The search for what went wrong with the Clippers' season takes us to a dark, quiet corner of the team's locker room.
It used to be the most boisterous spot in the place, where Darius Miles would stand in his throwback jerseys -- the colorful Alex English Denver Nugget uniform or the red, white and blue Wes Unseld Washington Bullet top -- and call across the room to his buddy Quentin Richardson. Or he'd spin off a couple of rhymes from his East St. Louis homeboy Nelly.
Now that chair belongs to Andre Miller. He's likely to be found sitting in it, perusing statistics or watching game tapes on the television across the room. You won't find him in any retro jerseys. He doesn't own any. And unless you initiate a conversation, you won't hear from him.
"That's his personality," says Lamar Odom, who has the locker next to Miller's.
You won't find anyone who'll say a bad thing about Miller's attitude, and people around the league still like his basketball skills, but it's clear that neither his personality nor his playing style has fit in with the Clippers. When the Clippers traded the popular Miles to the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer for Miller, Miller was supposed to be the point guard who would draw the rest of the elements of the young and talented Clippers together. He led the league in assists in the 2001-02 season. He was supposed to take the Clippers to the next level, like when Heather Locklear joined the cast of "Melrose Place".
Instead the Clippers find themselves in last place in the Pacific Division. Elgin Baylor can book another ticket to Secaucus, N.J., for the draft lottery.
Failure crept into every corner of Clipper Country, from the front office's inability to sign any of its potential stars to contract extensions last summer, to selfish play by the guys seeking contracts. But on the court, everything begins with the point guard. As Coach Alvin Gentry said, "He's the key."
What went wrong? For one thing, injuries prevented Miller from getting a chance to play with all of his new teammates, from training camp through the first two months of the season ... and even now.
"He was faced with so many different things," Elton Brand says. "First of all the injuries....
"Now he gets the team he's going to play with, then it's, 'OK, throw Lamar into the flow a month into the season.' "
Odom's return on Dec. 28 also took Miller out of his usual playmaking role, a role Odom sought to return to, since he'd played it during his first three seasons.
The Clipper offense usually dictated that the ball go in to Brand and Michael Olowokandi in the low post. That denied Miller his ability to create. But when left on his own, he hasn't found that knack for getting the ball to teammates in the spots that best suit them.
"I thought I would be able to adjust easier to everybody," Miller said. "But we've been having a problem with everybody playing along, making plays.
"When we play together, anything can happen."
Very quietly -- is there any other way with Miller? -- he also had to deal with his stepfather's battle with cancer. Albert Robinson died Jan. 17. Miller was in the lineup for the Clippers the next day, scoring 14 points with six assists to lead the team to victory over the Sacramento Kings.
"It hit our family pretty hard," Miller said. "I'm not going to say it was a distraction. That's something every family deals with. It's something you deal with. My stepfather was sick for a long time; it was kind of expected. We were prepared for it."
Miller grew up in Watts and went to Verbum Dei High, so he had family and friends to surround him during his time of grief. But playing in his hometown might have been a hindrance earlier in the season.
"For him, his family's all here, all his boys are here; that was one reason why I was glad I never got to come back to play," said Clipper assistant coach Dennis Johnson, who was born in San Pedro and went to Pepperdine before starting his NBA career. " I never wanted to. You have all the pressures. Maybe some of them are hitting on him."
Miller's mother joked over the summer that people were not only asking for tickets, they wanted season tickets.
Miller has looked more like his old self in recent weeks, but his averages of 14.3 points and 7.2 assists don't match the 16.5 points and 10.9 assists he averaged last season with the Cavaliers.
"Watching him in the East, we loved him," said Washington Wizard assistant coach John Bach.
Bach said Cleveland's offense might have been better suited for Miller's game.
"It put him in command of his penetration of the lane, his outside shooting," Bach said. "He did what we call the one-guard front. This team [the Clippers] runs lanes, has other people handling the ball. I don't know if the team has fully accepted him as the absolute leader.
"The guards who have dominated basketball have also dominated their teams, with their ability to make the pass, with their reliability in the clutch, that they found the right guy. I think he's got all the skills of a fine guard. Sometimes it takes a year or more for a team to fall in ... [to say,] 'This is the guy we're going with.' "
The Clippers can't say which of their starters they're going with next year, because they're all free agents after this season. Michael Olowokandi is the only unrestricted free agent, meaning the Clippers can retain any other player by matching an offer he receives elsewhere. The only thing you can count on is for Donald Sterling to follow the path of least expenses.
I wouldn't expect Miller to be back next season. The Clippers still have point guards Marko Jaric and Keyon Dooling under contract for 2003-04, and you wonder if by then Miller will have gone from part of the good things forecast for the Clippers this season to just another part of their losing history.
"We're not meeting expectations that we put on ourselves, so it's a disappointment to me -- just the team in general," Miller said. "You can point fingers at anybody. You've got to take a look in the mirror. Team-wise, we're not getting it done. That's all that matters."
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com.