by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, October 29, 2002 - For most of his career, Brad Miller has flown under the radar. If you noticed his work, you were paying close attention. If you didn't, you were in the majority.
That will change this year.
In his fifth NBA season, Miller is no longer a spare part, no longer a project. At age 26, as the starting center for the Pacers, he is right in the middle of that thing he has managed to avoid for so long: the spotlight.
On a team loaded with spectacular potential, brimming with flashy young talent, there is no player more critical to the team's success than the laid-back, low-key, workmanlike Miller.
"He's the most important piece," said coach Isiah Thomas. "We can't win without him in the middle."
That's a pretty big load to place on one player's shoulders, particularly one who has never been in anything close to a starring role in the NBA. But Miller was the primary reason the Pacers made the seven-player trade with Chicago last February because he filled the biggest void in the lineup.
"He allows Jermaine (O'Neal) to do what he does, and he allows everybody else to do what they do," Thomas said. "It's kind of like what (Bill) Laimbeer was for us (in Detroit). There's no way we could've won the championships without Laimbeer because he allowed everybody to be themselves. That's what Brad does for this team."
Miller played at the highest level of his career after joining the Pacers, averaging 15.1 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting .562 from the field. In the last nine games of the regular season, with the team in a desperate push for the playoffs, he averaged 18.8 points and shot .577. Overall, he averaged 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds. He was tied for sixth in the league in offensive rebounds (3.3).
All of which is nice, but none of it means as much to Miller as the potential for team success this season.
"It's been great to sit there all summer and think, 'We have no excuses not to win','' he said. "We did enough to get into the playoffs last year. You figure the natural curve of everyone wanting to get better over the summer gives you reason to work at it a little bit harder to get ready for this season.
"I think I'm just going to go out there and really try to understand the game a lot and understand what coach wants to do. I'm going to try to settle it down. It's not going to be the most athletic position we have on the team but we're going to try to be one of the smartest positions out there."
There is no thinner position in the NBA than center. Beyond Shaquille O'Neal, there are no dominant players in the middle. Many teams man the position with displaced power forwards. Few have players who fill the mold.
Hard as it may be for some to believe, Miller has actually elevated into the upper echelon at his position. Among NBA starting centers, he ranked first in free-throw percentage (.775), third in field goal percentage (.499), fourth in scoring, fifth in assists (2.0) and sixth in steals (1.0).
"I think he has kind of just snuck up on everybody," Thomas said. "Those guys, when we got them from Chicago, they had been in such a losing situation but they have a lot of basketball left and they can still grow and become better. We were kind of lucky in the trade to get them at the point where they're getting ready to take off."
If he keeps this up, Miller is no longer going to be one of the most underrated players in the league. He might even become a star, like it or not.
"Who cares?" he said. "My teams have always won, except in Chicago. In college it was the same way. Everybody would talk about other people but who cares if we still win? That's all we're looking to do is win some games and not worry about that. It really doesn't matter to me. That's all political stuff. You can't change that. You just do what you do."
What Miller does, he does better than most, which is enough to give the Pacers legitimate hopes of winning in a big way this season.
And that would make him happy.