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Aussies in NBA: Why Patty Mills could become Australia’s richest sportsman in 2017
Patty Mills is enjoying the best season of his career.
The 28-year-old has all but assumed sixth man responsibilities from an aging Manu Ginobilli in San Antonio, while averaging the highest minute total of his career (22.6). He is also averaging a career high in points per game (10.6), assists per game (3.5) and more importantly, boosted his effective shooting percentage to a career high 60%.
This lofty shooting measure is a byproduct of Mills taking 56% of his shots from behind the three-point line. Shooting has always been Mills’ NBA meal ticket, and this strength has developed into an elite skill. He is converting over 43% from long range this campaign, making him the Association’s 12th best shooter from distance. In fact, Mills’ career three-point shooting percentage is now up to 39.4%, and this places him just outside the top 50 shooters in NBA history.
While Mills’ shooting is the foundation of his game, it would be unfair to call him a one-trick pony. This season has seen Mills' evident growth in the broader aspects of his skillset, namely his ability to create plays for his teammates.
Back in September, we called for Mills to become more effective at initiating and running the Spurs offence. This has been achieved. Mills’ assist rate is at a career high, and this can be attributed to improved decision making and passing skills.
How Patty has improved at running the offence
The Australian has evolved at running a pick and roll. Habitual errors have been replaced with intuitiveness, sharpened by a clear understanding of what the Spurs offence wants to achieve. This alley-oop for Dewayne Dedmon is a great example.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwWaAfpd1N0&feature=youtu.be Mills patiently comes off Dedmon’s first screen, pulling the ball out when the look isn’t quite right. The evolution of this play is a piece of basketball artwork. Dedmon is still above the free throw line when Mills releases the ball. It may seem like a mundane achievement, but the list of offensive relationships that connect with such instinctive movement is limited. There is a reason Russell Westbrook is lauded for turning Steven Adams into a kamikaze attacker with his lob passes – this is hard to accomplish.
Mills and Dedmon are by no means on the level of Oklahoma City’s duo, but they are developing a symbiotic relationship that often leads to easy points for San Antonio.
While Mills remains a rung below the elite ball handlers in the NBA, the above highlights are just two moments from a growing pool of evidence that prove he can competently manage an NBA-level offence, a dangerous skill that complements his elite shooting.
Mills leverages his well-earned reputation as a long range sniper into a clear driving lane. Once inside, Mills makes a great pass to Dedmon for the easy bucket. Jerian Grant’s defence left plenty to be desired, but his indecision is partly attributable to the growth of Mills’ game.
Defenders cannot sag from Mills on the perimeter, as he is a legitimate shooting threat. Should opponents attempt to hedge their bets and show weak help, as Grant did, trouble is imminent.
Mills is also attacking hard closeouts better than any other point in his NBA career so far. https://youtu.be/oO-bySCqCjw
If defenders are overly concerned with his shooting ability, Mills puts his head down and gets to the rim. According to NBA.com/stats, Mills is shooting 67.4% inside of five feet this season. There are very few weaknesses in his attacking arsenal.
The San Antonio guard is demonstrating a well-rounded offensive game as he enters the prime of his career, and his timing couldn’t be better.
Scouting the 2017 free agency market
The Spurs point guard will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 season. Mills will enter the free market as a proven 28 year-old role player, and looks set for a life-changing payday.
How much is a player like that worth on the open market? In the current NBA landscape, the answer could very well be something Australian sport has never before seen.
Before we look too hard at where Mills’ next contract could sit in the pantheon of local paydays, the two NBA issues which will dictate his value must be addressed. Namely, competition and opportunity.
The upcoming group of point guard free agents is loaded with some of basketball’s biggest names. Here is a list of point guards who could hit the free market in July (sans Mills), ranked in tiers that categorise their value.
The elite: Steph Curry and Chris Paul
The All-Star: Kyle Lowry
The proven starters: George Hill and Jeff Teague
The injury ward: Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Jrue Holiday
The middle class looking for one final payday: Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter Williams, Brandon Jennings, Shaun Livingston and Darren Collison
It seems logical to think the collective star power in this group hurts Mills’ ability to cash in. For all his improvements, the Australian will never compete with the likes of Curry, Paul and Lowry – they are in a different class of NBA performers.
Why Mills is still in a favourable position
Here is the thing though; these All-Star calibre talents will likely remain with their current franchise. Under the alleged terms of the new NBA collective bargaining agreement, it appears Curry, Paul and Lowry can all re-up with their current employer for 5 years and approximately $200 million. It’s a good time to be an NBA player!
It’s possible that Curry, Paul or Lowry could look for new homes, but leaving their incumbent franchise could cost them up to $70 million over the life of the contract. The smart money is on all three staying put, which would also be the dream situation for Mills’ wallet.
Hill and Teague are established NBA starters, and will likely be the focus of teams looking for a lead guard. Even then, the Utah Jazz have the ability to offer Hill a lucrative new contract before free agency arrives and this could remove him from July’s activities.
Williams, Rose and Holiday have the pedigree and name recognition, but counting on these three to be healthy in 2017 is like counting on George Karl to be gracious. Don’t hold your breath.
