There is an unfortunate tendency among basketball scribes to conflate "overrated" with "bad". There is an uneven more unfortunate tendency to conflate "overrated" with "not useful". There’s a lot of people who are going to disagree with me about this, but for me, the poster child for this kind of thinking was the Knicks’ offseason trade for Andrea Bargnani.
Anyone sane agrees that three draft picks was way too much to give up, especially for a team with little financial flexibility, and Bargs’ position, which instantly made him redundant on the Knicks, complicated the issue.
But beyond that, there was an air of madness to it, like people actually thought that Steve Novak was even in the same universe with Andrea Bargnani as a basketball player. Bargs has tons and tons of faults. There are few who score as well as he does who has more. But he’s also the second leading scorer on the team—and it’s not close. Is there a universe where Steve Novak does that for anyone? And what faults does Bargs have that Novak also doesn’t have? You can forget that Novak is 6’10" and has never averaged even 2 rebounds. For the Raptors, he currently has a negative PER. It's not like anyone loves Bargs' game. That's not the point.
As small-sample size theater morphs into still pretty small sample size theater, the Mavericks have been finding this out with Monta Ellis. Monta has been far from perfect, and in an even more pronounced way than Vince Carter, what makes him good can also make him bad.
I can remember, at this point in the season last year, pointing out that O.J Mayo’s tendency to miss free throws at the end of games did not augur well for close games to come which, as it turned out, was auguring very well indeed. Monta’s problems are not at the stripe, but he also has not yet endeared himself at the end of the few close games the Mavericks have had.
Against the Wolves, when it was 105-102 with 3:05 to go, Monta missed a long PUJIT three, which was followed by a Kevin Love three-point make. He missed an out of control layup, which was followed by a Kevin Love two-point make. He stepped out of bounds which was followed by a Kevin Martin 2-point make. Finally, he missed another PUJIT three and a three point game had become a 10 point game that fast. Against the Heat, with another 3-point deficit and just over three to go, it was another turnover, another missed PUJIT three, and another turnover. Even last night, with all his heroics, he almost derailed it with a hideous rushed three.
It’s not great news, even though it’s not Monta’s fault, really. I believe that Carlisle’s heart knows that the ball should always go through Dirk in those situations but his head can’t help believing that technically having the ball in the hands of a guard who could score OR pass, with the chutzpah to take the shot, is a good thing. Last year, this resulted in roughly 30,000 missed Vince Carter game-tying attempts where, technically, he had the "option" to pass to Dirk built into the play, this season it’s…well, you know.
But none of that changes the fact that the Mavs have already displayed that their ceiling is higher than what a lot of non-MMBers expected in the offseason. They’re beating the teams they’re supposed to beat handily. And they wouldn’t be doing it without Monta. To me, that ends the debate. Monta did not cripple the team financially, since he, Calderon, Wright, Wayne, Shane and Ricky are the only contracts on the books next year (for a whopping 26 mil or so). And splitting up the money they spent on him for a guard and a backup C would not only have made things worse, it would have been disastrous.
The Mavs are winning because right now they are 3rd in the league in scoring. There is no other reason. And only two guys on the team are scoring more than 12 points a game. In fact, Monta bids fair to be the first player besides Dirk to lead the team in scoring since Michael Finley. Can you use that, whatever Monta’s deficiencies? Of course you can.
And that, more than any talk of improvement or maturation explains why Monta makes sense and made sense as a Maverick. Context changes math. On a team as flawed as last year’s Bucks, having Monta didn’t make sense. On a team like the Warriors, where the star player played Monta’s position, it didn’t make sense. The Mavericks have enough talent for Monta to be a big help, while at the same time not having too much that him doing his thing is detrimental.
If you saw the Rockets game, last night, and didn’t come away with the feeling—my god, look at what Monta can do—you’re not doing it right. Far from a guarantee that it’s all going to be sunshine and roses. But with some guys you can’t let what they can’t do obscure what they can, and the Mavericks haven’t had anybody who can do what Monta can in the Dirk era. Period.
Long live Monta and what he brings.