Can Heat guard Patty Mills rise from shooting slump, revive his career?

After tormenting Miami Heat fans a decade ago, Patty Mills is still frustrating them -- but for a very different reason.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers
Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

A decade ago, as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Patty Mills tormented Heat fans with his sharpshooting to topple Miami in the 2014 NBA Finals – the final time the “Big 3” played together. 

Flash forward to the present day and Mills is still tormenting Heat fans. Only now it comes as a member – not an opponent. But Mills’ shooting struggles have more than put just the Heat’s title aspirations in peril. If Mills can’t ascend from his current slump, this could be his last time having a featured role on a playoff contender. 

It doesn’t matter how much postseason success he’s enjoyed. In a league that’s unapologetically “What have you done for me lately?” Mills’ recent track record whimpers “not much.”

Since making a Nets-high 227 three-pointers in 2021-22, he’s struggled to make an impact. Last season for Brooklyn, he averaged 14.2 minutes – fewest since the 2012-2013 season – and shot 36.7% from three – worst since the 2014-15 season.

This past offseason, he was traded by the Nets to the Rockets to clear up cap space. Then he was sent to the Thunder, then the Hawks in another off-season deal. Before being waived by Atlanta on Feb. 29 this season, he had 36 DNPs (did not play). In the 19 games he did play in, Mills averaged 2.7 points in 10.6 minutes. 

This is why Mills’ current slump is so impactful. He can be forgiven for his lack of playing time since the 2021-22 season, but not for failing to capitalize when an opportunity was given. When he hits the market this offseason, playoff contenders could view him as an unreliable 36-year-old who can provide nothing more than wisdom. 

Can you blame them?

Since an impressive debut for Miami, he’s shot just 3-for-31 from three and averaged less than four points. Furthermore, his points (11.3) and three-point percentage (17.1%) per 36 minutes are both career lows. 

In last Friday’s 111-88 loss to the Pelicans, Mills played just 12 minutes, shot 2-for-7 from the field and 0-for-4 from three. Those shots were taken in the first eight minutes of the blowout. 

This performance is particularly alarming for a few reasons. For starters, it was Mills’ second straight game starting for the injured Duncan Robinson. This allowed him to do what he does best: drill three-pointers. But in his two starts, he missed 11 of his 12 three-point attempts.

Aware of Mills’ current shooting slump, coach Erik Spoelstra told the Miami Herald before the Pelicans game, “Patty is such a savvy veteran winning player that if you don’t look past whatever the shooting numbers may be, you don’t see all the nuances of how he helps.” 

If that’s the case, then why did he play Mills just four minutes in the second and third quarter Friday night? 

The answer isn't nuanced. It's because Spoelstra knows Mills can't help the team if he's not making shots.

With just 12 regular-season games left, can Mills gain Spoelstra’s trust? Or will he continue his plunge into irrelevancy? If the latter happens, it’ll be a crushing finale to a highly impactful career – on and off the court. 

As the first indigenous Australian to appear in the NBA Finals, he used his increased exposure to offer a voice to fellow indigenous Australians – a historically silenced and marginalized community. 

And in a decade-long career with the Spurs, Mills ranks second all-time in made 3-pointers (1,220) and helped San Antonio make four Western Conference Finals, back-to-back NBA Finals and played a significant role in legendary head coach Gregg Popovich securing his fifth ring in 2014.

If Mills is worried he'll never reach those same heights, then he should reflect on a quote Popovich framed in the Spurs’ locker room:

"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it – but all that had gone before."

Perseverance is essential right now.

One problem: Mills doesn’t have 100 more opportunities to show he deserves a featured role on a playoff contender.

He likely has just one.