Aussies in NBA: 2016-17 Season Wish List – Patty Mills

This is part three of our Aussies in NBA: 2016-17 Season Wish List. In part one we covered Andrew Bogut and Dante Exum, while part two explored what to expect from Aron Baynes in Detroit. Today we turn our attention a key member of the San Antonio Spurs.

Patty Mills

2016-17 wish list: (i) more minutes with the San Antonio starters, and (ii) improved ability to run an offence

Is Patty Mills the best guard on the San Antonio Spurs roster?

Tony Parker is toying with being washed up, Manu Ginobilli is 38 and surely entering his final season. Danny Green is probably a better player on a strict power ranking basis, but his ball handling skills pale in comparison to Mills.

If we simply compare Mills and Parker, evidence shows that the Australian has outplayed the Frenchman for large stretches over the past 24 months. During the 2015-16 season, 8 of San Antonio’s 10 most effective three-man units (minimum 200 minutes played) had Mills on the floor. Zero had Tony Parker. Mills is now more than just a valuable cog in the Spurs machine; he is the best point guard on the roster.

Now, would the Spurs ever actually bench Tony Parker? I’m guessing not. In all likelihood, it probably doesn’t matter. San Antonio extend their rotation more than any other franchise, and Mills will definitely get his opportunity. But he should be starting.

The Spurs will likely be starting three high-usage offensive options in Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Parker’s ball dominant game would be more effective championing bench units.

While Mills isn’t a sophisticated pick-and-roll threat on the same level as Parker, his shooting would open up space for his more fancied front court teams mates to operate. And being a tertiary option is nothing new for the Australian.

Despite logging minutes as a point guard, Mills has often served as a functional spot up shooter. Of those three-man units referenced above, Mills was accompanied by either Leonard or Aldridge on each. A primary ball handler maybe, but never the number one offensive option. Mills can fit in, as LeBron James so aptly puts it.

Mills would be a tremendous fit in the starting unit. He recorded a plus 32.3 net rating in 131 minutes on the floor with Green, Leonard and Aldridge last season. Parker recorded a plus 8.4 net rating with the same supporting cast. Sample size theory is a possible explanation of the major discrepancy; Parker’s sample is over 1,000 minutes compared to Mills’ minuscule 131 minutes, but such a big difference should be explored.

Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, starting Mills remains unlikely. He will likely be the first guard off the bench, where his knock down shooting and diminutive defence can continue to frustrate opposition reserve guards. But the thought of Mills starting is enticing, and belongs at the top of our wish list.

As for something Mills can control, the second item on the list is firmly in his hands.

If we are looking for the obvious improvement areas, it’s the same old bugaboos that have caused some to doubt Mills throughout his career: defence and decision making on offence.

Let’s quickly cover off on the defensive end. Mills is the same height as Chris Paul, something we forget all to often. Paul is widely applauded for being an elite defensive guard, despite his small stature. But Paul is the exception to the rule, NBA players who are only six foot shouldn’t be good defenders. There is too much size and ability in the league, and their problems only extend with age. The time has arrived where we must abandon dreams of Mills becoming a plus on this end of the floor. Sheer competency is enough when combined with his offensive output.

Speaking of which, the Olympics showed that Mills can still function as a number one option on offence. With that said, Mills is far from perfect.

Warren explored Mills’ role in the final 12 seconds of madness from the Thunder-Spurs Game 2 back in May, and commented on the need for more polish on the offensive end. I’ll leave you to explore Warren’s piece as I largely agree with his thoughts, highlighting the final comment from his article:

“His ball-handling needs to be tighter. His decision-making needs to be cleaner. His passing repertoire, and understanding of space, needs to improve in the heat of playoff basketball. It’s one thing to excel against the likes of the Denver Nuggets in a meaningless January game, and another thing entirely in May, and with a bit of luck, hopefully in June.”

It’s not realistic to expect the Olympic version of Patty Mills to suddenly appear in San Antonio. Improvements we all witnessed in Rio, however, we should expect to see Mills displaying them on a regular basis. Mills has a proven track record of adding greater nuance and guile to his game with each passing year, I anticipate the same will be on display in 2016.

One final nugget, and something that is surely on his personal list: Mills is entering the final year of his contract. With the NBA salary cap expected to jump again next year to above $100 million USD, Mills should be the most motivated Australian in America. A big six months of basketball could be parlayed into a life-changing payday, something Matthew Dellavedova could tell him all about.

Speaking of Delly, check back in on Monday for the next instalment of our Aussies in NBA: 2016-17 Season Wish List.