Clyde Drexler-Reggie Miller: Head To Head

Brian D.Contributor IJanuary 27, 2010

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 26:  Clyde Drexler #10 of the USA plays defense during the USA v Angola match of the Summer Games of the XXVth Olympiad on July 26, 1992 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)
Mike Powell/Getty Images

I’ve noticed an annoying trend among sportswriters and bloggers over the past couple of years.

With Kobe Bryant continuing to add to his career accomplishments, comparisons with Michael Jordan are no longer entirely foolish. Annoying, yes, but not foolish. However, they aren’t the trend I’m talking about.

In light of this Kobe and Mike discussion, it seems that everyone wants to make their list of the greatest shooting guards in NBA history. This by itself is not annoying, and it’s also not the trend I’m talking about.

No, the trend I want to write about is the elevation of Reggie Miller over Clyde Drexler (among others) in the pantheon of great two guards.

For a Drexler fan like me, this is indeed annoying. It’s also just plain ignorant.

It should be obvious to anyone who has examined the careers of "Clyde the Glide" and "Miller-Time" that one of these two players was clearly head-and-shoulders above the other. It’s not Cheryl Miller’s brother.

Now, Reggie was a great, great shooter. I’m not taking that away from him. He may even have been the best shooter in the history of the game. That has to count for something when you are a shooting guard. In all likelihood, Miller shot his way into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

However, Bill Simmons, who can be annoying at times himself, calls Reggie Miller the most overrated superstar in NBA history in The Book of Basketball . For once, I completely agree with the Sports Guy.

The truth of the matter is that the "Legend of Reggie Miller: Clutch Playoff Assassin" was created by the East Coast media, largely on the basis of about 13 minutes out of the 52,000 Miller played in the NBA regular season and playoffs.

Granted, those 13 minutes were pretty memorable. He scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game against the Knicks. He scored six points in four seconds in the closing moments of another playoff game against the Knicks. He hit a game winning shot over Michael Jordan in another playoff game.  I watched all those games.

The fact that Miller committed atrocious uncalled fouls in two of these instances only enhanced his reputation as a playoff Villain/Giant-Killer. And of course, his running dialogue with Spike Lee made for great television in the mid-'90s.

None of this erases the fact that during the other 51,087 odd minutes of his career, Reggie was a one-dimensional gunner who was so skinny you had to think Mars Blackmon could actually take him in a street-fight, if it ever came to that.

Putting aside those 13 minutes, what did Reggie actually accomplish during his time in the NBA? Is there any real basis for his reputation as a feared crunch-time playoff assassin?  The answers are, respectively, "hit a lot of threes" and "no."

Let’s look at Reggie’s playoff career with the Pacers. Most of the time, they were a pretty mediocre team, either losing in the first round or not making the playoffs at all. (Drexler played on mediocre Portland teams as well, but for what it’s worth, he never missed the playoffs.)

However, on six occasions in his 18-year career, Reggie and the Pacers made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Interestingly, for those who would argue that Miller’s teams were never good enough to help him get over the top, there were three instances in the 1990s in which the Pacers played in a Conference-Finals Game Seven where the stakes were a trip to the NBA Finals.

Think about it. This is exactly the kind of situation you would think is tailor made for "Reggie Miller: Clutch Playoff Assassin." It’s one game. It’s winner take all. NBA Finals at stake. Surely Reggie would take over in the fourth quarter, hitting a barrage of three pointers while kicking out his legs so wildly he risks tripping the guy who sells beer in the stands.

Miller and the Pacers lost all three games. In 1994, the Pacers lost to the Knicks by just four points in a Game Seven where Miller shot only 41 percent. In 1995, they were blown out in Game Seven by the Magic. Miller scored just 12 points. In 1998, they lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in Game Seven by just five points.

In none of these do-or-die contests was "Reggie Miller: Playoff Assassin" able to lift his team to a series victory and NBA Finals glory.

In 1999, the Pacers were back in the Eastern Conference Finals against a Knicks team that had no business being there. The crucial game in this battle was Game Three. With the series unexpectedly tied, the Pacers had to win to regain control of the series. They couldn’t risk letting the Knicks think they had business being there. They lost the game by one point, 91-92. Reggie scored 12 points. He did not hit the game winning shot. The Knicks went on to win the series.

Interestingly, when the Pacers finally broke through the following year, the triumphant victory in Game Six of the Conference Finals came in blowout fashion. Reggie scored 34 points, but the game wasn’t close. The only really close game in the series was Game Five, which the Pacers lost by one point, and during which Reggie shot just 39 percent. Once again, Reggie failed to come through in the "clutch" in a tight game.  During his career, the Pacers were actually significantly below .500 in games decided by three points or less or in overtime.

By contrast, Clyde Drexler’s teams were well above .500 in close playoff games. This is not entirely attributable to Hakeem Olajuwon’s presence during Clyde’s later years with the Rockets.  In fact, those early 1990s Blazers teams were 12-5 in playoff games decided by three points or less or in overtime. That’s an amazing record.  In pressure packed, crunch-time playoff games, Clyde’s teams were superior to Reggie’s.

