What to Expect from Patty Mills on the Brooklyn Nets
For all the noise the Brooklyn Nets have made this offseason, it has not been consistently rowdy. Their roster-building activity has been divided into two bursts, spanning a month of the summer. Before the Paul Millsap/LaMarcus Aldridge bits of news broke last Thursday, the Nets had been laying dormant since the early days of August, other than reports that DeAndre Jordan may soon be on his way out of town. But that first week of August saw Brooklyn add solid complementary pieces, and re-sign familiar faces.
With apologies to James Johnson and Jevon Carter, the newcomer expected to have the most impact is longtime San Antonio Spur Patty Mills. Here, I’ll be diving into what exactly he brings to the borough, and how his skills can enhance the already-formidable Nets.
This is where Mills affects and, in some cases, changes games. He is one of the NBA’s elite stop-and-start athletes, which even more than his shooting, is what first jumps off the screen. Guarding the Australian is trying to catch a frog after dipping your hands in melted butter:
Yes he misses the shot, but he never stops working to get open. And don’t expect Mills to miss too many clean looks at the basket. Per NBA.com, he shot 41.3 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season. There is, however, some value in further examining that figure. Over the past four seasons, Mills’ catch-and-shoot percentages have consistently been in the mid-30’s when a defender has been within six feet, per the NBA’s tracking data. It’s his otherworldly proficiency on wide-open three-pointers that boosts his overall deep-ball toward the 40 percent mark. And while it’s not shocking that a six-foot guard has (relative) trouble making contested shots, that could be a worrisome sign come playoff time, when defenses generally tighten up.
But it’s more important to consider how Mills has generated his three-point looks for the last four seasons in San Antonio. He hasn’t found himself wide open through luck or circumstance. It’s his relentless, explosive movement away from the ball the generates those wide-open looks. Mills creates his own luck; his diminutive frame necessitates it. In terms of catching the ball in the midst of a full-sprint and—in one motion—turning and shooting, there aren’t many better in the world than him.
This shot may be open. That sure as heck doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Mills’ looks will get much easier in Brooklyn; just look at how many open threes Joe Harris gets despite being a top five shooter on Earth. And even if the ex-Spur doesn’t play many minutes with the entirety of the Big Three, playing with just two of them—or just Harden in bench units—will grant him more standstill looks. Any way you slice it, Mills can shoot the rock. That’s just about all you need to do to thrive in Brooklyn. It’s not too difficult to picture Mills coming off an early screen in semi-transition, a habit the Nets have carried over from the Kenny Atkinson era, with Joe Harris as the most frequent beneficiary:
It would be reductive to assume Mills and Harris will mirror each other’s play. Due to the size difference, Harris is more effective getting to the rim off the catch, as well as guarding bigger opponents on the other end. But Mills and Harris do share important qualities as perimeter shooters, such as the court awareness to find spots to get their shots off, and to create easier passing angles for teammates. And despite Mills’ lack of size, he is equally as effective as a screener. The guard-to-guard screensJames Harden loved to operate from will still be an option if Mills is the only other guard out there with him. Here, he does a great job creating a path to the rim for DeMar DeRozan, and creating an open three for himself (that Harden likely rewards him with):
Overall, Mills will create chaos on the offensive end without the ball in his hands. For a team that was already capable of turning arenas to ashes by lighting nets on fire, his presence is widening opponents’ eyes further. And “Patty Cakes” fits in just about any lineup Brooklyn can construct.
Yes, anybody can fit with the superstars the Nets employ. But for those load management nights, or just for the fun of giving different looks, Mills can play with the ball in his hands, too. He’s not the most dynamic playmaker or off-the-dribble scorer (Cam Thomas can offer Brooklyn more of that, off the bench). But a cerebral, risk-averse approach to ball-handling allows Mills to organize some sets. Things don’t go awry when he’s tasked with orchestrating. If Steve Nash wants to use, say, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in some off-ball screening action, Mills is more than capable of making sure that gets accomplished.
