MINNEAPOLIS In Minnesota, he's known for plaid shirts and flat-brimmed hats, for the plastic bags of soda and water he totes out of the Target Center after most games. He's imposing in his silence, and when he laughs, it's hard not to wonder what joke you've missed.
Brad Miller might seem like an enigma, but he's not. He's a personality.
After 14 seasons as a center in the league, he's earned that right. He's no longer young, no longer much of a factor on the court and just a game away from retiring when the 2011-12 season ends. He'll leave the game averaging 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds, and his next move will be to focus on his Sportsman Channel show, "Country Boys Outdoors."
But despite appearing in just 14 games this year after offseason microfracture surgery on his left knee, the two-time All-Star has been a different kind of factor for the Timberwolves this season.
On the league's second-youngest team, Miller, 36, was born five years before his next-oldest teammate, Luke Ridnour. He's 13 years older than Kevin Love, 16 years' Derrick Williams' senior, part of a different generation. He played with Ron Artest a decade before his name change. He got in a fight with Shaquille O'Neal when Shaq was still wearing the Lakers' purple and gold. He was traded for Jalen Rose, one of Michigan's Fab Five. It's not much of an overstatement to say Miller's experiences in the league and knowledge of it rival that of the rest of the Timberwolves combined.
After going undrafted out of Purdue, Miller signed with Charlotte in 1998, when it was still the Charlotte Hornets. After spending time with the Chicago and Indiana, Miller found himself in Sacramento following a sign-and-trade between the Kings and the Pacers. That was the first time he played for first-year Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, and since then Miller has traveled to Houston and then Minnesota with the veteran coach.
"That's the reason I went to Houston, to play for him," Miller said. "I thought he was going to be down there, but he surprised everyone and took this job. It definitely made it a lot more enjoyable, him being the coach up here."
Some players sign meaningless contracts in order to retire with the teams on which they spent most of their careers or had their most memorable years. But Miller, who had his best seasons with Adelman in Sacramento from 2003-06, doesn't have to go through the trouble. By virtue of a draft-day trade last June, he ended up in Minnesota, where Adelman signed a contract just three months later; now, he can retire with the man who's coached him through five of his past nine seasons.
That familiarity with Adelman and his offense added to Miller's value this season. Not only does he retain the basketball intelligence that's compensated for any lack of athleticism throughout his career, he's also an expert in the coach's scheme. He's the kind of player who isn't afraid to hit a teammate in the head with a back-door pass, fellow big man Anthony Tolliver said, as if to show them how complex the offense can be but how easy it is to learn.
"He's been good with the young guys," Adelman said. "He's been around the game a long time, and he's very willing to share what he sees on the court. I think he's been good to have in with this group."
And in addition to pranks like purchasing embarrassing kiddie backpacks for the team's three rookies (Hello Kitty for Malcolm Lee, Disney princesses for Derrick Williams and Justin Bieber for Ricky Rubio of course), Miller has also become a vocal leader in the Timberwolves' locker room. He is often the first player to speak up after games, Tolliver said, and his passion to win hasn't dulled even with his reduced role on the court.
At the beginning of the season, the team was unsure whether Miller would take the court at all. But with Darko Milicic's fading role and injuries to Nikola Pekovic, Miller did get limited time. The numbers he posted averaging 2.2 points are far off the 15.6 and 15.1 points he recorded in 2004-05 and 2005-06 in Sacramento, but he still was of value to the team's offense. Miller's experience was a key addition to the rest of the young Timberwolves' raw ability, which provided a good foil, and he still retains much of his offensive prowess.
"Offensively, he really helps us," Adelman said. "I'm going to put him in there. For short stretches, he's really good."
Eight years after Adelman first met Miller, the coach still remembers what an asset he was in Sacramento. Not only was he a better player than anyone expected him to be coming out of college, he was also everything the Kings needed for their offense, Adelman said. He was tough to guard and spaced the floor well, and even though he wasn't much of a shot blocker, he still was a smart defensive player. Those skills are what Adelman thinks of first when he remembers his time with Miller "Other than the hunting and all that," he joked not the player who competed in a limited role this season.
Maybe Miller didn't prove much to Timberwolves fans this season. Maybe they'll remember him only for his headband and stature. But Adelman and the 14 younger teammates who learned from him and were sometimes the brunt of his jokes won't forget what he did for them behind the scenes.
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