Patty Mills may have wanted a supporting gig when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets a year ago, but he soon found himself in a starring role — a role that sadly lasted for months — as the injury, James Harden’s trade and Kyrie Irving’s absence have exhausted the Nets back.
Dealing with this last-minute ‘promotion’ to guard duty, the Aussie sniper has had his fair share of ups and downs.
Mills started his 13th season as a professional with a brilliant 21-point outing where he shot 7 of 7 from beyond the arc. He ended it with a less memorable five-point performance, however, as the Boston Celtics swept him and his teammates out of the playoffs.
Neither of these situations was ultimately ideal for the Nets.
In that first game for Mills and dozens after, the Nets missed their star point guard in Kyrie Irving. At first, Mills was able to tread water while taking many minutes planned by Uncle Drew, but everyone knew what he was waiting for backstage. While Mills did enough to keep the Nets afloat, Irving had enough buoyancy to get them out of the water and maybe even get them on a speedboat – one was probably heading straight for the Finals of the NBA.
As Irving continued to sit out and with Joe Harris out for the season, Mills ended up putting a lot more stress on his 33-year-old body … after leading Australia to their first Olympic basketball medal in early August. In March, Steve Nash put words to what everyone was seeing.
“I think Patty is tired. I think his legs have been worked enough this year. He played more minutes than he ever played and we asked a lot of him,” Nash said of Mills’ workload throughout the regular season. “As we recover the bodies, he can hopefully get a bit more of a normal rotation.”
The “bodies”, especially those of Irving, returned, but the damage was done. During a 13-game streak over the six weeks between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15, Mills played at least 30 minutes nine times. Twice he played 38. By the end of the season, Mills was averaging 29.0 minutes per game, which was a career high for him at 33.
That last game for Mills, as Gang Green ended the Nets season with as little ceremony as possible, was the coda for Mills and Brooklyn’s season. Although a variety of reasons, including sloppy ball handling and questionable practice, led to Brooklyn’s early exit from the playoffs, it was the team’s insufficient length, personified by Mills and Goran Dragic, that also became a key factor. The 6’1″ Mills continued to be paired with players a few inches taller and dozens of pounds heavier.
No one blames Mills for Brooklyn’s lackluster 2021-22 campaign. Neither should they. In fact, Mills deserves more praise than most for sticking with the Nets through a season that featured more drama than a days of our lives marathon. He was the most enduring Net, playing in all but one of the Nets’ regular season games.
How sustainable? Although Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving racked up more points per game, neither got enough games to qualify for the top scorer rankings. Mills’ 11.4 points per game proved to be the highest number for a qualified player.
Although he said last summer that he signed for the chance to “[play] for something every day,” he probably didn’t expect the 2021-22 grind to become.
But now, with Irving more than likely extended – and Ben Simmons, Joe Harris and Seth Curry recovering from surgery – things should going back to the original plan Sean Marks had for him and the one he originally signed up for: a reserve role with minutes better suited to him as a seasoned veteran. That should have long helped Spur decide whether to stay or not. Still, the decision presents a dilemma for the franchise.
As it stands, Mills is sitting on a $6.2 million player option for next season. However, he can also pass it on and test those always tantalizing free agent waters, with the Nets or another team. Brooklyn could use all the positivity he can get right now. Let’s first look at the benefits of Mills’ decision to re-launch him with the Nets.
Above all else, Mills’ 3-point shot is the deadliest tool in his utility belt. He hit 227 shots from deep last season, missing just eight to break D’Angelo Russell’s franchise record while surpassing Harris’ best mark of 211.
That said, with that wear and tear, he suffered a noticeable drop in effectiveness after the All-Star break. While no one can stay warm forever, Mill’s seemed to be cooling like a melting iceberg. He entered the All-Star break shooting a blistering 41.9% from downtown, which even earned him a ticket to the league’s 3-Point contest. But once the season resumed, Mills shot just 33.1% through the end of the regular season. In the playoffs, he took it to 59.5%, but with far fewer tries.
