989, Chuck Person led the Indiana Pacers in scoring. Reggie Miller was second. After that season, the Pacers go-to guy was always Miller.

Miller was the Pacers leading scorer in 1990, the first of ten consecutive seasons he led the team in scoring. In 2000, Miller averaged 18.1 points per game, to finish second on the team to Jalen Rose (18.2).

Miller has played more than 1,200 games for the Pacers. That trick is hard enough to do when there is one coach and management in place for a decade (like Utah’s John Stockton and Karl Malone had). Unlike Stockton and Malone, who played virtually their entire careers under Jerry Sloan, Miller has played for seven different head coaches. Miller played for Jack Ramsay. He played for Larry Brown. Larry Bird was in charge for three seasons. Isiah Thomas has been his head coach.

In his first seven years, he made the All Star team exactly one time (1990). In his 16 seasons, he made the All Star game just five times.

Derek Harper: “Some guys just beg for the ball at crunch time. I played 11 years with Rolando Blackman - and he was right at the top of players with the game on the line. I’ve seen Miller do so much damage at the end of games - five points in less than 8 seconds in New York."

Pete Vecsey: “Miller absolutely has to be part of the top 50 players of all time. You have to find a place for Reggie.”

Reggie Miller’s Free Throw Shooting:He led the league in FT% four times. Only three other players have done that. Bill Sharman led the league 7 times, Rick Barry 6 times, and Larry Bird also 4 times.

Miller was only an 80% foul shooter in his first year. By his second season, he was up to 84%. Since then, he has been the best foul shooter of all time. His first 500 or so attempts were shot at an 82% clip. His career average is now 89%.

In 109 pressure packed playoff games, he has hit 89% of his free throws.

Reggie Miller’s 3-point shooting: The 3-pt FG was not introduced into the NBA until the 1980 season. In the first few years, no team really shot many. Miller entered the league in 1988. By 1998, he was the all time leader. Now, he’s putting serious distance between him and all others. Miller has over 2,300 in his career.

Dale Ellis is second, with 1,719. During the 1997 season, Miller and Ellis went back and forth, each spending time atop the career 3-pter leaderboard. It was very similar to Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan’s 1983 baseball season, when the two strikeout kings battled for the all time lead. Carlton couldn’t keep up with the Ryan Express. Ryan would finish his career with 5,900 strikeouts, to Carlton’s 4,100. Miller had a later start than Ellis, but quickly climbed the charts. In 1994, Reggie moved up to 4th on the all time list. In 1995, he became the third player to reach 1,000. By 1996, he became the second (following Ellis) to record 1,200 successful 3-pters. It was during the 1998 season that Ellis and Miller went back and forth. At season’s end, Miller had 1,596 to Ellis’ 1,588. By 1999, it was still close. Miller had 106-94 advantage, building his lead to 18.

Miller left Ellis in the rearview mirror in the 2000 season, hitting 165 3-pters, to just 37 for the declining 39 year old Ellis.

Reggie Miller’s Playoff History: He warmed up with some impressive performances in the early 1990s. But by the playoffs of 1994, he was ready for action.

  • 1—1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 at New York: He scored 25 points in the 4th quarter (39 for the game). He hit five 3-pters in that fourth quarter. The Pacers took the series back to Indiana up 3-2.
  • 2—1995 Eastern Conference Semis, Game 1 at New York: He scored 8 straight points in 8:9 seconds, to give the Pacers a two point win, 107-105. All it takes, kids, is to drill a 3-pt FG, make a steal off the inbounds pass, step back and hit another 3-pter, and then finish it off with two free throws.
  • 3—1996 First Round vs Atlanta: He returned to action after missing 8 straight games (the final four regular season games, and the first four playoff contests). In Game 5, he came back and scored 29 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t enough, as the Hawks won by two in the deciding game of the series.
  • 4—1998 Eastern Conference Semis, at New York: He had 38 points in the overtime Game 4. That was only his 7th 30- point game against the Knicks in the postseason.
  • 5—1998 Eastern Conference Finals, vs Chicago: He hit the game winning 3-pt field goal with 7/10 of a second remaining to defeat the Bulls on Memorial Day and tie the series at 2-2.
  • 6—2000 Postseason. He averaged 31.3 points in the deciding game of each of the four playoff series. In the fifth and deciding game of the first round against Milwaukee, Miller had 41 points. In the fifth game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, Miller poured in 34 points.
  • 7—2000 NBA Finals: After a clinker in Game 1 (2-16 FG), Miller averaged 27.8 points per game in the last five games of the series. He hit on 45-46 FT in those Finals.
  • 8—2001 First Round against Philadelphia: Miller made his former coach Larry Brown work hard to advance to the second round on his way to the Finals. Miller averaged 36 points a game the last three games of the series, but the Sixers had a postseason weapon of their own in Allan Iverson.
  • 9—2002 First Round against New Jersey: In the fifth and deciding game against the Nets, Miller had 31 points. He had a 40 foot 3-pt FG at the end of regulation that sent the game into overtime. He had a driving dunk at the end of the first overtime and sent the game into double o.t.
  • Reggie Miller ranking his great playoff moments on Carson Daly’s late night show in Febuary, 2003: Miller ranks the fifth game against New Jersey as his greatest.

    Derek Harper: “Reggie might be at the very top of the most clutch performers ever. I saw him score those 3-pointers in 8 seconds. Wow. In front of Spike Lee and all. He belongs.”

    Miller has raised his scoring average in the playoffs each year. For his career, he averages about 19 points per game. In the postseason, it is a robust 23.5. Miller has had his share of off-nights in the postseason. In the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against Chicago, Miller shot 2-13 FG with only 8 points. In Game 1 of the 2000 Finals, Miller had 7 points on 2-16 FG. He’s been suspended for playoff games (following an altercation with the Sixers Matt Geiger).

    My one criticism of him is that he is first and foremost a shooter. Shoot the ball. Miller is not on the court because he is Dennis Rodman on the boards. Or John Stockton at the point. He is on the court to shoot.

    Do you realize how many times in his 1,200+ regular season games and his 100+ postseason games that he shot the ball 30 times?

    None.

    There’s never been a playoff game in which Miller shot the ball as many as 28 times.

    In that 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls, Michael Jordan shot the ball 167 times. Reggie Miller shot the ball 89. Jordan had 78 more shots in the 7 games. In Game 7, with an opportunity to defeat Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller put up only 13 shots.

    Miller reminds me of a young John Elway, the one that was coached by Dan Reeves. Remember, Elway’s stats were nothing special until the final two minutes. That is when Reeves finally unleashed him. Elway could have had Marino-like numbers, and Miller could have had Jordan-like numbers. The question begs asking all seven of Reggie’s head coaches: why didn’t Miller shoot as much when the game wasn’t on the line as when it was?

    Miller’s postseason average is so much higher than his season averages. Michael Jordan’s career playoff numbers increase. So does Walt Frazier’s and Isiah Thomas’ and Jerry West’s. None get spiked by the playoffs any higher than Reggie Miller. Miller never dominated a season or era like most of the others on the list. But I had to find a place for one of the greatest shooters in NBA history.

    Elliott Kalb is ABC and ESPN’s Sports Statistician. He writes and researches for HBO’s "Inside the NFL," Westwood One/CBS Radio Monday Night Football and ABC/ESPN’s NBA coverage. He authors a weekly column which can be seen on www.HBO.com. Previously, Kalb was with NBC for 15 years. The five-time Emmy winner has worked alongside Bob Costas, Marv Albert, Dick Enberg and Brent Musburger.