As the playoffs rage on, the Spurs are already looking at next season. Among the more interesting choices they will have to make before then is how to solve their surplus of guards.
Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes will enter free agency and could potentially leave, which would help solve the logjam. If that happens, Patty Mills would become almost essential for a San Antonio team in need of shooting and veteran savvy in the backcourt.
Yet the same reasons why Mills is valuable for the Spurs makes him a good trade chip for a team in need of a shakeup, and it would be foolish for the front office to not even consider moving him for the right prize.
It’s easy to explain why the 32-year-old Mills is important for the Spurs, even as they attempt to go young. He’s a dead-eye shooter both on the move and spotting up who came close to posting a 40-50-90 season in 2019/20. On a team with several guards who can handle the ball but few that can be threats when they are not running things, Mills fills an obvious need. Defensively, he’s too small to truly be a positive in most matchups, but he’s smart at the team level and tenacious guarding his man. He’s also a fantastic locker room presence and a selfless team player who can lead vocally or by example, like he did when he was fine with sitting out in Orlando so that the younger players could get minutes. Mills is as close to a perfect veteran bench guard as they come for a team in transition.
He’s also a perfect fit for a contender, largely for the same reasons. There are very few potential playoff teams out there who couldn’t use someone like Mills providing leadership, good vibes and shooting off the bench. Just to name one team from each conference as an example, imagine the Jazz or the 76ers with an extra bench shooter who doesn’t need a lot of touches complementing their stars and giving their second units more firepower. Moreover, imagine how comfortable any team with aspirations to make a deep run would feel having someone who has championship experience in their midst instead of more untested options. And while Mills is not cheap like most players with his skill set, his contract only runs for one more season, making him a perfect short term addition that won’t clog the books.
Normally the easy call in a situation like this one would be to move the veteran to further the youth movement or to get more depth in a different position, but the Spurs are in a tough position here. San Antonio has not prioritized shooting for a while now, so while there’s an excess of guards, there’s not an excess of players with Mills’ skill set. The player who at one point seemed to be Patty’s heir apparent as off ball floor spacer, Bryn Forbes, has proven to be too much of a liability at this point for the franchise to not have pause before re-signing him and making him a long term piece. The young players have made strides as outside threats but are not yet reliable, while one of the stars simply refuses to shoot from beyond the arc.
Mills has also filled a leadership void in San Antonio. As the lone holdover from the last championship season, he was tasked with maintaining the culture in the locker room as the Big Three and then Kawhi Leonard left the team. The stars have been good role models for the kids so far, but one of them asked out at one point and seemed amenable to a return to Portland. The other one is with the Spurs because of a trade he had no control over, and the main reason he’s expected to return is because a pandemic might have shrunk the market for him. The third veteran, Rudy Gay, is clearly beloved in the locker room, but since he has less attachment to San Antonio and has not won a title yet, so he could potentially ask out mid-season to chase a ring with a contender. Can any of those three be relied on to usher in the new era?
Ultimately, whether it makes sense to move Mills will be determined by what market there is for him. The fact that most teams could use him doesn’t mean any of them will pursue him aggressively. Small guards don’t typically have a lot of suitors. If all the Spurs can get from him is a veteran forward to balance out their roster, there’s no reason to even entertain the idea of a trade unless Mills asks for one. The Spurs will have the mid-level exception to fill the hole at other positions, after all. If instead the offer includes someone who could actually fit the team’s future plans or at least a good second round pick, the front office should listen.
As is the case with everything that the Spurs do this offseason, what happens to Mills could give us some insight into their future plans. If they shop him, it could signal they are ready to go all in with the youngsters. If they keep him, it could mean they want to make the transition slower. Fortunately, in this case, there are no wrong answers. Either decision could be good, provided the execution isn’t bungled.