When the first bluebonnet of the year appears in Texas, it can mean only one thing: No, not that spring is coming; it’s buyout season in the NBA. For the rapidly slipping Rockets, that means shedding salary. Goodbye, Ty Lawson. The Mavericks are in an odd place as neither buyers nor sellers—nowhere near title contention, but too good to pack it in for the season. The Spurs are, again, gearing up for a run at the title, and, as is the case with most seasons after their front office collectively shrugs at the February trade deadline, they’ve again added another team’s waived player as the final stretch of the season looms.
The Spurs are always buyers this late in the season, but only after the trade deadline has passed. Coach Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford are deep-sea divers, digging for pearls among the discarded clamshells. Sometimes that means signing a washed-up Tracy McGrady fresh off finishing last in the Chinese Basketball Association so he can charitably log the first NBA finals minutes of his career (zero points). Sometimes that means grabbing Danny Green, once waiver wire detritus and now a lynchpin in the Spurs machine.
This year, it’s Andre Miller. Yes, that Andre Miller, the 39-year-old zero-time All Star who is most famous for not dunking in an exhibition game 15 years ago. Signing the man known as The Professor is a humdrum transaction on its face, and it only makes the Spurs older than they already are (Duncan was the oldest Spur until last weekend; Miller is one month older), but for some reason, it makes sense.
When shooting guard Manu Ginobili went down on February 3 with a testicular injury, the original timetable for his return was four to six weeks. While optimistic reports have Ginobili returning as soon as next week—he even addressed the media on Wednesday, saying, “I’m looking forward to playing next week”—a realist views this through the Popovich lens. Ginobili, 38-years-old, will not be rushed back, and even when he returns, he’ll be eased back into the lineup, especially considering the Spurs have already locked up a playoff spot. There’s also the chance that Ginobili re-aggravates the injury, in which case the Spurs are down a guard in the playoffs.
The obvious move, since Ginobili is a shooting guard by trade, would have been to sign one of the top bought-out or soon-to-be bought-out veteran shooting guards in the league: namely Joe Johnson or Vince Carter. Both are bigger names than Miller and play Ginobili’s position, but the notion that the Spurs needed a shooting guard to replace Ginobili is nearsighted at best. What Ginobili provides is a hybrid of shooting and passing ability, the latter of which has distinctly eluded Carter and Johnson to such a degree. On Friday night, the Spurs agreed to sign fellow Timberwolves buyout victim (beneficiary?) Kevin Martin, a relatively proficient scoring shooting guard before his extended slump this season.
But first the Spurs turned to Miller, this generation’s Rod Strickland. Strickland, like Miller, never made an All-Star team, but was regularly a top-ten assists leader. In fact, both Strickland and Miller have led the NBA in assists exactly once, Strickland in 1997-98 and Miller in 2001-02. Ninth and tenth all-time in assists: Miller and Strickland. But the (very strong) connection ends there. Strickland had a stint with the Spurs in the early nineties, alienating himself when he held out the first 24 games of the 1991-1992 season over a contract dispute. But that was five championships and entire owner ago.
Two years ago, Jonathan Abrams profiled Miller for the late, great Grantland. The piece is somewhat glowing, but not quite by design. Everyone Abrams interviewed—his former teammates and coaches mostly—heaped praise upon Miller, even then considered in the twilight of his career.
“I never played with a better passer,” former Jazz teammate Alex Jensen said. After Miller scored on Wizards teammate Bradley Beal in practice, he told Abrams, “I thought, He’s not going to score on me. He spun so quick and scored on me, I was like, ‘What the … ?’” Top-tier point guard and fellow Wizard John Wall admitted, “He’s still faster than people think he is,” before mentioning that he was, at that time, using Miller as a model for learning a post-up game. He’s also compared to John Stockton and referred to as the player who made Javale McGee “great,” which is a stretch, to say the least, but it is true that Miller’s greatest asset is the ability to make the other four players on the court better.
Sure, that cliched notion of the elder statesman, the glue-guy, or the bench sheriff is tired in professional sports, but on teams that already have top-tier talent, they’re important. And if anyone knows team chemistry, it’s Popovich and Buford. When the Spurs make any move—hiring analytics wizard and UT-Austin lecturer Kirk Goldsberry is another recent example—it’s for a reason. Not to gas up Spurs fans even more, but we must afford them at least that benefit of the doubt.
“He’s one of those players you look at and say, ‘Boy, I could figure out how to fit him in,’” Popovich said after the signing. “He’s just a pro, the consummate pro.” That’s the most important element of this signing. Miller won’t be expected to play double-digit minutes or score down the stretch. Case-in-point: In his Spurs debut Wednesday night, Miller played a shade under eight minutes, grabbed two rebounds, notched two assists, and took zero shots. He’ll be asked to be a professional basketball player on a very good basketball team, the best basketball team that has ever written him a check.
In Abrams’s piece, Donny Daniels, now a Gonzaga assistant who recruited Miller to the University of Utah in 1995, sums up the tao of Miller thusly: “He’s just Andre Miller, point guard in the best league in the world. And he’s fine with that.”
That’ll be more than enough in San Antonio.