In the beginning of the season, Patty Mills played a decent amount of minutes for the Spurs. Over the course of November and December, Mills averaged about 12 minutes per game, and in those minutes, he showed of his ability to be an efficient scorer for San Antonio, shooting .496 from the field, and .441 from beyond the arc.
However, as the season wore on, Mills has been something of a after-thought for the Spurs. He fell out of the rotation as other guards on the team improved their quality of play, and has been on the bench ever since. Up to this date, he is 13th on the team in minutes played over the course of the season. Most of his job entails sitting on the bench, being a good teammate (and being phenomenal at towel-waving), serving as a good practice player, and patiently biding his time until the game is decided and Coach Popovich decides it’s OK to put him into the game.
In the month of March, however, Patty Mills has seen another increase in playing time. With Tony Parker and Gary Neal out with injuries, the Spurs have had to call on Mills to bring a spark off the bench, and he has at staggering rates. In the three games this month, Mills has shot 13-17 from the field, and 5-7 from three in 17 minutes per game. Obviously, this is a small sample size, and Mills won’t be able to keep shooting at that rate if only because nobody can, but it does prove again that Mills can be an efficient gunner any time his number is called.
Now, I’ve written about this before, but I believe that Patty Mills should have a more significant amount of playing time than is thrown his way. He is a good shooter on a team that needs good shooters on the floor to be successful and fills the role of scoring combo guard well, perhaps even more than the player that is currently in that role for the Spurs, Gary Neal.
Neal and Mills are essentially the same type of player. They both are ball dominant guards that run primarily out of pick-and-roll sets, and are both traditionally also very good floor spacers that shoot well while spotting up for three. But, this year in particular, Neal has been off his game. He is shooting a career low .408 from the field, which is awful compared to the league average. He is also shooting another career low from three-point-land, averaging .357 from there on the year. The three point shooting is tolerable compared to the rest of the league, but is more infuriating when you see that in his first two years he shot better than 40% from beyond the arc.
Neal is equally bad when he is the ball handler. He usually gets the ball to run a side pick and roll as a secondary option on offense, but the scouting report on him is very easy: He rarely passes to the rolling big man. That he never looks to pass the ball in this situation is bad, because nearly all of the Spurs big men roll to the basket very hard. And once the Spurs big men roll to the basket, they all have the ability to either score or pass out to another perimeter player for a corner three, which are both high-quality shots. Instead, whenever Neal runs the play, the Spurs are likely to end up with a midrange pull up jumper, which is one of the lowest quality shots you can have, and one that Neal hasn’t shot well this year. All of these things add up, and once you consider that Neal is also shooting roughly the same amount of shots as his two previous years while making them at a much lower rate, it becomes simply disgusting to watch him take the floor.
As I’ve said before, when given the chance Patty Mills is a very good shooter. On the whole year, he has shot .482 from the field, and .402 from three. He is also shooting .466 from the corners on three attempts, which is an outstanding rate on a shot that the Spurs system calls for a lot. These are all vast improvements on the shooting exploits of Gary Neal this year. And, if you look at his per 36 minutes stats, you can see that he does all of this on fewer shot attempts than Neal.
As far as his abilities on the pick and roll, Mills has a tendency to shoot, but is also a capable passer. He doesn’t get a whole lot of assists, but he plays within the system and makes the right play more often than just mindlessly jacking up a bad shot.
In short, Gary Neal has lost the shot-making ability that made him a fan favorite in San Antonio. He has consistently played at this lower level all year long, and it’s time to move on from him. Patty Mills has already shown in small sample sizes that he can work in Neal’s role, and this is the perfect time to tinker with the rotation. Parker and Neal are recovering from injuries, and minutes are up for grabs. Mills has impressed me enough multiple times to want to push for him in Neal’s spot in the rotation. This is a low-risk, moderately good reward type of scenario. In giving him 17-20 minutes per game off the bench, the Spurs would potentially be gaining much better shot-making, and slightly better decision making. And if he fails to shoot as well as he is capable, the Spurs can just go right back to playing Neal in that slot.
Over this next month, time will tell who is in, and who is out for the shortened rotations for the Playoffs. It’s time that San Antonio looked away from Neal, and focus on a guy who has been ready to come in and play whenever needed. With that said, we are now boarding for the Patty Mills bandwagon.
(All stats used in this piece are from basketball-reference.com and the NBA.com stats database.)