When Paul George (rightfully so) balked at the idea of transitioning to the power forward position during his first full-season back from serious injury, Frank Vogel capitulated to Larry Bird's designs on playing small-ball by making C.J. Miles the sacrificial lamb for the first two months of the season. A compromise move which brought mixed results.
With Miles stretching the floor, the Pacers met Bird's uptempo criteria by averaging nearly eight more possessions per 48 minutes than last year's team, but the heightened pace did not result in more points and the defense took a significant step back.
The most notable problem with the spread unit was that its success was predicated on replicating the fleeting "east coast splash brothers" moment on a nightly basis. The team's potential appeared rosy when they knocked down a franchise record 19 3-pointers in a win over the Washington Wizards, but dismal when Miles fired blanks (0-of-9) in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Some nights we fired it up there, made some 3s and beat some pretty good teams," Bird told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner and the rest of the assembled media at yesterday's presser. "Other nights they fired it up, didn't make any shots and we get beat. But I think over a period of time I think it would've worked a lot better especially when they got used to each other."
Maybe, but probably not. Relying on inconsistent scorers to outscore opponents is usually a losing proposition. Bird assembled a roster incapable of bringing his uptempo vision to fruition, but head coach Frank Vogel's oftentimes stagnant offense failed to make the most of the pieces with which he was forced to make do.
And somewhere, lost in the apparent disconnect, was the streaky sharpshooter formerly known as C.J. Miles.
How did C.J. Miles impress?
His willingness to do what was best for the team, even at great sacrifice to his body.
Given that Paul George admitted the calf strain he suffered at the end of the 2014-15 season would have cost him at least four to five weeks and Miles approached the offseason expecting to continue on at the small forward position, it seems unlikely that either player spent much time preparing for the rigors of defending opposing power forwards or boxing out bigger bodies.
"I was in great shape to play my position (on a wing), but not in great shape to get beat up," Miles told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth. "I had never been in that position before, I had never been hit that way, at least that much for a period of time. It wore me down, and I was trying to figure out how to keep from getting hit (while playing).
"It was slowing me down and taking me away from the extra work I like to do. I was trying to make sure I had the legs and energy to heal up and play in the game. It was tough; it was different. And we were starting to win games, so I definitely wasn't going to complain about it. If that's what I had to do to make us better, that's what I had to do."
Unfortunately, the reward for Miles' selfless malleability was missing 18 games due to an array of various injuries, among them a sore back, sore shoulder, and lingering calf injury. All of which brings to question the wisdom of ever expecting Paul George, Indiana's franchise linchpin, to do this in the midst of his rehab season.
How did C.J. Miles disappoint?
Whether the wing's broken down body contributed to his extended shooting slump is a question better answered by a trained physician, but it is probably safe to at least assume that it didn't help matters.
Once small-ball was put to rest, a three from C.J. Miles was only worth 0.65 points during the month of January. For comparison's sake, a two from Myles Turner was worth 1.15 points over that same span of time. It wasn't until an April contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers, in which the sharpshooter poured in 21 points on 77 percent shooting, that he finally (at least momentarily) appeared to regain his rhythm.
Yet, perhaps the biggest shame of the ten-year veteran's rough season was that he was grossly underutilized in the role that he should never have been asked to play in the first place. More often than not, Vogel's spread offense devolved into maddening your-turn, my-turn possessions as four ball-handlers struggled to find space to operate on the perimeter. Take this play from early in the season against the Minnesota Timberwolves, there is little to no off-ball movement as Paul George forces up a contested mid-range shot at the end of the shot clock.
Indiana's bland offense here is made worse by the fact that Miles had the ghost of Kevin Garnett guarding him on this possession. Why weren't the Pacers using their stretch-four to run the 39-year-old ragged through a maze of picks? The assembled roster's flaws may have ensured that the small-ball experiment would have a low ceiling, but the blasé offense prohibited the spread lineup from ever realizing its modest potential.
What's next for C.J. Miles?
Larry Bird elected not to re-sign another C.J. last summer due to his recurrent injury history.
"I don't think so. I don't think I'll bring him back," Bird told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner regarding Watson at the end of the 2015 season. "I like him as a kid and a player, but he hasn't played much in the last 20 games each season."
Miles, though not a free agent, has missed a combined 26 games over the last two seasons. Whether Indiana's head of basketball operations will give him the Watson treatment following an underwhelming showing in the playoffs remains to be seen.
But no matter his future, it is unfortunate that the fruit of his supposedly productive off-season got caught in the crosshairs between the roster's faulty design and the offense's lack of imagination.