Canny basketball observers are probably well aware that Monta Ellis's reputation has far exceeded his actual production for quite some time now. Ellis is a prolific scorer, sure, but his glaring lack of efficiency (which stems from a brazen lack of conscience when it comes to shot selection) drags his overall offensive impact down to levels not usually commensurate with a player of his immense gifts.
Since posting a 58.0 true shooting percentage as a 22-year-old during the 2007-08 campaign, Ellis hasn't topped 53.6 in any single season and has averaged a paltry 51.4 mark that would normally place him three-to-four percent below average for a guard who plays similar minutes in any given year. Betraying his quick first step and a pretty good handle, Ellis has been far too willing to settle for jump shots rather than attack the rim with abandon.
In that breakout 2007-08 campaign, a whopping 46.1 percent of Ellis's field-goal attempts came inside the restricted area, where he shot an incredible 65.1 percent, per NBA.com. Compare that with this past season, when only 31.8 percent of Ellis's shots came inside the restricted area, and even though he shot a still respectable 58.1 percent from that distance, it's easy to see why his efficiency has tailed off so much over the years. When the quality of attempted shots drops, shooting percentage drops accordingly.
However, Ellis's drop in shooting efficiency has been somewhat offset by a surprising rise in passing capabilities. While he assisted on only 16.9 percent of teammate baskets while he was on the court over the course of his first three seasons in the league, Ellis has been the primary helper on 24.4 percent of his teammates' scores in the five seasons since, all while keeping his turnover percentage steady. Appropriately, his per 36 minutes assists average has jumped from 3.9 to 5.2 over the same time period.
All of which is to say that while Ellis's reputation as a scorer is clearly wildly overblown, his reputation for playmaking has been undersold, likely because he's usually been so unwilling to create for anyone but himself, other than as something of a last resort. Now that he's signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks, Ellis's passing should come to the forefront—if he'll let it.
Never has Ellis had as capable or as dangerous a pick-and-roll partner as he will in Dirk Nowitzki. Ellis has paired with the likes of Andris Biedrins, Troy Murphy, Al Harrington, Anthony Randolph, Vladimir Radmanovic, Anthony Tolliver, David Lee, Ekpe Udoh, Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders over the years, none of whom—save for Lee—could hold a candle to Nowitzki if Dirk tied his off hand behind his back.
Ellis's most productive season scoring out of pick-and-rolls in the last four years came during the 2010-11 campaign, when he registered 0.96 points per play as a ball-handler in those situations, according to mySynergySports (subscription required). It's no coincidence that that was the only full season Ellis played with Lee, a pick-and-pop extraordinaire. Lee loves to shoot that mid-range jumper out of the pick-and-pop, and indeed he shot 44.3 percent from that distance in 2010-11. Ellis assisted on nearly one-third of Lee's made mid-range jumpers that season, as well as nearly one-fourth of his baskets in the paint, per NBA.com. 51 of the 122 (41.8 percent) Lee baskets Ellis assisted on that season came as the result of a pick-and-roll.
Ellis should be able to make similarly sweet music with Nowitzki when Mavs coach Rick Carlisle puts them in pick-and-rolls together this coming season. Everything Lee can do out of the pick-and-roll, Nowitzki can do better. Dirk routinely shoots in the low-to-mid 50s percentage-wise on mid-range shots, and as a result he nearly always draws the type of stay-attached coverage necessary to keep the ball out of his hands and prevent an easy basket.
Nowitzki and Jason Terry formed one of the most fearsome pick-and-pop combinations in the league during the Jet's time in Dallas, with Dirk's shooting abilities clearing the way for Terry to drive to the basket (when he was younger) or let his jumper fly (as he got older). Similarly, Terry's scoring ability sometimes forced opposing bigs to stay with him around a screen just a beat too long, allowing Nowitzki to get himself open for a jumper or a drive to the rim.
Ellis should be able to have a similar degree of success, provided he's willing to work at doing things the right way. He's a better straight-line driver at this point in his career than mid-30s Terry was, and he's a far better passer as well. The threat of a Dirk jumper is ever-present, so Ellis should have ample space to drive the lane when blaring around a Nowitzki screen. And if that big man stays on him for even a second too long, Monta has the passing skill to deliver the ball to Dirk for a jumper, a layup or a drive to the lane. It's the willingness to make that pass consistently that he must develop.
So far in his career, Ellis hasn't shown that he has the requisite decision-making skills to choose the right pass-shoot-drive avenue every time, or even most or half of the time. It would be a pretty drastic shift for him to suddenly become a heady scorer who picks his spots and makes the right distribution when the coverage dictates it. But he's also never played with a player like Dirk. If Monta commits to the process, he'll get the type of results he hasn't seen since very early in his career.