The Spurs have relied on a team effort to be successful this season. While DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray have arguably posted the more impressive numbers, San Antonio wouldn’t have exceeded expectations to such a significant degree without the contributions of the supporting cast.
Within that supporting cast, Patty Mills has been particularly impressive. Not only is the veteran guard performing well individually, but he’s also made life easier for the coaching staff and his teammates by filling in the gaps in lineups and taking on whichever role is needed from him. At age 32, Mills has become the ultimate glue guy.
Mills is scoring at a career-high level this season, contributing an essential 13 points per game to a team that has sometimes struggled to score. Almost as important as the actual buckets is how he’s getting them. Mills is both San Antonio’s most prolific three-point shooter, averaging over six a game, while also being the most accurate by converting on 40 percent of them. While he’s not been particularly good on pull-ups from beyond the arc, he’s been an absolute assassin on catch-and-shoot situations, connecting on over 47 percent of his outside looks. For a team that came into the season with a lot of question marks when it came to outside shooting, his production has been invaluable.
Off the ball, Mills is elite, and if that was all he brought to the table on offense, it would be enough to make him an important piece. Fortunately for the Spurs, Patty can do more than that. In fact, it’s his versatility that has made him so essential for this team. Mills is not great at driving to the rim but can do it when the opportunity is there, and he finishes at a solid clip; he’s not the most creative playmaker, but he still manages to average almost three assists per game with just one turnover; he’s not a shot-creator, but if everything else fails, he’ll free himself up for a pull-up from mid-range. Patty will shapeshift to give the team what it needs.
Because Mills can fill different gaps while always providing great outside shooting, he can help different units. As long as there is a primary shot creator alongside him in the lineup, Patty can do his thing. It really doesn’t matter much who it is. DeRozan, Murray and Derrick White all have better individual scoring stats with Mills on the court, and the team performs much better when he shares the court with any of them. Of the top 10 units featuring Mills, only one has a negative net rating, and he’s part of some of the best the Spurs have put out there. Patty is clearly not solely responsible for the success of the lineups he’s a part of, but he definitely contributes to it greatly.
Even on defense, where he doesn’t have the tools to be a game-changer, Mills manages to be important. He might not have the long arms of some of the other guards on the team, but Patty makes up for it by being a pest for ball handlers by drawing charges and dodging screens well, which has led to Gregg Popovich sometimes using him on the opponent’s team primary threats. Mills definitely can’t stop great scorers, but he can make life hard for them until help arrives, which is enough to make him useful at the point of attack, freeing up his long-limbed, more explosive teammates to roam and play the passing lanes.
Then there’s the off court factor. Over the years Mills has become the elder statesman of the team, since he’s the only remnant from the championship years. He’s taken on that leadership role with aplomb, not drawing attention to himself but never dodging the responsibility either. Even more impressive is how he’s made room for others like DeRozan and Murray to share the mantle. Much like he has on the court, Mills will help in every way he can, without letting his ego getting in the way. In that way, he seems like a perfect spiritual successor to the more accomplished leaders of te Spurs’ past, like The Big Three and David Robinson.
Even with all the hype about FIBA Patty going into the season and Mills’ history of being a good bench scorer, his performance this season has exceeded expectations. He won’t likely get Sixth Man of the Year consideration, but it’s hard to find many bench players who’ve had a bigger impact on their team success than Mills has. It’s not surprising that there are rumors about teams inquiring about a potential trade, but if the Spurs want to continue to fight for a postseason spot, they might need to keep him, even if he is one of their best trade assets. Without the glue that holds so many lineups together, things could become unstuck quickly.
Mills is a fan favorite, a great locker room presence and the last survivor of the old Spurs, so that is enough to earn him praise from a fanbase that is happy he’s still around around. But there are reasons that have nothing to with the affective to consider him crucial to the team’s success.
Soon, perhaps even in the next few weeks or ultimately next season, Mills will be gone after no longer being necessary. That time comes for everyone. But make no mistake, at least in this first half of the season, he was a major piece of the puzzle for these surprising Spurs.