Patty Mills may have wanted a supporting gig when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets a year ago, but he quickly found himself playing a lead role—one that unfortunately went on for months — as injury, the James Harden trade and Kyrie Irving’s absence depleted the Nets backcourt.
In dealing with this last minute “promotion” at the guard spot, the Aussie sharpshooter experienced his fair share of ups and downs.
Mills began his 13th season as a pro with a brilliant 21-point outing where he shot 7-of-7 from beyond the arc. He ended it though with a less memorable five-point performance, as the Boston Celtics swept him and his teammates out of the playoffs.
Neither of those situations ultimately were ideal for the Nets.
In that first game for Mills and dozens after, the Nets missed their star point guard in Kyrie Irving. Early on, Mills was able to tread water while taking up many of Uncle Drew’s projected minutes, but everyone knew what they had waiting in the wings. While Mills did enough to keep the Nets afloat, Irving had enough buoyancy to pull them out of the water and maybe even get them onto a speed boat—one likely headed straight for the NBA Finals.
As Irving continued to sit and with Joe Harris out for the season, Mills wound up putting a lot more stress on his 33-year-old body ... after leading Australia to his first medal in Olympic basketball in early August. By March, Steve Nash put into words what everyone was seeing.
“I think Patty’s tired. I think his legs have been worked pretty hard this year. He’s played more minutes than he’s ever played and we’ve asked a lot of him,” said Nash on Mills’ workload throughout the regular season. “As we get bodies back, he can hopefully get a little bit more of a normal rotation.”
“Bodies,” specifically Irving’s, did come back, but the damage was done. In one 13-game stretch over the six weeks between January 1 and February 15, Mills played at least 30 minutes nine times. Twice he played 38. By season’s end, Mills had averaged 29.0 minutes per game, which was a career-high for him at 33 years old.
That final game for Mills, as Gang Green ended the Nets season about as unceremoniously as possible, was the coda for Mills and Brooklyn’s season. Although a variety of reasons including sloppy ball-handling and some questionable coaching led to Brooklyn’s early playoff exit, it was the team’s inadequate length, personified by Mills and Goran Dragic, became a key factor as well. The 6’1” Mills kept being matched up with players inches taller and dozens of pounds heavier.
Nobody blames Mills for Brooklyn’s lackluster 2021-22 campaign. Nor 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 durable Net, playing in all but one of the Nets regular season games.
How durable? Although Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving put up more points per game, neither got enough games to qualify for ranking among top scorers. Mills’ 11.4 points per game turned out to be the highest number for a qualified player.
Although he said last summer that he signed for the chance to “[play] for something each and every day,” he doubtlessly didn’t expect the grind 2021-22 became.
But now, with Irving more than likely extended— and Ben Simmons, Joe Harris and Seth Curry rehabbing from surgery — things should revert to the original plan Sean Marks had for him and the one he originally signed up for: a reserve role with minutes that better suit him as a seasoned veteran. That should help the long time Spur in deciding whether to stay. Still, the decision represents something of a quandary for the franchise.
As it stands now, Mills is sitting on a $6.2 million player option for next season. However, he can also pass on it and test those always enticing free agent waters, with the Nets or another team. Brooklyn could use all the positivity it can get right now. Let’s look first at the benefits of Mills deciding to run it back with the Nets.
Above all else, Mills’ 3-point shot is the most lethal tool on his utility belt. He hit 227 shots from deep last season, coming up just eight short of breaking D’Angelo Russell’s franchise record while exceeding Harris’ best mark, 211.
That said, with that wear-and-tear, he suffered a noticeable drop-off in his efficiency following the All-Star break. Although nobody can stay hot forever, Mill’s seemed to cool off like a melting iceberg. He entered the All-Star break shooting a blistering 41.9 percent from downtown, which even punched him a ticket to the league’s 3-Point Contest. But once the season picked back up again, Mills shot just 33.1 percent through the end of the regular season. In the post-season, he upped it to 59.5 percent, but on a lot fewer tries..
