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The Pressure On Monta To Be Monta

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Monta Ellis is a wonderful player in that his imperfections are always as visible as everything he does well. He wrongs, then rights, then errs, and corrects again. He puzzles us all a la J.R. Smith one possession, then becomes Derrick Rose the next. Watch Monta Ellis closely and you’ll see a player who can do almost anything with the ball in his hands — but it’s his willingness to test the limits of “almost” that attracts us further. When he receives a pass, anything can happen — beautiful or dumbfounding, sometimes both. Simply put, Monta Ellis is the reason we watch basketball.

The problem, then, with attempting to write a dissertation on the MontaBall experiment is that Ellis himself is the type of player whose style doesn’t jive with that sort of thing. It’s virtually impossible to assess Ellis’ game objectively because narrative follows the guy around everywhere he goes. Every shot he takes is put into context. The degree to which we’ve exercised the fundamental attribution error to criticize his shot selection has become comical. I want to defend him, and I think many others do as well. In many ways, Ellis has much in common with Rudy Gay, although a legitimate (and probably correct) case could be made that Ellis is better than Gay, anyway.

We know Monta believes he has it all. At some point, we just need to accept him for what he is. He’s great, and he’s everything less than great. Dallas knew what it was getting into when it signed Ellis this offseason. It’s become painfully clear through 35 Mavericks games that the offense relies so heavily on Ellis that if he has an off night — not in the shooting sense — the team folds. Ellis is probably not the type of player around which to build an entire offense, but that’s what Dallas has done for better or worse. So far the results have been more positive than negative, and a lot of that has to do with Monta.

Anyone with Google and an elementary understanding of simple statistics knows Ellis has struggled to put up efficient numbers throughout his career. But his numbers are up this season. For the most part, he’s done well to shed his label as a trigger-happy ballhog. We know he’s a gambler on defense and, to a certain extent, that gambler’s mentality carries over to the offensive end. He recklessly turns corners with tremendous pace, he throws himself at the rim, he attacks contact. He’s so much fun to watch when he’s doing the things he’s good at doing. He has world-class speed — some of the most exhilarating Mavericks moments this season have come when Ellis accelerates to seventh gear on the fast break en route to a layup and, probably, free throws. At the beginning of the season, bliss was felt, smiles were shared, and Ellis loyalists were pleased. For example, seven of his 18 shots against Houston on Nov. 20 came at the rim, and four more came from within 15 feet. He scored 37 points that night. This sight was at one point common. He lived in the lane, and he lived at the line. Dallas is 9-2 when he shoots at least seven free throws.

But then there he’ll go again, taking just one shot at the rim like he did against a horrible Minnesota interior defense on Dec. 30. He was 3-of-14 that night, and 12 of those shots came from at least 15 feet. Against the Knicks on Jan. 5, Iman Shumpert so effectively used his length to counter Ellis’ quickness that he was rendered almost useless. He took four three-pointers and shot 2-of-7 outside the lane, and Tyson Chandler didn’t play outside the first five minutes. He feeds his own narrative more than any writer can. One second you love him, one second you hate him. He makes you feel joy, he makes you feel pain. That’s Monta Ellis. It’s like being in love with Summer Finn.

Unfortunately for the Mavericks, they desperately need Good Monta every night to win. The Mavs’ defense is nowhere near league average, and with Shawn Marion battling a shoulder injury that will keep him sidelined for at least a couple games, the D won’t get better any time soon. It’s the offense that keeps the Mavericks’ engine humming, and Ellis holds the keys. Dallas scores 1.23 points per Ellis drive, second-most in the league among the 25 most-frequent rim attackers (only Ty Lawson and Tony Parker drive more often than Ellis, but it’s Tyreke Evans and the Pelicans who produce the most points per drive). Ellis himself scores 7.9 points per game on drives, 1.3 more than second-place Tony Parker and two full points more than anyone else in the NBA.

He clearly has an elite skill, but given that he already drives the ball more often than 90 percent of starting point guards, it’s foolish to ask him to do it more often. However, that’s what Dallas needs. It’s not as if Ellis is an elite finisher at the rim; he converts his attempts at the rim at a below-average 52.5 percent clip this season. But his penetration opens up lanes and shots for other players, and that’s where the magic happens. The Mavericks roster isn’t one of creators — outside of Ellis, the only players who can consistently find their own shots are Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter. Nowitzki thrives when spotting up as Ellis drives, scoring 8.0 points on catch-and-shoot field goals, fourth-highest in the league. His 3.3 catch-and-shoot field goals per game ties for the league lead with LaMarcus Aldridge, and Dirk is one of 11 players in the NBA to shoot at least 48 percent from the field on spot-ups and at least 40 percent on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. Jose Calderon, similarly, shoots 45.9 percent from three on catch-and-shoot attempts (only Kyle Korver and Wes Matthews attempt more per game while completing a higher percentage).

Dallas is at its best when Monta is at his best, so if he has a bad game — simply, if he can’t get to the rim — Dallas will lose. To wit, in Dallas wins, Ellis shoots 38.4 percent of the team’s free throws while he’s on the floor. In losses, that number shrinks to 29.1 percent. And in January, the number is an even lower 23.9 percent (Dallas is 2-3 this month). Conversely, in Dallas losses Dirk shoots 40.1 percent of the team’s free throws. In wins, he takes just 26 percent of them. If Dirk isn’t shooting free throws, that means he’s spotting up. If he’s spotting up, that means Ellis is able to drive to the basket.

So, in sum, if Monta isn’t terrorizing perimeter defenses, Dallas will not win. The shaky foundation of the Mavericks’ offense holds up an even more delicate house of cards. Ellis is very obviously not a selfish player — the extremely unselfish LeBron James passes the ball only 1.7 times more per game than Ellis. The fact that Monta is shooting 41.4 percent during the last nine games is annoying, and it’s definitely brought up the “Monta is inefficient” discussion again. But at this point in the season, every coaching staff knows almost all there is to know about most teams. Every team now knows that to keep Ellis out of the lane and off the free throw line is to beat the Mavericks.

It’s up to Dallas as a team to adjust. Ellis has been wonderful this season, and he will continue to be wonderful. He will make you “ooh,” and he will make you “ahh” (in both the awestruck and pain-stricken way), but he’s playing very high-level basketball on a team that is desperate for him to perform. He is what he is. It’s time the rest of the team gives him a hand.

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