- With Tony Parker injured, the Spurs will ask Patty Mills to fill the void in the starting lineup. San Antonio will look different—and possibly offer a glimpse into the future.
Tony Parker, like most NBA players nearing 35, has been regressing for years. No longer can his agility carry an offense, because his every curl and drive isn’t quite so imposing as it used to be. Within the way San Antonio operates, Parker found currency in separation. So long as he could put a few steps between him and his defender by looping around staggered screens or playing the two-man game, opponents were virtually guaranteed to overreact to his presence. This was the genesis of so much of the Spurs’ zig-zagging ball movement over the last decade. Its fading was an inevitability that Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford did their best to prepare for.
They weren’t preparing for this moment, but one like it—a time when a torch would need to be passed and the void of a future Hall of Famer filled. Parker’s season is finished. This may have been his most contentious season yet, in part because of all he could no longer do. There were almost daily reminders of the player Parker used to be—whirling drives that would come up short, wide curls around the floor that got Parker nowhere in particular. His per-minute scoring and true shooting slipped to their lowest marks since Parker’s rookie season. Not only was the writing on the wall, it had been accented with the graffitied anxieties of Spurs fans who looked around the West to see Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul. Even George Hill, Parker’s longtime understudy, had surpassed him.
Before Parker fell to the court, motionless, he had done his best to catch up. There was no logical reason to expect Parker to torch the Grizz's Mike Conley in the first round, but he did with 27 points on 14 shots in the closeout game. The very idea that Parker could average 21.7 points per 36 minutes in the postseason on 52.6% shooting would have seemed preposterous just a month ago. But it was as if one of those frustrated fans calling for Parker’s exit or benching had wished on a monkey’s paw. On Friday night, Parker will miss his first playoff game in 16 years—but only after reminding everyone in the NBA what had made him so striking in the first place. The Spurs were refreshed as to what they’ll miss.
Due to San Antonio’s aforementioned prudence, the mechanisms are already in place to handle Parker’s injury. Patty Mills, a natural complement to the Spurs’ stars, will step into starting duty. More possessions will undoubtedly fall to Kawhi Leonard, and San Antonio will leverage LaMarcus Aldridge in the post as often as this series allows. That foundational trio has played 81 minutes together this postseason and blown opponents out by 20.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Relative to Parker, Mills is a quicker player, a better shooter, and a peskier defender. What he isn’t is as steady of a hand; even in decline, players like Parker are a luxury to their coaches for their familiarity with the system and their fluency of in-game problem solving. Mills is an veteran, but Parker has seen it all.
Never is that kind of grounding more important than in the playoffs—especially in the throes of a stylistically challenging series. Houston does all sorts of things to test its opponent’s discipline and attention to detail. Slip even slightly and you risk a dunk or a three-pointer. Let Patrick Beverley throw you off your game and it could spiral into a game-changing run. This has the look of a long, competitive series, and Mills will have to consistently be his best self. Even aside from the result of this series, any outcome should be instructive. Mills will hit a point-guard-dry free agent market this summer without ever running a team of his own. Friday will be his 19th start, and his first in the playoffs, in his eight-year career. Interested teams will want to see how he carries himself in this context to better understand how he might adapt to a role on their team.
San Antonio understands Mills better than any team in the league, but even they stand to benefit from seeing him carry this weight. Reinvesting in Mills makes sense. Doing so, however, will likely require organizational confidence in Mills to work as Parker’s legitimate successor due to the financial commitment involved. The evidence on the table suggests that he’s capable, though none of it might be so telling as what remains of this playoff run. Depending on how things go, this could either be a preview of the Spurs of the near future or a glimpse into a core that will never be again. Mills could even play himself out of San Antonio’s price range or shock his value to the point of an economical return. That every outcome seems to be in play for Mills illustrates his distinction. Parker at the point was limited but knowable. Mills in that role is promising but unproven. The best chance the Spurs had came through the balance between them, now lost.