When Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki suits up his thirteenth All-Star game tonight, he'll have matched the total appearances of all but eight players in NBA history. Only three active players--Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett--will have more appearances than Nowitzki.
That's a reflection of just how impressive his career has been. But you can count his coach, Rick Carlisle, among the observers who don't think Dirk was particularly deserving of the honor this year.
Carlisle said this week that Dallas guard Monta Ellis, and not Nowitzki, should be representing the team in Madison Square Garden tonight. An even stronger case could arguably be made for center Tyson Chandler, who is putting up remarkably similar numbers to Duncan.
But it's worth considering why Ellis appeared to get no serious consideration for an All-Star berth as a Maverick--even as an injury replacement--when he's had two of his best all around seasons as a high usage player on two winning squads. Carlisle noted that if things continue like this for Ellis, he would probably the best player to never be named an All-Star.
It's unclear how NBA commissioner Adam Silver selects All-Star injury replacements (Nowitzki replaced the injured Anthony Davis in the game). He could be going by the coaches' vote, the fan vote or his own personal preference.
Ellis is averaging 19.8 points and 4.5 assists this season--first and second on the team for those categories, respectively. As noted by ESPN's Tim MacMahon this week, he also leads the league in clutch points with 104 in 2014-2015. Nowitzki, meanwhile, has struggled to maintain the consistency of his incredibly efficient 2013-2014 campaign.
For better or worse, Ellis has never been particularly beloved by NBA fans in general or the media. Golden State fans famously booed Warriors owner Joe Lacob after the team traded Ellis in 2012, but Monta didn't finish in the top 10 in All-Star voting this season.
Before he was signed by the Mavericks as a discounted free agent, the Ellis pickup was criticized as a risky acquisition of a high volume scorer with an inefficient shot selection. Less generously, fans and NBA observers have used the "S" label to describe Monta. Former coach Don Nelson once called him a "selfish little bastard" and Mark Jackson essentially implied the same.
The rare moments of candor he allowed himself with members of the media seemed to only confirm those ideas. His comments that he and Stephen Curry were not a good fit together in Golden State are still seen as evidence by many that he's a poor teammate. When Ellis claimed in 2012 that there was no real difference between his play and that of Heat star Dwyane Wade, famously declaring "Monta Ellis has it all," he was laughed at for his lack of self awareness.
A lot of this is on Ellis himself. But along the way during his tenure in Golden State and then Milwaukee the poor shot selection became reflective of the teammate and person. The Mavs front office, for its part, saw a player they could put in a position to succeed surrounding him with quality shooters and steady ball handlers like Jose Calderon and Nowitzki.
Ellis' reticence to take part in social media or give colorful quotes in interviews (which is understandable considering the way the media has painted him over the years) hasn't allowed him to steer the narrative about his character. Instead, that narrative has been driven largely by his on-court play, which for years before arriving in Dallas was viewed as inefficient and selfish.
A consensus rightly formed this past this week that Charles Barkley's rant against modern analytics was mostly nonsense. But one consequence the stats-heavy view of the league that has become more and more dominant is how the play--and personality--of a dude like Ellis gets picked apart. Even after changing his game to become the league leader in pick and roll possessions in his second season with the Mavs, those perceptions of Ellis appear slow to change.
A similar dynamic can be detected in the perceptions of Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins. NBA media disparaged the guy for years for his immaturity and volatile temper--as if those things were holding the Kings back and not inferior coaching and a mismanaged roster.
With solid coaching by Mike Malone and improved play from the rest of the Kings' starting lineup, the team got off to a surprising 9-6 start this year and Cousins put up MVP numbers before being sidelined by a case of viral meningitis. But he was still left off the All-Star rosters by coaches in favor of players who had been objectively less productive on the court this season before eventually being named an injury replacement.
Ellis is never going to put up Cousins-like numbers if he sticks with the Mavs beyond this season. The team is too committed to maintaining a balanced roster. But play season-after-season at a 50-win pace and the team will at least get a sniff at one All-Star nod. For players who develop the rep like Monta or DeMarcus, however, it can take multiple seasons rehabbing your perception on the court before you can even generate any buzz for the midseason showcase.