In his sixth season with the San Antonio Spurs, veteran point guard Patty Mills has transformed himself from a fresh-faced, towel-waving extraordinaire, to a dark horse candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Mills is quickly winning over the growing faction of Spurs fans ready to usher Tony Parker into an early retirement, or at least into a more limited role on the bench.
(This is your reminder that the Spurs aren’t perfect and once benched 35-year-old Avery Johnson for a 37-year-old Terry Porter, so please stop saying Parker is washed before the Spurs re-sign Andre Miller and start him.)
Something Mills could also accomplish this season outside of burgeoning affection from the San Antonio faithful and career-highs in several categories, is joining an elite group of basketball players in an exclusive category.
The 50-40-90 club has seen plenty of players get close to the tremendous feat that is reserved for the effective and productive, but just seven players in NBA history have actually accomplished it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the 50-40-90 club, the criteria for this elite class is simple: Players must shoot over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the free throw line. In addition, players must meet the minimum number of makes to be considered a leader in each category. Players have to make at least 300 field goals, 82 3-pointers and 125 free throws.
No San Antonio Spur has ever been a 50-40-90 club member, but there have been some close calls. Kawhi Leonard missed out last year because of his free throw percentage (.506/.408/.874). This year, Leonard’s put his free throw shooting percentage over the 90 percent threshold, but his field goal percentage has slipped to just 47.3 percent. No other Spur has come within a reasonable range of the 50-40-90 club except for Manu Ginobili, whose 2011-12 season failed to meet the club on free throw percentage and the bare minimum in each statistical category in the lockout shortened season.
Enter Patrick Sammy Mills.
As of Thursday night’s blowout of the Lakers, Mills has a shooting split of .468/.422/.913. While his field goal percentage has slipped dramatically recently, Mills has actually been on target to join the 50-40-90 club until January.
His free throw percentage in January may look like his chances at cementing himself among the likes of Steve Nash, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry have fallen off a cliff, but Mills has only attempted two free throws all month, going 1-for-2 from the charity stripe against Los Angeles.
Frankly, Mills has a zero percent chance of making the 50-40-90 club, strictly because of the minimums needed. In his eight year career, Mills has never attempted more than one free throw a game until this season (1.2) and at that rate, even if he played all 82 games, he wouldn’t crack the 100 mark in attempts, let alone makes.
With his game centered around the perimeter rather than attacking the basket, Mills won’t draw enough foul calls to merit the necessary free throw attempts to join the 50-40-90 club.
Percentage wise, Mills seems to be settling for jumpers more during his slump, but has also failed to convert on the limited looks around the rim.
Per Basketball Reference, in the month of January, Mills has taken just nine shots at the rim, making only three. Furthermore, after removing his attempts at the rim, Mills has attempted just three shots within 16 feet of the basket to start 2017.
In fact, since his 23-point outing against the Portland Trail Blazers, Mills has seemingly lost his offensive prowess that was so crucial to the Spurs at the start the season when Parker was out.
In the nine games since his outburst in Portland, Mills is averaging 5.4 points, 1.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists, while shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from beyond the arc.
So what’s changed?
First off, that explanation is as simple as The Law of Averages. For his career, Mills is a 39 percent shooter from sniping distance. His field goal percentage throughout his tenure in San Antonio is just barely north of 44 percent, and the only time he’s ever shot over the 90 percent threshold on free throws was during 2011-12 season, where he went 15-for-15 in 16 games.
Secondly, Mills looks tired. In case you’ve forgotten, Mills was arguably the most important player on Australia’s Olympic roster. In his seven games with the Boomers, he averaged 21.3 points in nearly 30 minutes of action. He also shot a solid 47 percent from the field, despite his poor 3-point shooting while in Rio.
Mills is averaging a career-high 22 minutes per game and is going on his fifth straight month of basketball without much of a break, appearing in all 39 of San Antonio’s games this season. That’s a lot to ask for from a point guard whose speed and energy off the bench is such a critical attribute to his game.
For what it’s worth, unless Mills miraculously ends up in the 3-point shooting contest, All-Star Weekend will be his best opportunity to catch a breather and get his body prepared for what could potentially be a deep playoff run.
Just don’t expect Mills to give up on his breakout season because of a recent bad stretch. The Aussie is putting up career numbers as he enters his prime with a skyrocketing salary cap and free agency looming.
This summer could be the return of Pat Stacks, even if he doesn’t join the prodigious 50-40-90 club.