By Jonathan Hartzell for NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Most NBA fans and analysts thought they’d figured out the game of Monta Ellis as he entered his ninth season in the league: an inefficient volume shooter with an elite ability to finish at the rim when he chooses to attack it. This style, referred to Ellis as “Monta-ball,” quickly caught the ire of Milwaukee Bucks fans as it produced few wins and many bad shooting nights during his one and a half seasons with the team. It’s why Ellis was booed by a hostile crowd upon his return to Milwaukee as a member of the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night.
But what Ellis has proven so far this season, and especially Saturday night, is he’s more than what most have made him out to be. Ellis is averaging 23.8 points, 4.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game while shooting 47.9 percent, much better than his 41.6 percent last season. However, the major difference between this year’s “Monta-ball” and the one seen in Milwaukee is the majority of his offense is coming near the basket rather than behind the 3-point line. Ellis leads the league in points per game off drives at 9.8 points per game, according to NBA.com/stats. He’s also dropped his 3-point attempts from 4.0 per game last season to 2.4. He still can’t shoot them as his percentage hovers below 30 percent. But the fact that he’s made an effort to reduce his lowest percentage shot is a great sign for the Mavericks.
“Sometimes, when I’m open or there’s no time on the shot clock [I’ll shoot a 3]. But the majority of the time I’m just trying to attack and make plays,” Ellis said after the game in Milwaukee. “I’m focused on doing what I’ve been doing all season: attacking the basket and finding players.”
Besides the concerted effort by Ellis to change where he finds his offense, the uptick in his production can also be attributed to him finally being within a good offensive system, as Kirk Goldsbery of Grantland points out. Goldsberry proposes that the so-far inefficient career of Ellis has as much to do with the inefficient teams which surrounded him in Golden State and Milwaukee as Ellis’ shot selection and decision making. Ellis has been an inefficient player because the bad teams he’s been on were routinely incapable of creating efficient shots.
But the early season production of Ellis might have more to do with him having the opportunity to play with Dirk Nowitzki. The talent of Nowitzki allows Ellis to face far fewer double-teams, which gives him space to penetrate and create offense around the rim. It also opens up a deadly pick-and-roll game between Ellis and Nowitzki which so far has helped Ellis connect on 53.6 percent of his shots when he’s the pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Synergy Sports. The offensive system developed by coach Rick Carlisle in Dallas is centered on Nowitzki. The offense of Ellis happens to snuggly fit into it.
“Anyone [who] plays with Dirk is better by nature of the things that he presents to the opponents on the floor,” Carlisle said about Nowitzki’s effect on Ellis. “The two of them together have been very effective.”
Unfortunately for Ellis, there are two ends to a basketball court and the problems he’s always faced on defense are still apparent. His biggest problem is gambling for steals far too often which creates a few highlight steals each game but many more open layups for his matchup. It’s a problem which is clear in this GIF made by Nate Duncan at Hoopsworld. If the Mavericks hope to make noise in the playoffs they will need to have a more disciplined defensive effort from Ellis.
The one-and-a-half seasons Ellis played in Milwaukee may look like an outlier when we look back on his finished career. He could very well forget his inefficient past and turn into a productive veteran who accepts his role as a penetrator and finisher. He may even give up on his dream of becoming a proficient 3-point shooter. But what’s clear is if he continues to focus on attacking rather than shooting then the Mavericks will have finally found themselves a proficient second-fiddle to Nowitzki.