New York, NY - The San Antonio Spurs are in a transition period.
It sounds weird to hear that about a franchise that has been so consistent, and so successful, for the better part of three decades. For Patty Mills, who has been to two NBA Finals - winning one - and played an integral role in deep Spurs playoff runs, this season has been his most challenging since coming to San Antonio from Portland.
"It's been a rollercoaster of a year," Mills said following the Spurs loss to Brooklyn on Monday - their seventh loss in their past nine games. "A lot of ups and a lot of downs. Limited consistency, which has been tough, but you always refer to the big picture and how we are trying to move forward as a group."
The bigger picture that Mills refers to is the famed Spurs 'system.' Their way of doing things has been lauded around the league; people often cite 'Spurs culture' when speaking about their own teams. Five NBA championships and 21 straight playoff appearances has seen San Antonio (rightly) earn a reputation as a model franchise.
This season, however, has been a rebirth of sorts. For the first time since 1997, there is no Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. Gone also is Kawhi Leonard, shipped off to Toronto this past summer.
It is that famed culture that is currently enabling the Spurs to integrate and mold the newest members of their team into the players they want, and need, to fit their system. As the longest tenured Spur, Mills has become a vital teacher in imparting the Spurs system to the next generation.
"We have had great leaders, great coaches and great players that have led that way, and now that we are in that point where there is a transition between that prior era to this new era that we are transitioning to. It is about teaching that culture to these new guys so that they know this is how we do it here, and that we aren't going to change for any player because we haven't done that in the past," Mills says.
"It's definitely a transition of me being able to bridge the gap with our young players, and it is going to take time. That is where the leadership for me comes into it big time. It is definitely unique."
San Antonio has long valued Mills' contribution to their team - even in the times when he was playing sparse minutes off the bench - as his experience added another layer of leadership to a then already veteran laden team. In 2017 they rewarded him with a four-year, $50 million contract extension, and since then Mills' leadership role has grown - especially since the departures of the aforementioned 'Big Three'.
In November, head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters prior to a Spurs game against Milwaukee that Mills was "like our inspiration, he's an ultimate warrior, gives everything he's got all the time."
Now the Spurs lie in 8th in the Western Conference, and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since before they drafted Duncan. This is the time when Mills knows his voice will carry weight within the playing group to help get them through this rough patch.
"I think the biggest thing at this point of time, knowing the adversity we are going thorough, is keeping the boys together and keeping the team close. That is something that I can do and something I can control," he tells ESPN. "We still have a great opportunity to make the playoffs here, so I am going to focus on keeping the boys together so we can make a big push."
San Antonio have been one of the worst defensive teams during their current 'Rodeo Road Trip' and will return to the confines of the AT&T Center with a losing record from their Rodeo trip for just the third time in 17 seasons. One positive for the Spurs is that, of their remaining 19 games, 11 of them will be at home where they have a 23-7 record. Whether they will qualify for the playoffs and keep their streak alive remains to be seen. Even if they happen to miss, Mills believes that there will still be some positives to be taken from their 'transitional' season.
"You look at where we have come from over the last five years and how much has changed over that time to get to this point where we have a completely whole new team," Mills says.
"We have done some good things, it's not to the level of expectations we have had in previous years, but when you look at the positives we have come a long way with having a brand new team and new young guys. You take the little positives throughout that and try to work it, but at the end of the day we want to make the playoffs. Once we get there we will figure out how we can move on from there and be successful in the playoffs, but for now we have some work left to do to cement our spot."