Even when health is taken out of the equation, Mills’ advanced statistics are comparable (if not better) than his more fancied counterparts. Almost every efficiency measure for the current season comes out favourable for Mills, including all shooting splits, win shares and PER. The Australian might not have the cachet, but he has the necessary talents.
If we assume Curry, Paul or Lowry stay put, Mills is arguably the third best free agent point guard available behind Hill and Teague. That is an extremely valuable position to be in. As much as we all love Matthew Dellavedova, he was off the floor in the NBA Finals and still got over $9 million annually for four years. Mills is a better NBA player than the kid from Maryborough and should not accept a dollar less.
While Mills remains the Spurs’ sixth man, he is potentially a starting calibre point guard on another team. Players who fit this description where thoroughly paid during the free agency spending spree of 2016. The below table compares four players, each with a similar pedigree to Mills, who signed contracts last year. It lists the contract given to each, along with a number of key efficiency measures from their free agency season in comparison to Mills’ output this season.
[table id=140 /]
This table doesn’t necessarily show that Mills is a better player than the rest, although he very well might be. Rather, it bears out that Mills is a statistical darling at the height of the NBA’s analytical revolution. As we covered up top, the Australian is one of the league's best marksmen and now has the all-around talent to complement foundational aspects of his game. This makes Mills an attractive option for potential suitors.
It must be noted that defence, the weakness in Mills’ game, isn’t represented in the measures we discussed. That is the main difference between Mills and someone like Bazemore, who is an eye-catching defender going strictly by numbers. This is a detractor for Mills, but isn’t detrimental by any means.
Offence will always trump defence in the Association and there is a long-held trend of franchises targeting players who can get buckets. Here is the Basketball-Reference extract comparing the counting statistics (on a per 100 possessions basis) of Mills and our four subjects from 2016’s free agency class. Mills once again comes out favourably in most categories.
There are differing reasons why the four names mentioned received contracts that overstate their position in the NBA. The Clippers for example, who had zero cap space and no ability to bring in outside talent, had no choice but to pay Crawford. In many ways, Atlanta was forced into signing Bazemore given the cumulative impact of DeMarre Carroll’s departure in 2015, Al Horford’s free agency last season and Paul Millsap’s this year.
What each man has in common is a significant appreciation for the incandescent salary cap hike of 2016. Last year’s free agency period was characterised by 30 teams throwing Monopoly money against the wall. In a seller's market, hope turned to desperation very quickly, and this led to mistakes no morning after pill can fix. Trailblazers meet Evan Turner; Evan Turner meets bags of money; let's go home together. It was that easy.
In a speed dating game so grossly one-sided, players with one identifiable skill (or projectable skill) cleaned up.
How will the new CBA change things?
2017 will herald less promiscuous behaviour. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which begins on the first of July this year, includes increases to minimum salaries and rookie pay brackets, both of which will erode some of the available cap space this offseason.
(Editor’s note: we will have more on the new CBA, and how it impacts Australian basketball, once the finer details of the deal are confirmed.)
The market will likely be depressed in 2017, but it shouldn’t concern Mills. While the 2017 salary cap estimate will be a moving target until the new CBA is finalised, the NBA still projects the cap to come in at around $103 million. An average NBA starter should make between 10 and 15 percent of the salary cap – this is where the annual value of Mills’ next contract will likely sit. If Mills can secure this over four years, he could receive the highest sporting contract (both in terms of total and annual value) in the history of Australian sports.
Andrew Bogut held this distinction for years, thanks to his 5-year, $60 million deal from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2010. If Mills can secure a 4-year deal that pays him $15 million annually (this would be approximately 14.5% of the projected salary cap), he would vault right to the top of every Australian sporting rich list.
Remember, it only takes one franchise. The world of professional sports is just like the game of life. Your value isn’t what you are truly worth; it’s what one person is willing to pay you. If the Brooklyn Nets are willing to gamble $50 million on Tyler Johnson potentially developing into a valuable contributor, what is a proven offensive weapon in the prime of his career like Patty Mills worth?
Before we start shopping Mills around, it would be prudent to note that San Antonio is able to pay Mills his market worth. The Spurs hold Mills’ Bird rights, meaning they can pay him up to 30% of the salary cap regardless of their other salary commitments. Whether they decide to, is another question altogether.
Manu Ginobilli looks ready for retirement and Tony Parker is diminishing quickly. This makes Mills their most obtainable, competent point guard option for the remainder of this decade. There is always the possibility that Mills takes a hometown discount to remain in the Alamo City, although now might be the time to be selfish. Far be it for me to tell anyone how to live their professional life, but 2017 represents a chance for Mills to secure generational wealth.
Just like Dellavedova before him, guaranteed dollars should trump location.
Patty Mills has ascended to the pinnacle of global basketball. This journey has seen him claim an NBA championship, lead his country to the edge of Olympic glory and take the reins as Australia’s best active basketballer. 2017 could be the year Mills elevates himself into a financial stratosphere never before reached by an Australian athlete.
A king’s ransom awaits the bala.
All dollar amounts are in USD. An approximate current exchange rate is 1 USD = 1.38 AUD. For context, this means the current value of Matthew Dellavedova’s 4-year, $38 million contract is approximately $53 million AUD. A hypothetical 4-year, $60 million deal would be worth approximately $83 million AUD.
All statistics are correct as of 3 January 2017 and from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise stated.