When the Dallas Mavericks signed Monta Ellis, it would be fair to say reactions were mixed.
Ellis, an accomplished, exciting scorer, has his share of detractors; most of whom focus on his inefficient brand of offense, and a seemingly inconsistent level of effort on defense. Though no-one questions his talent or athletic ability, Ellis has been one of analytics' favorite whipping boys for years thanks to a volume shooting game built around long jumpers, which Ellis is shockingly poor at.
What was perhaps most perplexing about the acquisition of Ellis was the fact that Dallas had already committed significant salary to Jose Calderon, another guard who is best when being the guy with the ball in his hands and worst when trying to stop the guy with the ball in his hands.
There are no perfect players, of course, and the idea seemed to be that the bread and butter of this team would be a high-powered offense that would simply outscore opponents with a diverse, multi-faceted attack. Maybe they wouldn't stop a lot of people, but not too many would stop them, either. At the very least, the passing acumen of this backcourt would be an overwhelming improvement over last year's version that featured shrinking violet O.J. Mayo and a revolving door at point guard.
For Ellis, the early returns were spectacular. Through four games, Ellis had 35 field goal attempts, 29 assists, and just 6 turnovers. He was shooting 54% from the floor and 50% from three point range. Even if one was to assume the outside shooting percentage was unusually high, the patience Ellis was clearly playing with was noticeable, and the restraint commendable.
Serving as the defacto point guard with Jose Calderon out nursing a hamstring injury, and rookie Gal Mekel essentially thrown into the deep end, Ellis was asked to facilitate the offense and he did so admirably, showing a particular knack for finding the big on the pick and roll. Whether it was Dirk, Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright or DeJuan Blair, Ellis was setting up teammates he'd barely played with in perfect spots, using his speed to get in the lane and showcasing a great feel for spacing to find the open man in rhythm.
When Ellis did call his own name, it usually came in the flow of the offense and often close to the basket, where Ellis is clearly best at finishing the play. Sufficed to say, it was exciting. I was beginning to rethink my own reservations about Monta in Big D.
Then, Jose Calderon came back, and the wheels on "Monta Ellis: Mr. Efficiency" have appeared to come off.
In the team's four preseason games with both free agent signees healthy and together, Ellis has shot 50 times, registered 20 assists, and committed 14 turnovers. The extra chucking has not yielded better results, either: Ellis converted just 28% of these attempts, including 1-12 from behind the three point line.
So what happened?
To be honest, I did worry out loud that Jose's return came with the risk of spoiling what had been a terrific start for Monta. But I never expected Ellis' performance to suffer this drastically. The difference in his numbers with to without Calderon is great enough to make me think it isn't just a cold spell for an up and down player, but something symptomatic within Dallas' plan.
What is most apparent is that Ellis has a lot to learn playing off the ball. When Dallas made the move to get Monta, team supporters pointed to the franchise's success in turning volume shooter Jason Terry into a more efficient playmaker. My criticism of that comparison was simple: Terry could shoot the ball. In JET's second, third and fourth seasons in the NBA with Atlanta, he shot 39, 38 and 37%, respectively, from three. Ellis has only come close to those numbers once in his eight year career, and is a 31.8% three point shooter overall.
Jason Terry, like Monta, was best with the ball, but even if he didn't have a certain play designed for him, he could space the floor and punish defenses for leaving him to double-team Dirk. Monta is not this kind of player, unfortunately. Even closer in, at midrange, where Terry was especially dangerous, Monta is abysmal.
Another issue for Monta seems to be that he does not always adapt well when a play breaks down. After years of being the focal point of the offense in Golden State and Milwaukee, you can still see traces of panic in him when the shot clock starts to wind down. He likely sees the onus as being on him to make something happen, which can lead to holding the ball a little too long and settling for a bad shot late in a possession.
You would think after missing 31 of 50 shots in 4 games, the plan might be to dial things down. Well, not for Monta. Obviously, player interview rhetoric shouldn't be taken too seriously, but if Monta really believes that his biggest problem this preseason has been that he isn't shooting enough, you wouldn't be blamed for feeling concerned about things entering the regular season, when wins and losses actually count.
There is some upside here. While Monta may not be all that great playing off the ball, Jose Calderon is one of the best spot up shooters in the league, and in theory a big part of the Mavs' playbook will be letting Monta and Dirk play the two man game(a la Terry), and have Jose space out(a la Kidd).
Of course, it would be unfortunate if Dallas paid Jose nearly $30 million to stand in the corner and wait for the kickout. As good a passer as Ellis is, Calderon is undoubtedly better, and his superb assist-to-turnover rates were likely the biggest selling point for the Mavs front office after enduring a year of Darren Collison and Mike James. So, even if putting the ball in Monta's hands more helps cover up one of the team's bigger offensive weaknesses, the consequence is a drag on one of its biggest strengths. A sort of basketball catch-22.
This discussion wouldn't matter quite so much if, once again, we weren't talking about the end of the floor where Calderon and Ellis are supposed to dominate. The situation on defense is, even to the more optimistic sort, a cause for concern. If this tandem doesn't develop into the best it possibly can in putting points on the board, then Dallas may find themselves in real trouble.
It seems extremely unlikely that such a move would happen, but as I've said before, the best longterm deployment of Ellis might be as a second unit point guard, the sparkplug off the bench. If we're already trying to compare Ellis to Terry, then we should acknowledge that this was Terry's best role, ultimately, as well, and for precisely the same reasons it might be for Monta. For now, anyway, that's not going to happen, but it's worth keeping in mind.
What Rick Carlisle must hope to convince Monta Ellis is probably what every other coach has hoped to convince Monta Ellis: to attack the basket, to do it relentlessly, and maybe to do it exclusively, if not close to it. While I've spent most of the last 1200 words ragging on what Ellis can't do, I'd be remiss to ignore what he clearly can do, and that is get to the rim. What's more, this is something Dallas fans like me have been screaming for for years. Monta Ellis is a player athletically capable of beating his opponent to the hoop for the most high percentage play in the game, where one of three things(or a combination) usually happens: a layup, a foul, or a defender leaving his man open to come help.
Since Devin Harris left, the Mavericks have not had a player who could consistently do this. And, maybe, thinking about it, we've just found the comparison Mavs fans should really look to for Monta. Harris was a role player on those mid-2000's Mavs teams, and though he didn't put up star quality raw stats, that version of Devin put up true shooting percentages of .574 and .592 his last two years in Dallas by focusing his efforts on attacking, shooting nearly half his attempts at the rim, and drawing fouls. Ellis isn't likely to be that deferential(and he doesn't have Josh Howard and JET to defer to, as Devin did), but stylistically you've found a much more fitting match.
Dallas is proud of its tradition of taking players formerly receiving top-biling on lesser teams and making them cogs in the Maverick machine. This is great, but it's predicated on each player's understanding of their circumstances and their acceptance of a particular role. We shouldn't assume that Monta Ellis's absorption of so much volume in his previous stops was due to poor quality of teammate, nor should we assume he will happily accept less volume now that people like us think he has better teammates.
If Monta simply is who he is, and can't make the adjustments needed, then he won't give Dallas more with less, as we all hope. He'll just give them less of the same. And that would be a problem.