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Before the start of last season, the Cavaliers were the second-youngest team in the NBA. Anderson Varejao was the squad’s grizzled veteran, its key players were all under the age of 24 and their most realistic expectation was reaching the postseason.
One year later, the Wine and Gold head into Training Camp with many of those same youngsters. But this year, they’re bolstered by a group of seasoned, successful, savvy veterans with 507 combined playoff games and eight Championship rings between them.
Naturally, the expectations have been raised considerably.
Those veterans, most of whom have plenty of postseason pelts on the wall, are undaunted by those expectations. And you can count 14-year vet Mike Miller – who has 85 of those postseason games and two of the rings – among them.
Despite his decade-and-a-half in the Association, Cavalier fans probably don’t know much about Miller – aside from the cool hair and tats and the 46 treys he’s dropped on Cleveland though the years. They almost certainly don’t know why he chose uniform No. 18 or that he once had a pet monkey who got busted riding his dog around in the back yard.
More on Sonny, the dog-riding Java Macaque, in a bit …
After spending the 2009-10 season in Washington, Miller inked a free agent deal with Miami – winning two titles during his three seasons in South Beach. But his numbers also went down each year with the Heat as he battled the injury bug. Following the 2012-13 season, Miller was amnestied and signed a deal with the Grizzlies – who he spent five-and-a-half seasons with, including the 2005-06 campaign in which he was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Miller had no intention of riding off into the sunset. And last season in Memphis – his 13th in the NBA – Miller showed that he had plenty left in the tank, playing in all 82 games (the only Grizzlies player to do so) while ranking 2nd in the league in three-point shooting at .459.
“(Last season in Memphis) was more rewarding for me because I knew I felt good,” said Miller. “I kept telling people that I felt good. But the only way to prove it is to actually go out there and do it. So, to be a part of that and to play all the games and be part of a playoff run like that was fun.”
After 913 games – including 553 starts – Miller has seen a little bit of everything in the league. And besides his prolific three-point marksmanship, he’ll be required to share his experience in shaping up the Cavaliers’ aforementioned youngsters.
Something he’ll urge them to understand is the urgency of the season – something that’s sometimes difficult for NBA greenhorns to process.
”That was one of my problems when I was younger,” recalled the South Dakota native. “And it’s the same thing with every player. First thing, you think it’s easy to win a championship. You think you can always do it again next year. By the time you realize it, you’re 14 years in and you haven’t won one.
”The window with this team – the way they’ve built it – you have a nice little window, but it’ll close quickly. So you have to take advantage of it.”
Miller speaks in the measured tones of a tested veteran. Despite Cleveland’s vastly-improved roster, he knows that there’s plenty of heavy lifting still ahead.
”For our team this year, it’s been well-documented what our goal is and what our expectations are here,” Miller said. “There’s going to be ups and downs. But the whole thing for us is to make sure that we get better every game, continue to get better the whole season and, hopefully, we’ll be playing our best basketball when it really matters.”
Miller, who famously led Florida to the 2000 NCAA Championship Game, was tabbed with the 5th overall pick the following June and proceeded to win Rookie of the Year honors that season with Orlando.
Since then, he’s proceeded to climb the NBA’s ladder among three-point shooters. He currently ranks 19th all-time in three-pointers made with 1,531 and counting. He heads into his 15th season ranked 18th all-time in three-point percentage at .409.
Miller has shot over 40 percent from long-distance in nine of his 14 seasons and he’s canned at least 100 treys in eight of those campaigns.
Obviously, Miller has some serious bona fides from beyond the arc. But he’ll be just one of several bombardiers with the Wine and Gold – including three of the previous four Three-Point Shootout winners: James Jones, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. But Miller’s not concerned about where or when he’ll be getting his.
”There’s no reason to have concern,” Miller explained. “I’ve been blessed enough to be in my 15th season. It’s going to take sacrifices. This team, as good as it looks on paper, if we’re going to be successful, people are going to have to sacrifice – whether it’s minutes, shots or financially – that’s the commitment it takes to win a championship. It’s never easy.”
Miller was rumored to join the Cavaliers as soon as his close friend, LeBron James, made the league-altering decision to return to Cleveland. Miller and James have been friends for over a decade. One of Miller’s two sons is even named Maverick – named after another close James’ associate, Maverick Carter.
“I watched (LeBron) play when he was in high school and he was just a great kid,” said Miller. “I think that’s one thing people don’t necessarily ‘miss’ about him, but what they just don’t know about him is how good of a person he is. And to me, that’s about as good a compliment as you can get.”
In early August, Miller and his former Heat teammate James Jones were introduced at the Cleveland Clinic Courts – with Miller modeling his new uniform No. 18 (after wearing 50, 33, 6 and 13) earlier in his career.
So why that number?
”I got that from my grandfather,” Miller revealed. “Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away this year, and he always tells me the story that he spent $18 on his train ticket to go pick her up and get engaged. So I’m glad he spent the $18. Everything worked out pretty well.”
Soon, Miller and his family – including his wife Jen and their three children: sons, Mason and Maverick, and daughter, Jaelyn – will finally get settled in Cleveland for what should be a Cavaliers’ season for the ages. But they’ll be without a former member of that Miller contingent – a pet Java Macaque.
“It’s been about 10 or 11 years now (since I’ve had Sonny),” grinned Miller. “My oldest son turns 12 in October and we got rid of him about six months before my son was born. There was no last straw, including the dog incident. It was that Sonny – that was my monkey’s name – got real protective of my wife. He was always on us! When we had my son, we didn’t want to have issues.”
After 14 seasons with five different teams, Miller’s career lands him on the North Coast – someplace he admits he’s always had an affinity for.
“I was always impressed by the fan base here,” maintained Miller. “It’s a lot like Memphis’ (fans), where they realize what it takes. Nothing comes easy for them. So, I like that. I like the grittiness. I like the fact that they have a passion for their sport. And it’s going to be a lot of fun to be part of that fan-base.”