"What the f*** is wrong with Monta Ellis?"
That's all that was racing through my mind on Sunday night as I watched Ellis chuck brick after brick after brick in that disparaging loss to the Phoenix Suns. We all know the story by now -- Ellis chucked the Mavs into a loss, missed all his shots in the fourth quarter and sparked about a nice two-day debate on his value to the Mavs and what to do with him.
Hell, it even led to a dreaded "locker room problems" story from Tim MacMahon, who has a pulse on the Mavs locker room better than anyone right now. Rick Carlisle QUESTIONED WHETHER THE TEAM HAD A SOUL.
Ellis, of course, promptly went off against the Spurs on Tuesday with 38 points on 16-27 shooting. It was probably his best scoring game of the year and he looked like the Monta of old.
Watch the third quarter of that Spurs win and it's very clear to see why Monta was so good: he was getting into the paint again. Monta's shot selection has been tilted a bit this year as he's attempting more mid-range jumpers than shots in the restricted area (last year for the season, it was vice versa).
For what it's worth, there was a reason for that switch early in the season. Monta was making mid-range jumpers at a more than acceptable rate ... until February. Then he fell off the wagon, which coincides with a hip injury he suffered in a late January game against the Clippers.
Monta's bread and butter for years has been the pick and roll. He's a viable playmaker and scorer when paired with a competent roll/pop man. Defenses have almost always defended Ellis the same in pick and rolls with the defending big backpedaling to allow room for Ellis to launch a jumper. Would you rather have Monta shoot a jumper that goes in about 40 percent of the time OR would you rather him lay it in or make a play for his teammates after crawling into the paint? The choice is easy for defenses, but it still didn't stop Ellis. He was AMAZING last year on generating points on his drives last year, whether that was for his teammates or himself.
This year, Monta is averaging 5.7 points per game on drives individually and 9.8 points per game on drives for his team, per NBA.com. That's still good but not elite. Last season? 7.2 points per game individually and 12.5 points per game for the team on drives. Both of those marks were tops in the NBA.
Since the All Star break, only a quarter of his attempted field goals have been at the rim -- 73 of 292 total shots.
There isn't one set reason for the drop off, but a multitude of things:
- Ellis clearly is (or was) still suffering from a hip injury that hinders him from getting into the paint
- The Rajon Rondo trade has thrown off Dallas' spacing a tad
- Ellis is just missing a lot of good looks.
All those factors contribute to the recent struggles, some more so than others. Let's take a look at that Phoenix game, where Ellis ran pick and roll after pick and roll down the stretch and continually pulled up for mid-range jumpers. He clanked them all.
What was worrisome about those looks were they were the exact looks the defense wanted to give him. Just look at how far Alex Len is backing off from Ellis as he comes around a screen. Also note how Rondo's man ALWAYS has at least one foot in the paint every time. It has to wear on Ellis knowing there's a wall of defenders in front of him.
That's the shot the Suns will live with. What they won't live with is Ellis getting past Len and either attacking the basket or potentially opening up corner 3-point shots for Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons who are flanking Ellis on each side.
Before the All Star break, Ellis would have either a) made a couple of those shots or b) kept probing into the paint without settling. That was the disturbing part of that Suns' game -- Ellis continued to be content with the same low percentage shot over and over again when we know he's better than that.
Here's the genius of Monta Ellis: despite defenses playing him for the drive in every pick and roll, he still finds ways to manipulate that space and create points in the paint, whether for himself or his teammates.
That's what the new NBA is all about - it's about space. It's about the space you're given to work with on offense and how you can turn that space into a positive shot and it's about the space you're willing to give up on defense to force teams into a less desirable shot.
Ellis wasn't using that space wisely against the Suns. Spacing is currency for today's NBA offenses. What Ellis did with that money on Sunday was the equivalent of investing in Enron.
What he needed to be doing was exactly what he did against the Spurs on Tuesday. Watch as two of the best defenders in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, guard Ellis in a pick and roll almost exactly the same as the Suns did on Sunday.
See that? Ellis has the speed, ball-handling and dexterity to whip past backpedaling defenders in these pick and rolls and still create a layup out of it. He did that a lot in the third quarter, along with getting out on the break and scoring in transition. In fact, I only counted maybe once or twice Ellis pulled up for a jumper in the pick and roll on Tuesday -- most of his jumpers were late-clock desperation or isolation pullups.
Ellis should never use his jumper to set up his drive because he's not Jason Terry. With Dirk unable to post up every time down the floor and Parsons still being weaned into a more authoritative role in the offense, the Mavs will live and die with Ellis. Make no mistake, no matter how improved he is with his jumper, if Ellis turns into a pick-and-roll jump shooter like Jason Terry, the Mavs will fail.
What makes Ellis special is his ability to be more than that. He simply has to continue to attack those bigs in the pick and roll, probe deeper into the paint and open things up for the Mavericks. There were still too many jumpers for my liking against the Spurs but still, Tuesday night was the most encouraging sign we've seen from Ellis in well over a month.
After the game, Carlisle initially joked, "Too much Monta, don't you think?" but amended it to "just the right amount of Monta" a little later. That's exactly what the Mavericks need to find themselves in the season's final 10 games.