In 2004, Reggie played in his last important playoff game in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. Needing a win to stay alive, "Reggie Miller: Playoff Assassin" scored six points on 2-of-6 shooting.

The point is that while Reggie hit some big shots and had some memorable moments in his playoff career, when the stakes were highest, when the pressure was greatest, and when he had the best opportunities to win, he was not exactly Larry Bird in the clutch department. Or Michael Jordan. Or Kobe Bryant. Or Robert Horry. Or, even, Clyde Drexler.

I'm not saying Clyde Drexler was Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, either.  I will say this: people don’t seem to know this, but Drexler had his share of huge playoff moments as well.  Unfortunately for Clyde, they came against the Seattle Supersonics or the Utah Jazz instead of the Knicks or the Bulls.  In other words, nobody saw them, and nobody cared.

They happened, nonetheless.  How many people remember the time Drexler bailed the Blazers out of a close playoff game against the Sonics by pouring in 19 points in the fourth quarter?  Not even Blazer fans remember that one. It happened in 1991.

Or how about the time he hit the game-winning shot and snagged the game-saving steal in a classic playoff matchup with the Utah Jazz? That happened in 1991 as well. Oh, he also had a triple-double in that game.

How about the time he scored 35 points and helped carry the Blazers to a double-OT victory over the Spurs in Game Five in 1990?  Or the time he hit huge shot after huge shot, including the game winning free throws with one second left, against the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, finishing with 33 points?  Or how about Game Four of that same series, when Drexler brought the Blazers back from a double digit deficit with a masterful 34-point performance, only to watch Terry Porter lose the ball in the final 10 seconds with Portland trailing by one.

What about the time he scored 13 points in an overtime period against the Lakers, which is still a playoff record?  Nobody remembers that because it took place on the night of the 1992 Rodney King riots. Not even Laker fans were watching that game.

I could go on: a game-saving steal in the final seconds against Kevin Johnson in the 1992 playoffs, a game-winning assist to Terry Porter against Utah in the 1991 playoffs, game-winning free throws against the Suns in the 1990 playoffs, and an avalanche of three pointers, blocks, steals, assists, and dunks in the second half of the deciding Game Five against Utah in 1995.

Which brings up this question: how did Drexler perform in "do-or-die games?"  Well, did you know that Clyde never lost a Game Seven in his career? He was a perfect 3-0. The most memorable of these was an OT Game Seven against the Spurs in 1990, when Clyde’s three pointer with two minutes left cut a five-point deficit down to two.  It was the biggest shot of the year for the Blazers.  He followed that up by hitting a big basket and the game clinching free throws in overtime.  In Game Seven. That’s clutch in my book.

And what about the most pressure-packed game of Clyde’s career?  In 1995, he’d been traded to the World Champion Rockets. The move was criticized by some because Houston had to give up big man Otis Thorpe. That meant that Clyde was in the very unenviable position of possibly being the scapegoat in his own hometown if his team failed to repeat as champions. For a professional athlete whose family owns a local restaurant that relies on your status as favorite son for its success, it doesn’t get much worse than that. Clyde could have been the Scott Norwood of the NBA if the Rockets had lost.

To add to the pressure, they promptly fell behind two-games-to-one against Utah in the first round best-of-five series. Game Four of that series had to be the biggest game of Drexler’s career. His very reputation in his own hometown was at stake.

So what did he do? Facing elimination, he went out and scored 41 points in Game Four, following that up with a 31 point outburst in Game Five to help lead the Rockets to a series victory and an eventual championship. All things considered, it has to be one of the most remarkable pressure performances in sports history.

So, the idea that Drexler wasn’t a clutch player is overblown, as is the idea that Reggie Miller was a great one. The truth is that success in team sports is measured by team success.  Drexler’s teams never missed the playoffs, made it to the NBA Finals three times in five trips to the Conference Finals, and won a championship.  Miller’s teams lost in the Conference Finals five times, made the NBA Finals only once, and never won a title. So who had more success in the playoffs?

Obviously, I’ve based my argument so far on fairly intangible things like "clutch performance" and "media reputation."  I’ve deliberately saved the stats for last, because if I’d started with those you would have conceded my point immediately and stopped reading.

Putting aside all other factors, Clyde Drexler averaged more points per game on a slightly higher shooting percentage than Reggie Miller. Yes, Reggie played longer and his stats are skewed by his final seasons. However, Clyde scored more points even in their primes. In his peak years, Drexler averaged 27 points on 50 percent shooting. The closest Reggie came was 24.6 points on 51 percent shooting during one season early in his career. Clyde, on the other hand, averaged 24.6 points over a five-year period! Reggie never came close to that.

More telling, Drexler’s career rebounding average is double that of Reggie.  His career assists average is double that of Reggie.  His career steals average is double that of Reggie.  His career blocked shot average is triple that of Reggie.

In other words, Clyde averaged more points on a higher shooting percentage (though Reggie, of course, took a lot more threes) and averaged twice the rebounds, twice the assists, twice the steals, and three times the blocks while achieving more playoff success and winning a ring. Since nobody would say Reggie was a better defender than Clyde, these facts beg the question.

How can anyone say Reggie was a better player than Clyde?