Despite Kyrie Irving’s absence, health and safety protocols ravaging the team, and key players such as Joe Harris and Nic Claxton missing extended periods of time, the Brooklyn Nets are sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 23-9 record.
Overcoming all of these obstacles has not been easy, but a certain Australian transplant has certainly helped Brooklyn achieve the success they’ve had so far. That person — more a force of nature — is Patty Mills. The Australian deadeye is averaging a career-high 14.4 points per game on a career-best 44.1 3-point percentage. At the age of 33, Mills is undoubtedly having the best year of his career, as he’s on pace to make around 270 big ones from beyond the arc! If he makes that mark, it will far surpass his career-high 161 he made last season.
With 109 made threes on the season, Mills is one of only seven players to reach the triple digit mark in terms of threes made. In fact, he trails only 3-point masters Steph Curry and Buddy Hield in that category. What really separates Mills from that pack is how efficiently he’s shooting. Aside from Mills, only one other player in the top 10 of 3-pointers made is shooting above a 40 percent clip from deep. Luke Kennard is 10th with 95 threes on a 44.2 percent clip.
You don’t need to see the numbers to know how much of an impact Mills has made, you just have to watch a Nets game. Ask Steve Nash about his contribution.
“Patty’s added so much to our team,” Steve Nash said three days ago. “Obviously, we don’t win [Christmas] without him; but so many nights this year, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s just mature IQ, experience, those things you see on the floor, but it’s just the way he approaches the game: his spirit, his mentality.
“He’s added so much to our group, our culture, just by the person he is, by how pure his motives are and how much he wants to win as a group and for his teammates. He’s been unbelievable, not just on the floor, but off the floor as well.”
Yes, both Kevin Durant and James Harden can buy a bucket when necessary, but beyond that and LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range game, Brooklyn doesn’t have many dependable offensive weapons. That’s especially true with Joe Harris missing nearly 20 games this season. Before going down with an ankle injury, Joey Buckets was shooting 46.6 percent from deep. That’s a number that’s second only to San Antonio’s Keldon Johnson who has only nine more made threes than Joey Lumberjack despite playing more than twice as many games.
Needless to say, when Harris went down, there was a ton of slack that needed to be picked up. With a full 82 game season to be played, after an offseason where one superstar (Harden) dedicated to recovering from injury and another (Durant) played in the Olympics, it wouldn’t be ideal for the superstars to get even more on their plate.
That’s where Patty Mills came into play.
Before Harris went down, Mills was playing 25 minutes per game, scoring 10.4 points per game on 41.3 percent shooting from the field, taking 8.6 shots per game. Since then, he’s played 34.7 minutes per game, scoring 17.5 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting from the field, taking 13.3 shots per game. Another ability that Mills has excelled at is availability, as he’s the only Net to play all 32 games. With the way the Nets’ season has been going in terms of players available to play, that’s key.
Mills admits he’s playing pretty, pretty good.
“Yeah it could be [my best stretch] maybe in the NBA,” Mills said. “I think production-wise, playing for my country is probably where I tend to play the best as well. But, yeah, possibly.
“A lot of factors go into that I think. But like I said, I’m just having a lot of fun playing with this team and playing with these guys and that’s definitely coming into play as well. So, yeah, possibly.”
Where does Mills rank among MLE players?
With all of that said, Brooklyn would not be in the place they are now without Mills. However, that begs the question, was Mills the best Mid-Level Exception (MLE) signing this offseason? He’s certainly up there. Other players that stand out in the MLE pack are Alex Caruso, Dennis Schröder, P.J. Tucker, and JaVale McGee.
Caruso has been a defensive monster for the Chicago Bulls who are one game behind the Nets for first place in the East. Caruso nabs two steals per game (second most in the NBA) and is sixth in the NBA in defensive box plus/minus at 2.7; extremely impressive numbers considering he only plays 28 minutes per game. At this point in his NBA career, Caruso is a legitimate rotational player on a contending team, and not just an internet meme… though he still excels in the latter.
Schröder started off the season hot, but has struggled in the month of December. In the first 20 games of the season, Schröder averaged around 17 points, five assists, and one steal per game on 44 percent shooting. In December, he’s averaging 15 points, four assists, and 0.7 steals per game on 39 percent shooting. He has missed time due to health and safety protocols and an ankle injury, so a slump could have been expected.
Tucker and McGee are somewhat similar players in somewhat similar environments. Both are bangers on the defensive end who are expected to play their role on offense. Both play on contending teams and are respectable players that do their part.
On balance, though, none of the four have had as big an impact on their team as Mills has on Brooklyn. It can be argued that maybe Caruso has, as his defensive prowess makes up for the lack of defense on Chicago’s perimeter from players such as Coby White, Zach LaVine, etc… but nobody has catapulted to the front of the game plan like Patty Mills. His impact is unparalleled amongst all MLE players.
What’s next for Mills?
However, the Nets are ‘getting the gang back’ soon, and not just players that were in health and safety protocols as Harden suggested. It’s no secret that the organization is allowing Kyrie to return to practice to be a full-time part-time player ... that is a player who can start and contribute big numbers but only on the road (and not at all in New York or Toronto.)
With that, the Nets get back a superstar guard who arguably had the best year of his career last season, averaging around 27 points, five rebounds, six assists, and 1.5 steals per game while becoming only the ninth player in NBA history to join the prestigious 50-40-90 Club. In fact, he was the first guard to meet the benchmark: 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep, and 90 percent from the line in a full season.
The Nets are also likely going to see Harris return or start his ramp up sometime soon although Nash said Wednesday that Harris isn’t “necessarily out of the woods yet. He’s got some work to do.”
When Irving comes back, he’d likely slide into the starting shooting guard role (in road games), taking Mills spot in the starting lineup. In home games and road games Irving isn’t eligible to play (at Knicks and Raptors), Mills would likely start.
It will be interesting to see how Mills will fit into the picture with both Harden and Irving eligible. Harris was able to play with Brooklyn’s “Big Three” because he’s big enough to play the forward position; Mills is not. A 1-through-3 combination of Harden, Irving, and Mills would be bullied on the defensive end. Perhaps we would see a lot of what we saw last season, with Harden playing with the second unit as the main facilitator and then having Mills as a much better version Landry Shamet of the second unit.
No matter what, he will be a contributor. As his current backcourt mate, Harden, said this week, he’s got a wealth of tools ... and consistency in using them.
“He’s just been consistent, obviously, with his shot,” said Harden. “He’s doing a better job of just being a playmaker, putting the ball on the floor and getting into the paint. He’s finishing and making plays. He’s more confident.”
And so are the Nets about him.