Is Patty Mills the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year?

2021 could be the year it happens.

In the fourth quarter of a January 19th game against the Portland Trailblazers, Patty Mills scored his 930th three-pointer for the San Antonio Spurs. This was notable as it marked the most threes ever hit by a player off the bench for a single team, passing fellow Spur and former teammate Manu Ginóbili.

Like Ginóbili, Mills has been a consistent force off the bench for Greg Popvich and the Spurs, since he was traded to San Antonio in 2012. Like Ginóbili, he has balanced his NBA career with a healthy portion of international play. Mills has been a key member of the Australian Boomers throughout Olympic Games and World Championships, earning himself the moniker ‘FIBA Patty’. And while Manu Ginóbili won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2007, Mills has yet to join him in being recognised as the league's best off the bench.

But come the 2020-21 season, that could be rectified.

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Let's start beyond the arc, where Mills has established himself as an offensive threat. Mills is currently hitting 2.8 threes per game with an accuracy of 42.5%, per ESPN Stats. This is good for 22nd in the NBA, tied with Kyle Lowry, David Bertans, Malcolm Brogdon and Seth Curry. But take away the starters, and Mills rockets up to second place, trailing only Jordan Clarkson with 2.9 per game. Mills’ 3P% (42.5%) is 14th best from NBA bench players, per ESPN Stats, but Mills hits more threes than any player above him.

It is this ability to hit threes both consistently and at a high rate that has made Mills such a spark plug off the bench. His shooting provides what at times has been much needed spacing for a Spurs team that can get clogged up on offence. The Spurs rank 25th out of a possible 30 in threes per game this season, making 11.2 out of 30.8 attempts. With both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting unit, two stars known for their mid-range preference, Mills provides the necessary room to move, and is also able to exist as a catch-and-shoot weapon.

So far this season, 72.9% of Mills’ threes have been assisted, per Basketball Reference. This means that two out of every three Mills shoots comes off an assist, making Mills a player defences must stick to, and in turn opening up the paint for other Spurs midrange proclivities. This particularly includes coming off of screens, which Mills does with a high frequency in order to free himself from his defender and launch from deep, including the below play running a two-man game with LaMarcus Aldridge:

Stepping back, Mills is averaging 14.5 points per game per Basketball Reference, a career high for the 32 year old. This ties him with LaMarcus Aldridge as the team's second highest scorer, behind DeMar DeRozan. His increase in scoring also comes with an increase in playing time, with Mills playing 25.8 minutes per game, up from around the 20 minute mark he has averaged throughout his career. He has only played more minutes per game in one season — 25.7 minutes in 2017-18 — but this season also saw him start in 32 games, which would increase the total minutes.

Barring injuries, Mills is not likely to start games for the Spurs this season, with their young backcourt of Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV coming into their own as a starting duo. Mills has also proven that he can play alongside both of these guards, developing chemistry with Dejounte Murray:

This increased playing time may be in part due to experience. Mills is the longest tenured San Antonio Spur, and through ten seasons he has earned Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich’s absolute trust, a steady hand in tough times. With the drafting of Florida State’s Devin Vassell, a two guard who comes off the bench, Pop may favour having a seasoned pro in the mix to balance out any first year jitters Vassell demonstrates. In a mid-January interview with ESPN’s Olgun Uluc, Mills spoke at length about how his experience has helped elevate his game this season.

“This is ten long seasons with the Spurs, where I’ve gained so much knowledge and experience about the game and how to approach it, this mentality didn’t happen overnight.

“For me, this is an attitude born out of self awareness, of all the genuine hard work that I’ve put in to prepare for this moment and the upcoming eight months,” said Mills.

Now, correlation does not mean causation, but Mills’ hot start has also coincided with San Antonio’s best start in a number of years. 2020 saw the San Antonio Spurs miss the NBA playoffs for the first time in 22 seasons, dating back to 1998, per Land of Basketball.

It was also the first time that Mills missed the postseason in his career, a fact that according to him, ‘pissed him off’. As of the 31st of January, the Spurs are 11-9 through 20 games, the first time they have been over .500 at this point of the season since 2017-18, per Basketball Reference. This was a promising squad that unfortunately ran into the super-team era Warriors in round one, resulting in a gentleman’s sweep, 4-1. Fast forward to 2021 and the Spurs are again in playoff contention, currently tied for the eighth seed, ironically enough with the Golden State Warriors.

With the Western conference looking loaded as ever, it will be a hard fight for a playoff spot, but Mills seems to be coming into his own at the right time. The Spurs are looking more exciting and competitive once more, following a disappointing 2019-20 season.

Time to get technical

Per Cleaning the Glass, the San Antonio Spurs score 112.6 points per 100 possessions when Mills is on the court, compared to 107.8 when he is not. This means Mills’ presence for nearly five more points (+4.8) per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, that puts Mills in the 73rd percentile in this category. However, somewhat staggeringly, on the defensive end, Mills ranks in the 93rd percentile in points allowed per 100 possessions. The Spurs are holding teams to 12 less points per 100 possessions while Mills is on the court.

That means that overall, Mills’ efficiency differential (a team’s points scored per 100 minus a team’s points allowed) comes to +16.9, putting Mills in the 92nd percentile. Comparatively, last season’s winner Montrezl Harrell recorded a -0.4 in this category, in the 50th percentile. Lou Williams, who won both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 awards, recorded +6.9 and +7.1, respectively. Put simply, the Spurs are better with Patty Mills on the floor.

Now, Mills is by no means the run away favourite. Utah’s Jordan Clarkson has had a hot start to the season, which has also coincided with Utah occupying the number one seed in the West as of January 31st. Clarkson would be Mills’ biggest competition in this category, currently recording 17.9 points in 25.5 minutes off the bench. Toronto’s Chris Boucher has also been a revelation off the bench for coach Nick Nurse, while Philadelphia’s Shake Milton has providing a scoring touch that at times is desperately needed by the 76ers. But Patty Mills provides more than just numbers for San Antonio. As a veteran guard he is an extension of the coach on the floor, and his leadership can be seen on both the offensive and defensive end. In an interview with Fanatic View Hoops, coach Popovich noted the impact Mills has had for these Spurs, saying that “Patty has always been an aggressive player, lots of energy, so he’s not going to do anything different than he’s always done… he’s great at it.”

Mills’ energy and drive off the bench has been highlighted by games such as his 27 points against the L.A. Clippers, including eight made threes, and a pair of free throws to ice the game. Mills has also logged 21 points against Portland, Washington and Minnesota already this season, and his momentum as a scorer is only going to increase. The Spurs’ next slate of games includes matchups with the struggling Timberwolves, the new-look Rockets, and a pair of games against the streaky Warriors. If the Spurs are to have any chance in these games, Mills will need to continue his hot shooting, and lead the bench mob in his minutes, like in this string of assists against the OKC Thunder:

If Mills is to be awarded the Sixth Man of the Year, he would be only the second Australian in NBA history to be awarded one of the six major awards (MVP, DPOY, 6MOY, MIP, COY, ROY), following Ben Simmons being awarded the 2018 Rookie of the Year. He would also become the second Spur to win the award, behind Ginóbili.

There is no guarantee that Mills will take home the hardware — especially when considering the volatile and unpredictable nature of this season — but Mills’ ability on both ends of the floor more than justifies his inclusion into the conversation. If he continues to perform at his current level, there are few who would be able to deny his claim to the Sixth Man of the Year throne.