By Fernando Garcia
Broadcasters frequently remind viewers that Patty Mills is the longest-tenured Spurs player and the only player from their 2014 championship team to have remained continuously on the roster.
He is the link to that team that played fast, flowing, and breathtaking basketball, leaving Lebron James and the Heat chasing shadows in their NBA Finals loss.
Patty Mills provides a connection to that Spurs heyday that goes deeper than his presence on the roster chart. Not only is he a carrier of the Spurs’ corporate knowledge that has driven such consistent success. He brings energy, experience, and veteran savvy that makes a tangible difference to the Spurs’ on-court play.
Driving the Spurs Bench Production
Bereft of the star power of a Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have recently leaned heavily on their bench production to get them into the Western Conference playoff spots. The Spurs are fourth in bench scoring this year, and Patty leads the team in minutes off the bench.
In previous years, the Spurs seemed to have two identities. The starters would feature deliberate, mid-range heavy possessions of Aldridge, DeRozan, and Leonard, while bench players such as Mills, Davis Bertans, and Marco Belinelli spaced the floor and zipped the ball around to shooters.
Prior to this year, Mills’ presence on the floor brought a marked increase in the percentage of Spurs shots that came from threes and off of assists.
|% FG attempts from 3PT||Assist Percentage|
|Without Mills||With Mills||Without Mills||With Mills|
|2019-2020||29.5%||32.4% (+2.9)||58.8%||56.4% (-2.4)|
|2018-2019||23.1%%||34.2% (+11.1)||57.2%||58.9% (+1.7)|
|2017-2018||24.7%||31.3% (+6.6%)||57.7%||58.9% (+1.2)|
|2016-2017||24.1%||32.8% (+8.7%)||57.4%||64.6% (+7.2)|
So far this year, these differences have narrowed or even reversed, reflecting the increased movement and spacing that Popovich has emphasized over the course of the season. Although bigger stars have come to the Spurs, it is the newcomers’ whose basketball identities are bending back towards that of Mills, rather than the other way around.
How exactly does Mills – an older, shorter guard with waning athleticism – spark such effective play? The most obvious factor is his three-point shooting. He only marginally trails Bryn Forbes among Spurs players in the proportion of attempts from beyond the arc and is second behind the suddenly evolving Aldridge in his shooting percentage from deep at 40.7%.
However, the dynamism that Mills injects into the team is driven by the variety of ways that Mills generates offense. He is almost as effective (39.2%) on pull-up 3s as he is on catch-and-shoot attempts (41.2%). Despite his small size, he takes and makes heavily contested threes. By being a threat to shoot at any time, Mills forces defenders to close out very aggressively, opening driving and passing lanes for himself and his teammates. Off screens and DHOs, the defending big generally cannot drop and trust his guard to get over the screen and contest Patty effectively, forcing second and third rotations that the Spurs can exploit.
Mills’ versatility has enabled Popovich to fit him into many different lineups, including closing units. Off handoffs and screens, Patty’s scoring average is above the 75th percentile and it is in the 91st percentile when spotting up. This ability to play on and off the ball makes him a perfect complement to players like Murray and DeRozan. In addition to shooting from deep, Mills shoots 61.3% at the rim, in the top 30% among guards.
Despite his stature, he uses his court vision and craftiness to avoid being overwhelmed by defenders at the rim. In this fast break against Boston, Mills has two bigger, athletic defenders chasing him down. He slows his pace to let Williams fly by, but instead of pumpfaking and allowing Marcus Smart to catch up, he keeps his stride and launches a quick-release layup before Smart arrives.
Mills has proven he can create for himself and others from almost anywhere on the floor. He knows his strengths and limitations and plays with great awareness of where defenders are. For an offense that has looked stagnant at times over the past few years, his attacking instincts have been invaluable in unlocking opposing defenses.
Some of Mills’ most valuable contributions are subtle; on both ends of the floor he reads the floor and makes on-the-fly adjustments with lightning speed. The changes in the Spurs’ overall offense have been obvious this season: the whole team plays with more handoffs, cuts, and overall motion, as Patty has been doing with the bench unit for years. Creating openings in such an offense requires the intelligence and energy to keep probing, both on and off the ball, and trusting that teammates will see the same opportunity and make the right pass.
Here, Patty runs across the back of the Miami zone twice. Each defender he passes shifts slightly to account for him. On his return cut to the far side, he and Rudy Gay time their movement so that Kendrick Nunn is forced to choose to cover one of these two Spurs. As DeRozan drives, Nunn bodies up Gay, and Patty drifts into a pocket of space where DeRozan finds him for 3.
Defensively, Mills plays with the same intelligence, playing possessions in the flow of the game as if he had just emerged with the coach’s instructions from a time-out. If the Spurs have a foul to give at the end of the quarter, Patty is always in place to use it to stop an opponent’s possession just as the ballhandler initiates the action.
In this possession, Miami is trying to put the ball in Dragic’s hands to create off a dribble handoff. By planting himself between Dragic and Olynyk, Mills prevents the Heat from even beginning the play that they want. Olynyk, not expecting such tenacious resistance at the beginning of the possession, picks up his dribble assuming he will be able to complete the handoff. He ends up getting trapped, and Rudy Gay and Mills take the ball from him.
One more piece of Patty Mills brilliance. When Dragic switches on to Patty Mills, intending the same type of ball denial that Mills demonstrated above, Mills realizes that the DHO with Poeltl will not be available. He quickly reverses course, flaring for a three. Poeltl is just as quick to read Dragic’s switch and delivers the ball.
Dragic is already closing Patty down; had Poeltl passed any later the window to shoot would be closed.
Few teams have paired success with beautiful, free-flowing basketball the way the 2013 and 2014 Spurs did. Perhaps the only team on a similar level this decade was the Warriors between 2014 and 2016. Both these teams relied on players who played with an exceptional feel for the game.
Defensive switches and rotations were intuited, rather than communicated, and offensively all five players understood how a defensive scheme would be countered. Gregg Popovich is beginning to fashion a team with this style and understanding, but it lacks the wealth of talent and experience his last championship team had. Patty Mills is that link to one of the most exceptional teams in NBA history, and he is the Spurs’ hope to revive that magic with their new team.