In the immediate aftermath of the Monta Ellis signing, Jonathan Tjarks and I decided to sit down and iron out the good and the bad of the polarizing, enigmatic former Milwaukee Buck guard.
In evaluating the Monta Ellis signing, it’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Or, in this case, the good be the enemy of the halfway decent. The Mavs have made a lot of mistakes over the last two years, but given the situation they found themselves in, acquiring Monta isn’t one of them.
Monta Ellis may not have it all, but he is a good basketball player. He’s easily the most explosive perimeter scorer in Dallas since Jason Terry began aging. He’s also a very underrated passer whose averaged 4.7 assists on 2.8 turnovers a game in his career.
In Milwaukee, Ellis had to be a volume scorer. They really didn’t too many other options. The Bucks had abysmal floor spacing and no frontcourt player who could create his own shot. Their entire offense was Monta and Brandon Jennings going 1-on-1 and taking tough shots.
In Dallas, Ellis will be surrounded by guys who can space the floor for him, which will create a lot more driving lanes to the rim. The pick-and-roll with Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki will be impossible to defend. Even if you go under the screen, Ellis is still fast enough to turn the corner and wreak havoc.
Just as importantly, with Jose Calderon around, Ellis won’t be the primary decision-maker. Calderon is a great floor general, which is exactly what you need next to Ellis. He can control the tempo of the game and keep the offense in rhythm so Ellis isn’t dominating the ball.
An offense with Dirk, Ellis and Calderon as the three main cogs is going to score a lot of points. Coming off the bench, you still have Devin Harris, Vince Carter and Wayne Ellington. That’s an extremely potent offensive team.
Obviously, the concern comes on the defensive end of the floor. This puts a lot of pressure on Shawn Marion, who not only will have to defend the best perimeter scorer in the starting lineup but will also play a lot of minutes as a small-ball 4 behind Dirk.
At the center position, you still have Bernard James and Brandan Wright (if he re-signs). In his rookie season, James showed that he can block shots and protect the rim. As his defensive recognition improves, he should be a stop-gap defensive 5 who can plug some of the leaks.
The lineup I would really to see is Wright/Dirk/Marion/Ellis/Calderon. They may not be able to defend anyone, but no one is really going to be able to defend them either. The Mavs are still a mediocre team, but they will have an offensive identity that will make them very tough, especially at home.
In the big picture, this is a move that will make them more competitive this season while not really affecting their flexibility going forward. Monta is a 27-year old guard in the prime of his career whose always been productive statistically. He’s not a perfect player, but he can help an NBA team. Especially this one.
The issues with Monta center around the massive disconnect between his skill/athletic ability and the results of their implementation. A guard who is very quick and can jump, Monta has all the ideal physical traits in a two-guard, aside from height. He is also a terrific ballhandler who can drive to the basket, pass, and he has shown a knack for hitting big shots late in games. Yet there may not be many players in modern history with ostensibly nice statline more hollow than Monta’s.
His scoring often comes at the cost of huge numbers of used possessions, and at low efficiency, thanks to questionable shot selection. Despite shooting under 30% from three the last year and a half in Milwaukee, he averaged almost four attempts a game. This past season, his true shooting percentage ranked 118th out of 148 guards. At the other end of the court, his defensive effort is often lacking, and his short arms exacerbate the lack of height when trying to stop opposing shooting guards. Though he averages over two steals a game, he gambles far too much. Milwaukee defended over two points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor. That mark, while still fairly poor, represented the best showing by Ellis in years.
Perhaps the real problem begins with Monta Ellis being one of the quintessential "shooting guard in point guard’s body" guys. At 6’3 with the aforementioned short arms, Ellis just isn’t big enough to truly bother the shots of opposing wings, despite his athleticism. Combine this with his inconsistent effort -- likely Monta’s way of "saving himself" for the offensive end -- and you have a guy really doesn’t stop much of anyone well. He also doesn’t add much as a rebounder. While his passing acumen is there, Ellis usually prefers to call his own number, and will do so early in the shot clock, and no matter how close the defender is.
As I see it, there are two useful ways of employing Ellis. The first is to have a big point guard next to him, capable of picking up the slack by checking 2-guards. The second is to use him in a bench role, similar to what sixth man of the year J.R. Smith does with the Knicks. Dallas has opted for door number three: paying him too much to come off the bench, and pairing him with fellow sieve Jose Calderon.
On offense, it is conceivable this could work. As an off-guard, Ellis is a fair enough passer, and he can drive to the basket. However, let’s consider here that Ellis has taken between 15-22 shots in each of the last six seasons. He won’t get that here, and to assume he will take well(or willingly) to this adjustment comes at risk of peril.
On defense, unless Dallas pulls off an adroit move for a potentially elite defensive center(and Samuel Dalembert isn’t that), it’s very hard not to foresee disaster. Ellis and Calderon together may be, without exaggeration, the worst defensive starting backcourt in the NBA. Undoubtedly, they will near the front of the conversation.
Maybe more pressing than Ellis himself is his contract in relation to what Dallas has to spend and what it needed to spend on. Ellis is now seventh(!) new guard Dallas has brought in, counting the two draft picks. Center, meanwhile, remains a gaping hole filled temporarily by the non-guaranteed contract of Bernard James, and free agents Brandan Wright and Elton Brand. Adding Samuel Dalembert to the mix is a passable solution, but comes at the likely cost of trading Shawn Marion, which in turns make small forward something of a question mark. If this is the part of the story where Dallas remarkably pulls off an Omer Asik-trade, all is forgiven, but for now it looks bad.
If you look hard enough, just about any player can be rationalized as an addition to your team, when you were just 41-41 and let nearly all your free agents go. That being said, Ellis is an awful consolation prize for Dwight Howard(or Tyson Chandler). Check around the blogosphere at the reactions of former Ellis teams, or those he was projected to sign with. They are all celebrating right now. What does that tell you?
What do you think? Is Monta going to have it all in Dallas? Or are we going to be throwing a lot of remotes this year?