Patty Mills, the Spurs, and the Virtues of Patience
Posted by shawnintheflesh on November 1, 2013
In the midst of Patty Mills’s demolition of the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2nd quarter on Wednesday night, the notoriously bad announcers for Memphis had a rare gleam of insight: Mills waited a long, long time for this moment. His moment. From the time he was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009, Mills has toiled on the end of benches. He has spent the majority of his NBA career in relative obscurity, whether it was during garbage time, preseason, or games that had no bearing on the standings. For a player like Mills, who was a star at St. Mary’s and is currently a star while playing for his national team in Australia, that transition is a major shock to the system. There is an endless list of NBA players in his situation who have washed out of the league, losing their motivation to improve and getting out of shape or seeking more playing time and fame while playing overseas. It takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence and patience to continue working hard in practice, to stay in shape in the weight room, to be physically and mentally prepared, for a moment that may or may not ever come. While Mills had played very well in the limited minutes he’s received over the past two years, and he led the entire Olympics in scoring while playing for Australia, there was no guarantee that he would perform well against premier competition, much less a Memphis outfit that figures to be an elite defensive team this season. After four years, a laundry list of DNP-CDs, and winning a dogged backup point guard battle involving Cory Joesph and Nando de Colo, Patty Mills played the first important set of minutes in his NBA career on Wednesday night, and it was well worth the wait.
The Spurs have a penchant for this kind of thing. For of all the accolades that San Antonio has received over the past 15+ years, their most enduring and beneficial trait has been patience. It starts with their GM, RC Buford, and it trickles down to everyone on their roster. Everything about San Antonio, from their player development to their offensive system, exudes patience. During the gap between Finals appearances from 2007 until last June, there have been many calls for San Antonio to blow everything up. Granted, the untimely exits in May were unsettling, but while outsiders were busy leaving the Spurs for dead, Popovich understood that this was just part of his master plan.
This current incarnation of the Spurs is 4 years in the making, and Pop’s patience with the players in his system was every bit as vital as the system itself. Danny Green blossomed in last season’s playoffs after losing confidence during his previous two campaigns. Tiago Splitter has been integrated into the rotation over the past three seasons and developed into a valuable starter. Even Tony Parker had to adjust to being the focal point of the offense over Duncan after 7 years of playing second (and occasionally third, to Manu) fiddle. Given San Antonio’s status as a perennial contender, none of their previous 5 seasons can truly be considered a success in a vacuum, but when considering them within the context of progression and improvement, the picture is much different. After each year, the offense flowed a little smoother. Duncan picked his spots a little better in limited minutes. The defensive rotations became a little sharper. The pieces on the roster fit a little better. All of the tweaking, experimenting, and growing pains culminated in San Antonio giving the Heat everything they could handle in the Finals last season, and while it was a surprise to many (myself included), we should have all seen it coming in hindsight.
The development of Patty Mills was just another step in that process. Mills didn’t become an important part of the Spurs’ rotation overnight; this was two years in the making. That same gradual development is being made with grooming Kawhi Leonard into a star and the face of their franchise. The fruits of their labor may not be readily apparent this season, but one day, maybe 4 years from now, when Mills is the heir apparent to Parker’s starting PG position, Leonard is the best two way player in the entire league, and the Spurs are still improbably contending for titles by being ahead of the curve offensively, just know that it wasn’t created by luck. It was all part of the master plan.