Going into the 2022-23 season though, a resuscitated Irving could guarantee that the Nets see a former version of Mills rather than the more recent —making his potential return something to celebrate for Brooklyn.
From there, Mills could re-ignite his game and this time keep the fire burning all season. Although Brooklyn certainly possesses enough shooting already, Mills’ ability to hit triples is by no means a bad thing nor a luxury. With Harris hopefully healthy for next season working beside Curry (45.0 3 percent), Kevin Durant (38.3 percent), and we hope Irving (41.8 percent), Mills should resemble the marksman who’s able to stretch the floor and open up Brooklyn’s offense alongside an elite distributor in Simmons.
Speaking of Simmons, Mills’ role as a mentor or even mere supporter of Simmons is an intangible worth noting. Following Simmons’s 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 this past February.
“I’ve got his back,” said Mills when speaking on Simmons. “I’ve always had his back, and now I have the opportunity to be with him.”
Mills’ support for Simmons goes back a long time, well before their Brooklyn days though. When Simmons declined to play in last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics, Mills again vocalized his support for Melbourne-born ball-handler.
“The number one fact and characteristic of our group is how we support each other through the good, bad, and ugly, whatever it may be, and Ben isn’t an exception to that,” said Mills. “No matter what he does, myself and the team will continue to support him because this is a safe place—everyone needs to know and understand that now more than ever, we need to support Ben in his journey.”
Mills could prove crucial for the Nets. His roles would now include not just shooting skills, but help that he can provide in making Simmons feel comfortable on and off the court, a more welcoming and familiar presence for Simmons, helping him to thrive again.
The value of Mills leadership is not just limited to his relationship with his fellow Aussie. He was named winner of the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award this season, based on a vote by 300 NBA players. That’s not some trifle.
The Nets have already learned from DeAndre Jordan’s experience in Brooklyn that keeping a guy around just because he’s well-liked by the team’s stars isn’t good front office work. Not to mention that Patty Mills has proven that he’s got a lot more left and DeAndre Jordan! For the Nets to chase down their first ever Larry O’Brien Trophy, they need Simmons locked and loaded, and any help that Mills provides in delivering that product will be worth the money.
All that said, are there negatives? In the postseason, the Nets repeatedly struggled to slow down the versatile Celtics offense. Riddled with 3-and-D talents and a starting lineup that averaged better than 6’6”, Boston was able to maintain its stingy defense while also punishing Brooklyn at the other end.
The Nets struggled on the glass while up against Boston. They averaged just 34.0 rebounds per game this postseason—the fewest by any playoff team. Should the priority this off-season be adding rebounders rather than retaining shooters? Can you do both? The Nets simply did not carry enough players on their roster to corral enough boards ... and their current crop of guards does not possess enough length to bother shooters either.
You don’t point the finger at your guards when your team has a rebounding problem. But if Mills were to leave this year, his departure might allow the Nets to finally plug a leak that’s sunk their ship for two years in a row now. Nets fans might want Mills and his exciting shooting back, but the team needs a lengthy, switchable, and aggressive defender able to field significant minutes.
So the question is: would keeping one of the game’s better marksmen be worth it — beefing up an already established strength — if it limits in any way the Nets’ need to start fixing their obvious flaws. (Assuming the Nets don’t get hit with injuries to their shooters again this season!)
At the end of the day though, 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 view Brooklyn as a place where he can “play for something each and every day” even after the Boston sweep ... and all the other issues that befell the Nets this season? We’ll have our answer by the end of the month, maybe before.
In the meantime, Mills is finally getting time to rest and regenerate following a brutal schedule of Olympic and NBA basketball. Earlier this month, he was back home on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait of Australia to celebrate Mabo Day, which honors his great-uncle, activist Eddie Mabo, a man who’s been compared to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Whatever his decision is, it’s likely to be one he’s thought about deeply.