Where Art Thou, Darius Miller?

Published: February 12, 2014

Arguably no player on the New Orleans Pelicans has endured as frustrating of a 2014 as Darius Miller. The second year wing player from Kentucky has totaled as many games with over 15 minutes as he has games with under 5 minutes (7). For a player whose shooting ability has made up so much of his NBA value to date, the difficulty of getting into any sort of rhythm given such heavy fluctuations in playing time cannot be easy to handle. Of course, Miller was only a mid-second round pick and has a career PER of just 7.0 after a lackluster rookie season, so how much action can he really expect? Far more than he is currently being allotted, if it were up to me; in fact, I think he should be the team’s starting small forward.

It is no secret that between the depth of the Western Conference and the Pelicans’ injury woes this season, New Orleans’ playoff chances are close to zero. As a result, the team’s priorities should shift a bit, with possibly a greater focus on the future than before Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday went down. Don’t mistake this plan for an attempt to “tank”; in many situations, switching player roles to focus more on the team’s youth and unproven talent will have close to a negligible effect on overall team performance. Does anyone honestly believe that doubling Withey’s minutes at the expense of Ajinca/Stiemsma and reversing Rivers and Roberts’ minutes/roles would make the Pelicans significantly worse? But I digress.

Before moving forward, let’s do an unnamed small forward comparison for the 2013-14 season of each (courtesy of basketball-reference.com).

Aminu vs. Miller

Player A, while a great rebounder for his position, has failed to make much of an impact in other areas of the game. Player B, however, boasts superior shooting efficiency, a far lower turnover rate, and a higher win share total per 48 minutes. Who is each player?

At this point, you can probably guess their identities: Player A is Al-Farouq Aminu, and Player B is Darius Miller. Of course, Aminu’s superior athleticism and wingspan cannot be ignored, but the difference between the two players in some of these statistical categories is pretty staggering. The reason for my pleading for an increase in minutes for Darius Miller goes beyond a simple comparison of these two players, though; it has to do with the success (or lack thereof) of the current rotations being deployed by Monty Williams & Co.

So far this season, the Pelicans have been outscored by 1.6 points per 100 possessions. With Al-Farouq Aminu on the court, that number falls to -4.8 points per 100 possessions, but when he is on the bench, New Orleans actually outscores opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions. There are plenty of other variables within this data, such as the fact that Aminu frequently subs out in favor of Tyreke Evans, an unquestionably better player. However, take a look at Aminu’s performance this season with various “2-big” lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together (via the NBA’s stats tool; click the chart to enlarge):

Aminu + 2 bigs

The first and last lineups are by far the most telling 3-man groups to me. The only difference between the two lineups is a substitution of Jason Smith for Alexis Ajinca, and the group improves from getting outscored by 13.2 points per 100 possessions to outscoring opponents by 4 points per 100 possessions! On a league-wide scale, that difference in net rating is about equivalent to the difference between the Milwaukee Bucks and the San Antonio Spurs. Full disclosure: due to the timing of the injuries to Smith and Holiday, it would stand to reason that a higher amount of the Smith lineup minutes were played with Holiday than the Ajinca lineup minutes. That being said, a 17.2 points per 100 possessions per net rating difference is more than large enough to be a giant red flag, even after factoring in Holiday’s impact.

Based on this data (as well as the “eye test”), the reason for this disparity is pretty clear, and it has to do with the skill sets of each player. Not only does a lineup with Smith, Davis, & Aminu score nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more than a lineup with Ajinca, Davis, and Aminu, but they rebound better too, especially on the offensive end. However, Alexis Ajinca’s offensive rebound rate and total rebound rate this season is 10.5% and 16.5% respectively, well higher than 6.8% and 12.4% in those same categories for Smith. In short: Ajinca has been a far better rebounder than Smith this season, but when those two players are the variable in a lineup with Davis and Aminu, the lineup with Smith rebounds far better. When the Pelicans can spread the floor and more frequently draw the defense away from the rim, their offensive rebound rate shoots up – who would have thought? The question then becomes how New Orleans can still utilize this concept despite losing both Smith and Anderson to injury.

Enter Darius Miller. With such limited options down low for the Pelicans, they need to find a different way to stretch the defense, as 5 man lineups featuring Aminu & Ajinca or Aminu & Stiemsma are the only two of New Orleans’ nine most commonly used lineups that don’t outscore its opponents. With Ajinca or Stiemsma on the court, Aminu’s most valuable NBA skills are marginalized in relation to his flaws, a major cause of the poor performances of these lineups. In Darius Miller, the Pelicans have a player who can space the floor and has taken major steps to take better care of the ball than he did in his rookie season, cutting his turnover rate nearly in half. He is not a plus defender from an athleticism limitation standpoint, but he is not a detriment on this side of the ball either (he allowed a PER of 15.6 to opposing small forwards last season and has improved that number to 13.7 this season, per 82games.com).

At the end of this season, the New Orleans Pelicans will have to make a decision on whether or not they want to try to retain Darius Miller. The worst case scenario in this situation (apart from the seemingly emotionless Aminu getting a little upset about a reduction in minutes) is that Miller will perform inadequately, and if so, then at least the Pelicans will feel comfortable letting him walk after the season. On the other hand, if he succeeds, New Orleans could become more confident that Miller can be a key role player as this team continues to progress. Why not give him the chance to prove his worth in a setting that could actually improve overall team performance at the same time?


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