by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, May 16, 2002 - Reggie Miller just concluded his 15th season with the Pacers, and is under contract for a 16th.
Beyond that lies uncertainty about his future, and that of the team. It is impossible to envision the Pacers without him, but that day is coming. The only question is when.
Miller himself has been mum on the subject, other than a few nebulous remarks scattered here and there during the course of the season. Even those at the top of the franchise's chain of command aren't sure. This much, Donnie Walsh and Isiah Thomas do know: he'll be back next season, and he'll be an effective starter, even at age 37.
"We didn't get into how long he's going to play," said Walsh, referring to his year-end meeting with Miller. "I think he liked the team, and he understood. He maybe didn't like the fact that some of the players weren't ready to win at the higher levels. He doesn't like losing but he likes being here, he's a franchise player, he did everything he could to win the playoff series, and I think he enjoys playing still. So I'm not putting any limit on how long he's going to play for. I know he's going to play here next year, though."
Though Miller's 16.5 scoring average during the regular season was his lowest since his rookie season of 1987-88 (10.0), he posted his best field goal percentage (.453) in four years and his second-best 3-point percentage (.406) in that span. In the playoffs, he did his usual thing, averaging 23.6 points and shooting .506 in five games against the Nets and producing an indelible moment with the 39-foot 3-pointer that forced the first overtime, then the surprising driving dunk that forced the second overtime in Game 5.
Only four guards in combined NBA/ABA history have scored more points than Miller's 22,623: Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, George Gervin and Jerry West. All four of those players had retired by age 35. Jordan, who had retired twice by that age, came back this season at age 38.
Isiah Thomas, his head coach, was forced to retire due to injury at age 32. Miller, who has somehow avoided injury, has missed a total of 25 games in his 15 seasons.
"I think Reggie can play at this level as long as he really wants to," said Thomas. "It's a matter of his persistence and his conditioning. Whatever he's lost athletically, he's lost it already. It's a matter of him maintaining. Reggie's a jump-shooter and he comes off screens well and shoots the basketball and he can make free throws. He's never been a guy to put it on the floor, go between his legs, break you down, shake you, cross your ankles and all that stuff. The way he plays is a very simple way. As long as he maintains his physical conditioning, he'll be able to play that way at a high level as long as he wants."
But just how long might that be?
"As long as he feels that we have a shot at improving and making some noise, getting into the playoffs, I think he's going to stick around," Thomas said. "He's a guy who's chasing the ring for real and he's persistent about it. He's been doing it for 14, 15 years and I admire that determination. I admire that persistence. He's not asking to go jump a ride with some other team. He wants to do it here and that's great."
Since reaching the NBA Finals in 2000, Miller has seen almost all of his teammates depart. Just three others remain from the 1999-00 team - Austin Croshere, Jeff Foster and Jonathan Bender. Foster and Bender both were little-used rookies that year; Foster was not even included on the playoff roster.
In the two seasons of retooling since, the Pacers have gone 41-41 and 42-40, finishing with the eighth seed in the East and losing to the top seed each time. The size of their jump next season could determine Miller's future. If the Pacers rejoin the ranks of top contenders in the East, he may be inclined to stick around. If they remain stuck in the bottom half of the bracket, he may either choose to retire or sign with a team that has a legitimate shot at a title.
"First of all, you've got to be good and you've got to be lucky (to win a championship)," said Thomas. "Everything has got to fall your way, but you've got to have the talent base to do it from. It all depends on how quickly our guys can keep improving and keep getting there. The potential is there but a lot of things have got to go your way."
A generation gap also exists between Miller and the rest of his teammates. The second-oldest player on the roster at the end of the season was Kevin Ollie, who at 29 is seven years younger than Miller. Next on the age list is Croshere, 27. Though Walsh and Thomas both want to add a seasoned veteran or two, the purpose is not to give Miller a contemporary in the locker room, but to enhance the team's ability to compete next season.
"If we can do something that makes the team better, then of course we'd do that," Walsh said. "I think you misunderstand, or there's some idea that because Reggie's 37 and he's hanging around 23-year-olds that he has nothing in common with them. He has a lot in common with them. They're in the NBA, they're trying to win games, they're very talented and I think he enjoys these players. When he's with them, he's a member of the team like anyone else. I wouldn't make the supposition that because he's an older guy he needs somebody to pal around with. He's never been like that."
The difference, of course, is that while his young teammates want to win, Miller needs to win - and quickly. The clock is ticking.