Elsewhere, a decent efficacy as a pick-and-roll ball handler comes from a composure and awareness you’d expect from a 10-year Spur. Simply keeping his head up and dribble alive here results in a lane to the basket that Mills is not going to forgo:
But he’s more than capable of hitting a pull-up three if the big doesn’t play far enough to the level of the screen. In that way, Mills forces the defense’s hand to either switch or bring two to the ball. And while he won’t punish trapping defenses by spraying the ball all over the floor, he will hit rollers if he sees a window. How much we’ll see of Mills in these situations remains to be seen, especially considering the Nets’ relative lack of dynamic rim-divers.
If Brooklyn is using Mills’ ball-handling abilities as a crutch, things have gone horribly wrong. And he doesn’t often use his handles to get all the way to the cup; his numbers at the rim, while good, are low in volume, an indicator of cautiousness. But all this is fine; the Nets are not short on self-creation ability. He is another guy who can, for example, take an outlet pass and push the ball up the floor, setting up early offense. And if he notices, say, Davis Bertans switched onto Irving, he will make sure that match-up gets exploited. Mills is another ball handler you can trust, and play with nearly anybody.
There’s not much to write home about here, good or bad. Mills is going to be in the right spots off-the-ball and be able to execute, in principle, any scheme the Nets opt to run. At the point of attack, where he’s often stationed, the rapid-fire movement skills he exhibits on offense help him stay in front of attackers reasonably well. And while he’s not the sleekest navigator of screens, his extraordinary ability to accelerate can somewhat compensate when he’s knocked off course. His size, though, limits how well he can contest shots.
Here, he sticks to Shake Milton reasonably well, chasing him around Dwight Howard and generally being a pest. But when the taller, longer Milton gets to his spot and rises up, Mills evaporates into a bystander.
So yes, he can execute any scheme Brooklyn has in mind, even if it’s all-switching. He’s not going to get beat backdoor, or fail to communicate. It’s just that he may find himself in some suboptimal situations if teams decide to target him on switches. But again, that’s not to say Mills is a turnstile. He probably, slightly, clears the threshold of vulnerability. If all an opposing offense is trying to do is attack him in isolation, generally speaking, those efforts are not worth the reward (unless of course, they’re getting LeBron James onto him every time).
Imagine Mills guarding Jaylen Brown in isolation—not all too unlikely. Mills, a pest in every sense of the word, can get under Brown’s chest and make putting the ball on the floor a difficult endeavor. Chopping his feet, poking at the ball. AKA pest behavior. But if Brown can find half a step of space and drive his shoulder into Mills, or feels comfortable playing with his back to the basket, things get dicier. By no means is Mills weak, even for his size, but there’s only so much power an 180-pound punch can pack. On defense, Mills is about your league’s average guard. Without sizable backline help, a backcourt of Mills and Irving would face some size-based challenges. As always with the Nets though, they might just bet on outscoring the opponent. And that could work just fine.
Mills is a hand-in-glove fit for the Nets, as he would be for most contenders. His value doesn’t dissipate when playing without the stars on load management days, and you can’t forget about him when he’s out there with them. There’s not a group of potential teammates in the world that would make allowing an open Patty Mills three-pointer an acceptable option. Moreover, he provides ball-handling equity that the Nets simply didn’t have last season, with apologies to Mike James and Shamet. He more than meets the level of competitive desire on defense required to play for these Nets, which to be fair, isn’t the highest bar. But it is no small feat to be able to stay on the court in a playoff game at just 6’0”, and Mills can do just that.
If there’s a worry, it’s that age starts to catch up to him in his age 33 season. Perhaps some of the burst he tortures defenders with starts to fade. Again, though, he figures to be just standing around more often than he was in San Antonio, with more open shots just falling into his lap. Trying to find reasons to be skeptical of this signing is a fruitless endeavor. A fan favorite in San Antonio, there’s no reason to expect he won’t similarly endear himself to the Brooklyn faithful, with a game built around all-out effort and long-distance sniping.
Mills’ time in Brooklyn figures to be nothing short of enjoyable. Random games where he hits seven threes and Ian Eagle drops a variety of Australia-related puns will replace some of the joy Jeff Green is rerouting to Denver. And hey, at the very, very, very least, we can finally stop talking about J.J. Redick. The Nets are good for now.