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Unleash Patty Thrills! Is it time Mills moves to the starting lineup?
After a dominant FIBA World Cup in 2019 and start to the current NBA season, Patrick Mills has continued his red-hot form into the new year as a key contributor for the San Antonio Spurs.
The sharpshooter has been a key contributor to the steadying of the ship in San Antonio, after a dismal 3-10 record in November.
Being on the wrong side of 30 looks as though it has had minimal impact on Mills, as he is putting up outstanding offensive numbers. His points per game average of 11.7 is the highest of his career and over three points more than his career average of 8.6. He is taking 5.5 three’s per game (career high), and the high volume hasn’t stopped him from shooting a ridiculous 41.8%. According to ESPN, of the players in the league who have played more than 30 games and are shooting more than five three's a contest, he has the fifth highest percentage. For point guards with the same filters, he has the top percentage.
His field goal percentage of 44.3% is his best since 2013/14, the season in which the Spurs won the title, and he is ranked 15th among point guards in this category.
While his statistical measures are impressive, the most impressive facet of his play has been the correlation it's had to his team winning. When Mills scores 17 or more points, the Spurs are 6-1, courtesy of Basketball Reference. But even if the Saint Mary’s product isn’t scoring, his value shows up in other areas of the game.
“He’s the most professional guy you can have on the team and in the locker room,” Spurs superstar DeMar DeRozan said after a win against the Brooklyn Nets last month. “He epitomises the culture here. Having that guy, on nights like this, it’s where it shows.”
His terrific form was most recently on showcase in the Spurs’ marquee win of the season against the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, where they won 126-104. Mills shot an incredible six out of ten from the three point line, constantly being a threat in pick and roll scenarios.
"It's same as when he first stepped on the court with us, he's a natural leader, he's selfless, he's the greatest teammate ever," coach Gregg Popovich declared after the Bucks win. "He sets a great example for any player, especially for young guys when they see how he conducts himself, how he practises, how he handles wins, how he handles losses. He's a consummate pro and a beautiful human being."
One could argue that his impressive play, as well as glorified praise from one of the greatest coaches of all time, may mean more minutes or a starting spot is on the cards soon. According to NBA.com, the Spurs shoot the third most efficient from beyond the arc (37.4%), but rank dead last in attempts (27.4 per game). Including Mills in the starting lineup would most likely boost this number, undoubtedly giving them a better chance to improve their current record of 15-20.
Having LaMarcus Aldridge (averages 2.2 three point attempts per game) and DeMar DeRozan (averages 0.7 three point attempts per game) on the court at the same time theoretically means the spacing of the offence is somewhat compromised. Obviously, these two players are simply too talented to bench, so the Spurs have to work around their deficiencies - that's where inserting Mills helps. Being able to position Mills as a spot up shooter or as a pick and roll ball handler beckons defensive attention as teams simply can’t allow to help off him. Aldridge and DeRozan will have more room to operate in the mid range, an area where they are both most lethal.
The fear in starting Mills might be that he could make their defence even worse, as he is quite undersized. San Antonio currently rank 20th in defensive rating, at 111.2. But, the 6'0 combo guard has always shown heart, effort and determination on that end of the court, and his spacing ability would almost certainly make up for his size deficiency.
Bryn Forbes has started 34 games this year, but he has begun to come back to earth after a hot start to the season. He is now shooting 36.5% from three, while averaging less points than Mills, despite playing more ten more minutes per game. Dejounte Murray has started 23 games, and after returning from an ACL injury he has been mostly inconsistent – he is averaging 10.5 points a game, but he helps his team in areas other than shooting, such as his defence and distributing.
Currently, the Spurs sit at eighth position in the Western Conference, but are only separated by three games from 14th place. A sense of urgency is needed now, rather than later. With the trade deadline approaching, competing teams will be looking to bolster their squads in an attempt to earn a playoff berth.
Breathing down San Antonio’s neck are the ninth place Memphis Grizzlies, the 12th place Phoenix Suns and the 13th place Sacramento Kings, who all haven’t been a part of play off basketball in several years. The 14th placed Pelicans also have 2019 NBA Draft's top pick Zion Williamson returning soon, while 2019 Western Conference finalist the Portland Trail Blazers at tenth are desperate to return to postseason action.
Even though the Texas-based team is unlikely to compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, there’s little chance their veteran coach will want to end his playoff appearance streak of 23 - it's go time now for the Spurs.