Miller, Blazers struggling to coexist

Publish date:

Andre Miller looked isolated as he gazed toward Nate McMillan while sitting on a chair outside the team huddle, watching a couple steps behind his nearest teammate as the Portland Trail Blazers laid down their plan.

It was the third quarter at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Charlotte Bobcats were keeping the game tight. And Miller was part of the group taking the floor. Yet while the strategy was laid out, the veteran point guard remained outside that circle, watching his head coach, yet looking disconnected from a team with which he has struggled to develop a bond all year.

"I'm just finding my niche," Miller said before that 80-74 win over Charlotte on this mid-November night. "I'm playing a different role than I have on any other team."

But Miller is still searching for that stable ground a month into the season.The usually steady, veteran point guard remains disjointed while searching for his proper fit on a team that signed him as a third choice after missing out on Paul Millsap and Hedo Turkoglu last summer.

While he has shown recent signs of warming up to a new role off the bench, they have been sandwiched between moments of confusion and uninspired play that have left Miller and his situation as the team's biggest enigmas.

And nobody, it seems, saw any of it coming.

In fact, Portland figured it was landing a bedrock of experience to stabilize its young team when it signed Miller to a three-year, $21-million contract last summer. The veteran point guard offered the promise of the piece the Blazers had long sought after being previously linked in trade discussions to Chicago's Kirk Hinrich and even Dallas' Jason Kidd. Miller seemed an ideal fit, holding a résumé that included 767 starts in his previous 768 games and an efficient offensive touch that placed him among his teams' top two scorers in six of his 10 seasons.

But each side has struggled to find a comfort zone from the beginning. Miller has proved set in his ways, expected to continue his career as a starter and tended to dominate the ball. And Portland has struggled to pull the quiet, self-described loner into its culture and convince him to buy in to alternative roles.

Portland didn't make it through the first day of training camp before those conflicts started emerging.

That's the day when McMillan runs his vaunted conditioning test that has become a point of pride for the young Blazers. Players must run 10 court lengths in a set period of time -- 61 seconds for guards like Miller. And as half the Blazers entered the league and established themselves together over the last three years, the test became a traditional sign of solidarity. Passing it showed your teammates that you spent the offseason preparing to give the team what it required.

Miller failed the test by eight seconds -- the only player with a guaranteed contract to do so. He then inflamed the situation by downplaying its significance and claiming the media -- which reports the test's results each fall -- was using it to paint him in a poor light. Rather than recognize the test's place in the team's culture, he boasted that he always played his way into shape during the preseason.

It's the way he'd always done it.

It was a small preview of how Miller's resistance to change would burn into a controversial inferno early in the year, when McMillan elected to use him off the bench when the season began. He figured Miller's aggressive, fast-paced style would fit better with the athletic, up-tempo reserves. But Miller publicly protested, saying he never would have signed with Portland if he'd known of their plan to use him off the bench. And when pressed in Charlotte about his desire for a starting role, Miller pointed to his track record.

"I've been a starter pretty much my whole career," he said. "I'm more comfortable as far as working my way into the game. That's how I've always been with the amount of minutes that I've played. It's totally different (coming off the bench)."

Again, it's the way he'd always done it.

The Blazers tried to accommodate Miller briefly by including him in a three-guard starting lineup, which initially seemed to work. Ball movement increased, and the offensive tempo picked up. Miller's performances also improved; his shooting, scoring, assists and steals numbers all increased from his stretch on the bench.

Trouble was, bending to Miller came at the expense of All-Star Brandon Roy's production. While Miller was back in his familiar role, Roy was out of position at small forward. Their similar playing styles also created a bottleneck as Miller and Roy wound up battling for the same opportunities. Each is at his best when the ball is in his hands. Each excels at running pick-and-rolls. Each is aggressive in looking for their own shots.

So even when times looked good (and the Blazers ran off seven wins in nine gamesto be working, both Roy and Miller agreed that they were still figuring out their chemistry.

"It's taken some time," Miller admitted. "It's gonna take some time. But it's a long season. The more times we're out there, the better opportunity I can get a feel for where he wants the ball and ways to get him easy baskets instead of him having to work a lot, dribbling the ball all the time."

It became apparent that one player had to step back. So McMillan forced another change after only nine games, re-establishing Roy as the team's focal point and moving Miller back to the bench. The announcement focused on Roy, the team's proven winner who led Portland to a 54-win season last year. But the message was sent directly at Miller, who has been part of only four winning teams, none of which won 50. His mindset and playing style would need to adapt to fit the Blazers' needs, rather than expect the Blazers to adjust to him.

It was an order hasn't been asked very often of Miller in his career.

"Andre has never changed his game for anybody," said a team source. "You kind of got what you bring in with Andre. And now, for the first time, he's having to change his game. ... I think it's something that he's trying to figure out."

It's been a bumpy process. Miller's first game off the bench produced an uninspired four points and four assists in 20 minutes. But the next three games produced some of the most efficient play so far between Miller and Roy, and included an impressive win over Chicago. He became more social in the locker room, and began winning over some teammates. More than at any other time this season, Miller seemed to be finding his niche.

But just as that turnaround started, Miller was limited to a career-low six minutes in last weekend's 16-point loss at Utah -- a decision McMillan said he made because he suspected Miller was hobbled by a hip and ankle injury. Miller, for his part, said he felt fine. The situation was sold as a misunderstanding, but it nevertheless resurrected the same old questions that have developed into a season-defining issue:

Is Miller ready to change and make the sacrifices that can make him an important, respected part of the team's huddle? Or is this situation destined to degrade further into an ugly confrontation that keeps Miller a few disconnecting steps outside?

Ultimately, it will be on Miller to decide.