However, heading into the 2022-23 season, a resurrected Irving could ensure the Nets see an older version of Mills rather than the newer one – making his potential return something to celebrate for Brooklyn.
From there, Mills could reignite his game and this time keep the fire going all season. Although Brooklyn already has enough shots, Mills’ ability to hit triples is by no means a bad thing or a luxury. With Harris hopefully healthy for next season working alongside Curry (45.03%), Kevin Durant (38.3%) and hopefully Irving (41.8%), Mills should look like the shooter able to stretch the ground and open up Brooklyn’s offense alongside an elite distributor in Simmons.
Speaking of Simmons, Mills’ role as a mentor or even simple supporter of Simmons is an intangible worth noting. Following Simmons’ bumpy change of address from the City of Brotherly Love to the Borough of Churches, Mills was quick to defend his fellow Aussie and new teammate last February.
“I have my back,” Mills said of Simmons. “I always had his back, and now I have the opportunity to be with him.”
Mills’ support for Simmons goes back a long way, long before their days in Brooklyn. When Simmons declined to compete in the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year, Mills once again voiced his support for the Melbourne-born ball handler.
“The number one fact and characteristic of our band is how we support each other through the good, the bad and the ugly, no matter what, and Ben is no exception to that,” Mills said. “No matter what he does, myself and the team will continue to support him because it’s a safe place – everyone needs to know and understand that now more than ever we need to support Ben on his journey.”
Mills could prove crucial for the Nets. His roles would now include not just shooting skills, but helping Simmons feel comfortable on and off the pitch, a more welcoming and familiar presence for Simmons, helping him to thrive again.
The value of Mills’ leadership is not limited to his relationship with his fellow Australian. He was named the winner of this season’s NBA Sportsmanship Award, based on a vote of 300 NBA players. It’s not a trifle.
The Nets have already learned from DeAndre Jordan’s experience in Brooklyn that keeping a guy around just because he’s liked by the stars of the team isn’t good front office work. Not to mention that Patty Mills has proven that she has a lot more left and DeAndre Jordan! For the Nets to chase their first-ever Larry O’Brien trophy, they need Simmons locked and loaded, and any help Mills provides to deliver that product will be worth it.
That said, are there any negatives? In the playoffs, the Nets repeatedly struggled to slow down the Celtics’ versatile offense. Riddled with 3-and-D talent and a starting lineup that averaged better than 6’6”, Boston was able to maintain its miserly defense while punishing Brooklyn at the other end.
The Nets struggled on the glass against Boston. They averaged just 34.0 rebounds per game in the playoffs, the fewest of any playoff team. Should the priority this offseason be adding rebounders rather than retaining shooters? Can you do both? The Nets simply didn’t have enough players on their roster to muster enough boards … and their current crop of guards doesn’t have enough length to bother shooters either.
You don’t point fingers at your backs when your team has a rebound problem. But if Mills were to leave this year, his departure strength allow the Nets to finally plug a leak that has sunk their ship for two straight years now. Nets fans may want Mills and his thrilling shot back, but the team needs a long, switchable, aggressive defender who can put up important minutes.
So the question is, would keeping one of the best snipers in the game be worth it – bolstering an already established force – if that in any way limits the Nets’ need to start correcting their obvious flaws. (Assuming the Nets are no longer affected by shooter injuries this season!)
Ultimately, whether or not Mills himself wants to play another season with the Nets remains in his hands. It’s a player option, after all. Does he still see Brooklyn as a place where he can “play for something every day” even after the Boston sweep … and all the other issues that have plagued the Nets this season? We will have our answer by the end of the month, perhaps before.
In the meantime, Mills finally has time to rest and regenerate after a brutal Olympic and NBA basketball schedule. Earlier this month he was back home on Thursday Island in Australia’s Torres Strait to celebrate Mabo Day, which honors his great-uncle, activist Eddie Mabo, a man who has been compared to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Whatever he decides, it’s likely to be one he’s thought deeply about.