Patty Mills was weighing up his options this past summer.
After six seasons, two NBA Finals and one championship ring with the San Antonio Spurs, Mills had to decide whether to move to another team, and potentially find himself a starting role somewhere, or remain with the most successful organization of the past two decades where he may not get that starting role but would continue to evolve as a basketball player within the famed Spurs culture.
It didn't take Mills long to decide. On Jul. 1 -- the first day of free agency - he signed a four-year deal to remain with San Antonio. He was rewarded for his years of productive activity on the court, but that didn't mean the decision to re-sign was a given.
"I think I owed it to myself to see what was out there, and although it [re-signing] came quick I thought I might be cheating myself if I didn't see what the market was like," Mills tells ESPN. "The values of what this organization brings to us as players is what I'm all about as a person. At the end of the day, I don't think I was going anywhere. I'm a Spur."
As the calendar turned over to 2018, the Spurs finds themselves in a familiar position -- right near the top of the Western Conference and on pace for what will be their 19th consecutive season winning at least 50 games. The Spurs continue to do Spurs things, but it hasn't been easy. The team has been without one of the best two-way players in basketball, Kawhi Leonard, for all but seven games this season. Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldrige have all also missed time with injury. In addition, the team is trying to incorporate new faces into its system.
Mills attributes the team's ability to sustain through adversity to the Spurs' system and culture.
"It's the system, and the system doesn't change for anyone that comes on the court," Mills tells ESPN. "Everyone's expected to do their part, to do their role. We've had big-time guys that have been out, but guys have been able to step in on the floor and contribute. It has a lot to say about our system, and how we're run as an organization and as a culture, that young guys are able to step on the floor and make something happen."
Mills has been the one constant this season. Now in his seventh season with the Spurs, he's been asked to do a little more on-court to help steady the ship until the roster is fully healthy. He hasn't missed a game this season, while playing a career-high 24.5 minutes per game. His on-court numbers have dipped marginally this season from last, but head coach Gregg Popovich says that's more to do with the manner in which he's had to use Mills this season due to injuries.
"It's been tough for him because I've been playing him at the point guard position, at the wing, at the two-guard ... he's been all over the place trying to help us any way he could, so it's hurt his numbers a little bit," Popovich has said.
"His leadership [though] is better than ever. His ability to see what's going on on the floor, to understand time and score in a game, is better than it's ever been."
That leadership role is part of the reason why Mills decided to remain in San Antonio this past summer. For Mills, it's all about the bigger picture. He wants to help push the Spurs' culture forward, and help to ingrain it into the younger players on the roster.
"I knew what I was getting into when I re-signed back for another four years, but it's more than just numbers with what I'm trying to bring now," he says. "I'm a leader, and a leader of a group that's trying to push the Spurs' culture on to the next generation.
"Whatever my numbers are is beside the point, because this is a big-picture thing and the organization has been successful for a long time so we gotta make sure it keeps moving forward."
Mills has fully embraced his new role, and, as a result, he is enjoying his basketball more than ever.
"As years progress, roles change and different stuff is expected out of me, but they're all good challenges," he says. "I've been enjoying this year a lot - possibly more than any other year."
Still, the Spurs will have to defeat either the defending champion Golden State Warriors or, likely, the Houston Rockets if they are to reach the NBA Finals again. Mills says the Spurs don't know the secret to beating either of those rivals just yet, but he believes that health, and improving their defense, will be critical approaching the playoffs.
"Stay healthy and try keep everyone on the floor," Mills tells ESPN. "That's the No. 1. Other than that we gotta hang our hat on defense. We've always tried to be that team, to be able to stop guys and let that fuel our offense. That hasn't been the case so far this season, but again, we've gone through a whole lot of stuff this season but we're trying to grind away and stick with it."