The San Antonio Spurs have been one of the most consistent sports franchises in the last decade, qualifying for the playoffs every year since 1998. As a small market team often deemed as “old” and “boring,” the Spurs are frequently left out of opinion polls and do not garner nearly as much national attention as teams like the Miami Heat. With key players like Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker playing only 0, 3, and 5 games to date, respectively, the Spurs have not helped their case so far in the month of February.
To my amusement, a couple of weeks ago, Twitter started erupting with confused tweets about the Aussie, Patty Mills. With Tony Parker out for the ‘foreseeable future’ due to a ‘variety of maladies,’ Coach Popovich has put some more trust in Mills and he has delivered. The Olympics-standout, who had been relatively quiet in the league before this season, has averaged 17.1 points, 2.2 assists, and 1.1 steals in the month of February. He had a lot to do with the depleted Spurs’ victors against the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers.
During this period, Patty Mills has been the Spurs’ MVP. I never thought I would ever write that sentence without trolling, but let me explain. As a fun exercise in data mining, I decided to scrape and aggregate this month’s Spurs’ lineup data from nba.com. Here is a summary table of the Spurs’ performance, normalized by minutes where applicable, with and without Mills on the court:
Clearly, the short-handed Spurs have been better with Mills on the court this month. They score 23% more points, turn the ball over 22% less and are more efficient offensively. For those of us who have seen his performances against the Clippers and Blazers, this is not a huge surprise.
Despite these stats, it is important to note that basketball is not a closed system. As is the case with +/- values, the other four (nine when you factor in quality of opponent) players on the court have a high impact on these stats. For instance, Mills is a very strong free throw shooter with an accuracy of 92.3% so far this month. However, lineups with Mills have slightly lower free throw percentage than those without him. This is suggestive of a between-groups bias, in which Mills often plays in a unit containing some players who tend to have lower free throw percentage.
Given all of the different combinations that Pop has tried out in the past few weeks, the cleanest way to think about this is in terms of player pairs. Looking at the players with whom Mills has had the most minutes, I would like to highlight a few different two-man lineups:
+/- Danny Green:
Three-point efficiency. It is possible that these numbers could be slightly inflated due to a small n; there were only 22 three pointers attempted when both players were on the court. However, the low 3FG% for the “Green without Mills” lineup is based on 49 attempted threes, so the low shooting percentage is likely representative. Green has actually been shooting a solid percentage from beyond the arc, so this suggests that Pop might want to tweak his rotations to correct for this bias.
Assists. Lineups with Mills and without Green have 36% more assists, overall, than lineups that include both players. Green is not known for setting up his teammates, accounting for only 8.7% of the assists while he is on the court for the season. Mills, on the other hand, accounts for 15.1% of the assists for the season (and 17.7% in February). Since Green is a shooting guard, the differences in assists are more likely attributable to the network effects of his primary unit versus Mills’ than a head-to-head comparison of the two players.
Steals. The combination of Mills and Green results in significantly fewer steals than the other lineup combinations. A lot of this is likely attributable to Kawhi Leonard’s absence in Danny Green’s main unit.
+/- Marco Belinelli:
Better Apart. The numbers speak for themselves here. Pop should explore more rotations in which Belinelli and Mills do not play together. Both add great value to the Spurs offensively and have been really helpful filling in amid all the injuries this season. This dynamic will be especially interesting once Parker and Leonard are both back.
+/- Tiago Splitter:
+/- Boris Diaw:
Mills Makes His Teammates Better. Splitter and Diaw have actually played decently well in February, so the “without Mills” lineups cannot be attributed to any clear individual struggles.
+/- Cory Joseph:
Does Cory Joseph deserve more minutes than Patty Mills? Perhaps these metrics do not capture enough of the defensive aspects of the game (in which Joseph adds value), but Mills can definitely hold his own on the offensive end.
The aforementioned results initially surprised me to the point where I thought there was an error with my analysis, but it turns out that some key Spurs have been slumping this month. Of the Spurs who have played at least 5 games in February and averaged at least 20 minutes, see how they stack up:
Could Mills be a starter in the NBA? Not with the Spurs, but when he is a free agent at the end of this season, it is a possibility. Especially if Raymond Felton can be a starting point guard in this league…
With an ailing and inconsistent Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills could be the spark plug that the Spurs need off the bench come playoff time. When you factor in a healthy Parker and Leonard, the Spurs will once again be a very dangerous team in the playoffs. We will just have to wait and see how Mills adjusts once his teammates return from injury, but one thing is for sure: R.I.P. Patty Mills’ Towel.