The life of Patty Mills keeps getting better.
After completing his best NBA season to date, Mills signed a four-year, $50 million dollar deal in the early moments of free agency to remain with the San Antonio Spurs. When that contract expires, Mills will have been in San Antonio for a decade.
Mills’ decision to resign with the Spurs repays the faith shown in him by the franchise, and the Australian hopes further team success is just over the horizon.
“At the end of the day, I’m still trying to reach and fulfil my goals,” Mills said in July. “ There is a lot more still to come and hopefully we can get back to another championship.”
Mills averaged 9.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 21.9 minutes per game, last season with the Spurs. With a new contract under his belt, Mills is now charged with maintaining the Spurs dynasty within a loaded Western Conference.
Today, we continue our Aussies in the NBA Wish List series by looking at how Mills will elevate the Spurs this season. In case you missed them, here are links to our previews of Matthew Dellavedova, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles, Thon Maker, Ben Simmons and Dante Exum.
1. Continue offensive expansion
Mills finished last season as the 11th best three-point shooter in the NBA. He took a career-high 355 attempts from distance, while maintaining elite marksmanship. Shooting has always been Mills’ identifiable NBA talent, although he is much more than just a gunner these days.
The Australian is now San Antonio’s best point guard, thanks in part to the development of his offensive arsenal. He has developed a proficient understanding of the Spurs offence, what it strives to achieve, and he is now proficient enough to drive it. Errors that were once characteristic mishaps have been replaced with instinctive highlights.
Mills had always been able to initiate the pick and roll, but now, he picks defences apart. Take these two sequences from the Spurs’ game against the Detroit Pistons. Both are elbow sets with LaMarcus Aldridge, with the first leading to an open mid range jumper for the Spurs big man.
Aron Baynes sags off, leaving Mills with an easy pass to Aldridge for the jumper. This is simple enough and Mills does his job. Later in that same contest, Mills and Aldridge initiate the exact same look, this time leading to an open corner three for Manu Ginobili.
The Pistons defence is now keyed in on stopping Aldridge from getting that open jumper he adores. They are equally obsessed with cutting off Mills’ path to the basket, watch as every Pistons defender is surrounding the paint as the Australian turns the corner. All the attention leaves Ginobili alone in the corner and Mills finds him with ease. The same look, with two different defensive schemes, and Mills is able to navigate successfully while making the right call.
This is just one seemingly benign example of how Mills is now at home within the Spurs offence. Each scenario we analyse can be overlooked in isolation, but the cumulative impact is undeniable. Simple advancements, like being comfortable setting screens (something we covered back in February) become pillars of success when combined with everything else.
Mills will leverage his merited reputation as a long-range sniper into better looks for the offence. Watch here as he attacks a hard close out from Ish Smith, before finding Dewayne Dedmon for an alley-oop slam.
This extends into transition opportunities, where the Spurs love to initiate quick actions before the scrambling defence can set up.
Nerlens Noel correctly jumps out to Mills above the three-point line, immediately shutting down any hopes of launching a long ball. But Mills is one step ahead, quickly pivoting and throwing a glorious no look dime to a rolling David Lee.
Plays like this were not previously in Mills’ repertoire. Experience within the Spurs system has facilitated confidence and expansion of his passing vision.
Mills is now a well rounded offensive threat when handling the basketball. Shooting and that lightning quick first step will continue being his calling cards, but they are now just aspects of his game, not the lone characteristics of it.
As San Antonio continues to battle in a loaded Western Conference, they will need each of Mills’ talents this season. Look for the Spurs to continue leveraging Mills in a variety of attacking looks. This play against the Brooklyn Nets shows that he can do it all.
There is non-stop movement and flow from Mills as he terrorises the Nets defence. Each of his talents are utilised, and the end result is a wide open look from three.
2. Scrappy defence
While Mills doesn’t have the physical profile of an elite stopper, effort and execution transform him into a pesky defender. This sequence against Portland is the personation of Mills on the defensive end.
It is just constant attention to detail. Mills hounds the Trailblazers’ guards and through sheer effort, creates two consecutive steals that lead to fast break buckets for the Spurs. Such plays are common for Mills on the defensive end.
Mills is, by NBA standards, a small athlete. NBA players who are only six feet tall have by and large, not been good defenders; there is too much size and ability in the league. Chris Paul is extensively praised for his defensive acumen, but he is the exception to the rule when it comes to athletes of Mills’ size (note that Mills and Paul have the same listed height).
Given his offensive impact, Mills only needs to be decent on the defensive end. He has gone way beyond that.
As with his offensive development, improved savviness is what underpins Mills’ newfound impact on the defensive end. Even when opposition guards beat him, Mills can call on his basketball wisdom to jump into passing lanes and counteract any physical disadvantages he may have. This play against Kemba Walker is one such example.
For those who enjoy talking about Mills’ defensive talents, check out Ben Golliver from Sports Illustrated skitzing out about Mills’ defensive effort on the Open Floor podcast this week (refer the 40 minute mark).
3. Rotation matters
Despite everything we have just said, don’t expect Mills to make starter status. With Tony Parker injured until December, Dejounte Murray will likely see time with the starters, just as he did at times in the playoffs last year. Murray has started both pre-season games to date, meaning Mills will almost certainly maintain his sixth man role off the Spurs bench.
While Mills’ role will fundamentally stay the same, expect an uptick in minutes and usage. Last season saw Mills average 21.9 minutes per game, a career high, but only the sixth highest total on the Spurs. With Parker battling injury along with father time, and Murray’s inexperience, Mills will be needed more than ever. The challenge will be maintaining his efficiency in a larger role.
Mills has slowly seen his role increase. With the exception of an injury riddled 2014-15 campaign, his minutes have grown steadily since arriving in the Alamo City. Expect further growth this season.
More minutes alongside the Spurs elite should help Mills maintain his impact. Playing alongside Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard should serve him well, as both men will occupy opposition defenders and create space for Mills to operate.
Mills will struggle to compile the counting stats required to win Sixth Man of the Year, although it is highly likely he finishes the season as one of the most impactful bench players in the Association.