This article was originally published on Pick and Popovich on February 23, 2016.
The Spurs would never actually bench Tony Parker. Aside from 47-9 teams typically not tinkering with their starting lineups, Parker is actually still a very good player. But hot damn, Patty Mills is awesome. And with Golden State looming, it’s worth wondering not only which of the two fits better against the Warriors, but which of them is actually the better player.
The knock on Mills has largely been his ability to run an offense and operate within the pick-and-roll. And to an extent those worries are founded. Here’s a good example of why:
Mills misses a key read on the initial pick-and-roll. He has an open rolling Kyle Anderson, but fails to see him for a very basic physiological reason: he’s short. Mills is only 6’0″, and with the league trending towards taller guards anyway his vision is always going to leave something to be desired. But watch the rest of the play. Missing Anderson costs San Antonio an easy shot. Either Anderson would have had a clear lane to the basket, or Victor Oladipo would’ve helped off of Danny Green, giving Green an easy corner three assuming Anderson, an adept passer, saw him.
But as the rest of the play shows, Mills doesn’t come away empty-handed. Once he finds open space he hits Kawhi Leonard with a nice pass that leads to a jumper. His vision is excellent in such circumstances, and the damage of his height can be controlled to a degree by running more high pick-and-rolls (like the rest of the league does) to increase his sphere of vision rather than forcing the issue from the side, where Parker is more comfortable.
Keep in mind that this is his relative flaw, and he’s actually pretty good at it all things considered. The Spurs score .89 points per possession with Mills handling the ball (per SportVu), within striking distance of Parker’s .95 figure and near the top of the league in its own right. Combine that with his age (27) and lack of playing time (this will be only his second season with over 1,000 minutes) and you’d figure he still has quite a bit of room to grow. And of course, he’s even better without the ball in his hands.
That points per possession number goes all the way up to 1.22 when Mills spots up. That’s because he’s a deadly three-point shooter, making 44 percent from the coveted corners and 40 percent overall. That spacing is critical for the Spurs’ offense and trickles down to the rest of the team. San Antonio makes 40.2 percent of three-pointers when Mills is on the floor and 38.4 percent when he’s off. If that 1.8 percent doesn’t seem particularly big to you, remember that it’s bigger than the difference between the third place Clippers (36.6 percent from three) and the 17th-ranked Rockets (35 percent).
The Spurs are the rare modern contender who plays two big men. If they are determined to play Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge down the stretch against the Warriors, playing Parker with them would suffocate their spacing. The Spurs could choose to go small, but Duncan’s help defense is so valuable against the death lineup’s unstoppable pick-and-roll. Further, Mills is a much better choice to defend Stephen Curry.
Mills’ defensive weakness is, again, his size. Bigger guards love posting him up, like Kobe Bryant does below:
Bryant waves his arm like an overconfident pickup player trying to get the ball because he’s so tantalized by the matchup with Mills. He gets it and backs him down with extreme ease. There are steps San Antonio can take to avoid this. Chris Paul mitigates his size disadvantage by denying the ball far more aggressively and, admittedly, getting star calls that Mills just never will. San Antonio’s scheme doesn’t allow for that sort of aggressiveness as it compromises the integrity of their bend-but-don’t-break style. Mills gets to take risks, but they’re measured, like the one below:
Mills knows that LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard are in position to help, as neither of their men are particularly dangerous shooters, and if he whiffs there’s almost no chance that Elfrid Payton is going to take a three. So he turns on the jets knowing it’s a low-risk steal attempt and ends up knocking the ball to Leonard for a theft. Mills loves attacking inattentive in-bounders; watch him do it to Paul of all people here:
It’s a combination of his excellent awareness and otherworldly energy and speed. Mills doesn’t get to show off his quickness as a ball-handler as much as he’d like, but he has the second-highest average velocity in the entire league at 4.74 miles per hour. That speed gives him a longer leash to take those kinds of risks because he can catch up to his man if he misses. It also makes him one of the stickier man-defending point guards in the league.
Spot-up shooters make only 31.6 percent of their field goals when defended by Mills largely because he just doesn’t give them much space. That’s near the top of the league, and despite his size, he’s still above average against ball-handlers. Mills makes up for his physical deficiencies defensively with his athleticism and basketball IQ.
That makes him a far better matchup for Curry than the slower, aging Parker. The Spurs wouldn’t mind giving Curry post-up opportunities against Mills if it means he’s shooting less three-pointers, especially with Duncan and Aldridge nearby to help. Parker simply can’t stick with Curry, and as we saw when the two teams played in January, neither can Kawhi Leonard. The best case scenario with Parker on the floor would be Danny Green guarding Curry (a risky proposition) with Leonard on Klay Thompson, but that still creates a mismatch for Parker against Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala. Mills erases that mismatch if he can cover Curry.
Ironically the guard best suited to take advantage of Mills is Golden State backup Shaun Livingston, who at 6’7″ would take him to the hoop every time. It would behoove San Antonio to avoid that matchup as much as possible. Otherwise, very few teams have the size at point guard to really exploit Mills consistently. He’s as equipped as anyone to guard Curry and Kyrie Irving (if San Antonio were to make the Finals). Parker is a defensive liability against either, and that’s before you consider the dirty, dirty things Russell Westbrook might do to him in the second round.
That difference in defense is what separates Mills from Parker at this stage. The two are different offensive players but are similarly effective. Parker is a better ball-handler and Mills is a better shooter, both fill relevant needs and have their place against different match ups. But San Antonio’s defense gets 1.8 points better per 100 possessions when Mills is on the floor (96.7 to 94.9) and 1.0 point worse when Parker is at point guard (95.4 to 96.4). Before you tell me to adjust for playing bench opponents, remember that Mills has played almost less than half as many minutes with Kawhi Leonard (499 to Parker’s 1144) and less than four times as many minutes with Tim Duncan (204 to Parker’s 842). As they’ve played very similar total minutes (Parker leads Mills by around 200), it shows that Parker has the advantage of playing with better defensive teammates.
We take a lot of credit away from Mills for that. The fact that his net rating (+15.6) dwarfs Parker’s (+11.8) is largely attributed to San Antonio’s incredible bench. He’s seen as a cog in their machine when really, he’s the one driving it. The Spurs play better basketball when Patty Mills is on the floor, and if they want to beat the Warriors this spring, he should be the one at the helm for San Antonio.
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