San Antonio had their championship parade on Wednesday, but there's already a Spur with one foot out the door. Patty Mills is due to become an unrestricted free agent in less than two weeks, and rumor has it that the New York Knicks are interested in the young point guard’s services.
The Knicks would probably like to make a bigger splash in free agency than going after a player who has only started a total of seven games in his five-year career, but they’re already destined to go way over the cap with their team as it stands now.
Even if Carmelo Anthony opts out of his deal - as all signs seem to indicate that he will at this point - the Knicks’ hands are still tied due to all the money remaining on the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, and Andrea Bargnani. Stoudemire and Bargnani have early termination options, but there’s not a person with a pulse who thinks either of them will exercise it.
That leaves the Knicks with very little flexibility at the dawn of the Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher era. They’ll be working on a pretty tight budget, but one of the first orders of business for the new regime seems to be to find an upgrade at the point guard position, now that retaining Melo looks to be off the table.
Coach Derek Fisher, someone who played point guard in the NBA just a few weeks ago, will want a moldable floor general under his wing, and new GM Phil Jackson will need the right one as well if he wishes to implement the triangle offense. It seems like it didn’t take long for them both to figure out that Raymond Felton isn’t the man for either job.
Felton, last year’s starter, is about to turn 30, and his career numbers are in the midst of a troubling decline. The Knicks simply don’t have the money to go after the big-name free agent point guards like Kyle Lowry, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas, so Patty Mills might be their best value play with the roughly $3.3 million they’ll have in a mid-level exception. Besides, even at that low price point, Mills might still be the significant upgrade they’re looking for.
Mills is a bit younger than Felton, not turning 26 until August, so he’s still got a lot of time to grow and plenty more upside going forward. He’s been Tony Parker’s backup (or his backup’s backup) for the past three years in San Antonio, but he’s coming off of a championship run in which he played a significant role.
His 14 points on 5 for 5 shooting from the field – including 4 for 4 from long range - in the third quarter of the series-clinching fifth game of the NBA Finals was basically a free agent audition tape. He hasn’t had the chance to show what he can do with a starting gig long-term yet, but what he’s managed to do with the minutes he’s gotten this year has been impressive. That’s especially true when his stat line is measured against Felton’s.
Raw Regular Season Averages
Even with a lesser role and fewer minutes than Felton, Mills nearly equalled or bested him in each standard category (other than assists, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Apart from being a more efficient scorer and better long-range shooter, Mills is also an underrated defender. He defends with his body instead of his hands, has the quickness to close out effectively and stay with opposing perimeter players, and applies ball pressure in both half- and full-court situations admirably. You can’t say any of those things about Raymond Felton.
Although it’s largely a team-influenced stat, their difference in defensive rating (points their respective teams allow per 100 possessions when they’re on the court) is a clear indicator of the gap between the two. Mills, a player who logs the majority of his time with the Spurs’ second string, had a stingy defensive rating of 98.3 on the season. Felton, on the other hand, had a disgusting 106.9 rating playing with the best the Knicks had to offer (including a former Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler).
Going back to your standard numbers, it’s easier to get an idea of the difference between the two players if we equalize their stat lines per 36 minutes played (the universally accepted range of starter’s minutes).
Per-36 Regular Season Averages
Extrapolating numbers to per-36 equivalents is not an exact science, of course, but it gives us an idea of what we could reasonably expect. Here we see that Mills has the potential to be a much more prolific scorer than Felton - a definite plus with Melo on the way out - and could match his contributions in the rebounding and steals departments. The only place that Felton seems to consistently have the edge is in assists.
This is a key difference in the two players, but it is mostly a result of the systems they played in. Felton’s role this season was to distribute the ball to the Knicks’ main scorers in Anthony and J.R. Smith, while Mills primarily served as an offensive spark off the bench. It's true that he’s a shoot-first guard by nature, but the discrepancy could be attributed to the fact that he played a lot of his minutes (43.9%) with Manu Ginobili, who usually assumed the ball-handling duties.
Regardless of how you feel about what you see in the raw versus per-36 numbers, the advanced stats give Mills a very clear advantage.
Advanced Regular Season Statistics
Our own nERD metric doesn’t even have these two players in the same ballpark, regardless of the minutes that they played. Mills’ efficiency and defense go a long way in our Player Power Rankings, hence why the gap between Mills ranking 29th (ahead of a lot of point guards that generally play more minutes, for what it’s worth) and Felton coming in at 117th.
If you’re not into our nERDy numbers, other all-encompassing stats like player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares (WS) back our metrics up nicely. If you’re concerned about the minutes played aspect, look no further than the win shares per 48 minutes, where Mills is more than three times more effective than Felton.
I’ve included the assist and turnover percentages (an estimate of the frequency of assists and turnovers those players are responsible for while on the floor) to illustrate a point about ball-handling free of minute comparisons. Yes, Felton gets more assists than Mills and assists on a much higher percentage of possessions, but don’t sleep on that difference in turnover percentage.
Felton turns the ball over quite a bit for someone who’s in the driver’s seat for a lot of his team’s possessions. Mills, on the other hand, has a turnover rate that's half as high as Felton's and that puts him in the top five among point guards in that category. He has the potential to be one of the best in the game at protecting the ball if given the keys to drive an offense.
Of course, this whole discussion might be moot. Parker has indicated that the Spurs are likely to get the band back together for a run at repeating as champions for the first time in franchise history. If that’s the case, they’ll need their spark plug off the bench in tow.
San Antonio, however, has been known to let their backup point guards go when they play themselves into being too expensive. When it became obvious that George Hill would soon be due for a raise, the Spurs shipped him out for Kawhi Leonard (that turned out well, eh?). When Gary Neal went into free agency, the Spurs decided he wasn’t worth the mid-level and let him bolt for the Bucks. San Antonio would surely love to have Mills back in the fold, but if his market worth is placed too high and he wants to get his, they’ve got Cory Joseph waiting in the wings. They always seem to have someone ready to be the next man up.
Hopefully for the Knicks, the Spurs can let this one go. Mills represents the most affordable option that New York has to upgrade at the point. Felton had a near All-Star campaign a few years ago, but we’re far removed from that time and it’s not like a 37-year-old Pablo Prigioni is going to be the answer in his third NBA season.
As for Mills, one can't help but wonder if he even wants to be the feature point guard on a team or if he'd just prefer to stay in a reserve role and go for more titles in San Antonio. If he is ready to move on, is what New York can offer in line with what he and the rest of the market might assume he's worth?
Regardless, if the Knicks can’t bring in Patty Mills, their new coach might actually be the best point guard on the team. With Melo all but gone, that just seems like one cruel reality too many for Knicks fans.