SAN ANTONIO — Patty Mills has played a significant role in the San Antonio Spurs' 18-4 start this season, so it’s hard to recall the time when his status with the team was in limbo.
He had become—in the words of the only person who really matters when it comes to playing for the Spurs—“a little fat ass.”
That was in the aftermath of the Spurs’ crushing loss to the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals. Mills played only two games in that series before Gregg Popovich, author of the insult, lost him for the final four contests because of a foot infection that had developed into a painful abscess.
Popovich may, or may not, have used similarly blunt language when he advised Mills that he would have to shape up over the summer if he wanted to have a more significant role with the Spurs.
No matter how the coach phrased things, Mills spent the weeks that followed shedding weight and lowering his body fat from a couple of doughnuts above 12 percent to just under 6 percent.
“He was a little fat ass,” Popovich reiterated to Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News near the conclusion of the 2013-14 regular season.
“He had too much junk in the trunk," he said. "His decision-making wasn’t great and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard-type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it.”
When Mills showed up for pre-training camp workouts at the Spurs' practice complex in September of 2013, his teammates barely recognized him. According to Danny Green, Mills spent a lot of time posing like a bodybuilder.
“He lost a little weight, showing off his guns, got his body fat down,” Green said then. “I don’t want to say he’s bragging. He’s worked hard all summer, and you can tell by looking at his body. I guess he’s enjoying people noticing his body change. He shaved (his beard), too. That makes him skinnier in the face.”
The payoff was Mills’ best NBA season, which he capped with standout play in the Spurs’ redemptive humbling of the Heat during their 2014 NBA Finals rematch. His three-point shooting in Games 4 and 5 (9-for-14 combined) validated the hard work that had made him one of the team’s fittest players that year.
Now, Mills’ beard is back and his play through the first quarter of the season is reminiscent of those 2014 Finals. He has become a viable candidate for this season’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Through 22 games that have proved the Spurs remain elite without retired superstar Tim Duncan, Mills ranks No. 4 among San Antonio's scorers at 11.2 points per game. He has made 48.6 percent of his shots, 41.6 percent of his three-point attempts and has a gaudy 60.5 effective field-goal percentage. His player efficiency rating is a solid 18.5.
Mills’ metrics compare favorably with those of other key reserves who figure to receive support for Sixth Man of the Year:
|PPG||PER||Key Additional Stat|
|Patty Mills (SAS)||11.2||18.5||41.6 3PT%|
|Jamal Crawford (LAC)||12.0||12.6||47.1 EFG%|
|Enes Kanter (OKC)||12.8||23.7||57.2 EFG%|
|Eric Gordon (HOU)||16.6||14.6||54.6 EFG%|
|Greg Monroe (MIL)||8.8||22.8||6.9 RPG|
|Andre Iguodala (GSW)||5.7||11.4||2015-16 6th Man Runner-Up|
Numbers alone don’t fully inform the discussion of Mills’ impact.
Popovich so greatly values the tactical advantage Mills brings to his second unit that he has started Nicolas Laprovittola, a 25-year-old rookie from Argentina, in three of the past eight games Tony Parker has missed with knee soreness, including Tuesday’s 105-91 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center.
That victory ran San Antonio's away record to 13-0, setting up an opportunity to match the all-time best road start in league history by last season’s Warriors on Thursday night in Chicago.
When Popovich gave Laprovittola his first start during a Nov. 30 game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center, Mills closed the game by scoring 15 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter of a 94-87 Spurs victory.
In Minnesota, Laprovittola started again and scored 10 points through 21 minutes. Mills logged the rest of the time at the point and scored 15 points with a team-high five assists.
While he likes the change of pace Mills brings to a second unit that usually features 39-year-old veteran guard Manu Ginobili (2007-08 Sixth Man of the Year), small forward Jonathan Simmons, center Dewayne Dedmon and guard-forward Kyle Anderson, Popovich scoffs at anyone who suggests Mills’ value is limited to his three-point game and the energy he brings.
“I think everybody talks about his energy all the time,” Popovich said in the aftermath of a 107-105 win over the Washington Wizards on Dec. 2 in which Mills found teammate Danny Green for a crucial three-point make.
“I don’t know if it’s because he’s not very tall and he runs around real quick, or something. I’m not sure. But, everybody else has energy, too. It may not look like it because they’re not built like … well, he’s just smaller. A squirrel looks like he has more energy than an elephant, right?"
Mills doesn’t reject being what the Spurs call a “juice” guy, but he understands an NBA career can’t be predicated on energy alone. He has worked hard to become a good decision-maker on the court—a key item on the coach’s list of must-dos.
“I think you understand when you need that type of energy,” Mills said after San Antonio’s win over Washington. “And with those hustle plays, it's contagious. But, you don't want to be the rah-rah guy as well... You want to have constructive talk and be able to lead that way.
“There's time for that but there's also (importance) on point guard plays. Definitely, I think that's where I've grown as a player from being in this environment for a number of years now and understanding and focusing on what it means to be a true point guard for this team. So, definitely feel like I'm growing.”
Parker’s most recent stay on the injured list may continue when the Spurs play the Bulls at United Center in the first game of a TNT-TV doubleheader Thursday night. Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald that Parker was “50-50” to be cleared to play.
If the six-time All-Star needs one more game in street clothes, expect another start for Laprovittola and another 20-plus minutes for Mills, San Antonio’s latest candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.