Monta Ellis has never met a stat sheet he couldn't stuff.
But over the years his box scores have morphed from incredibly efficient works of art into hurried, mass produced prints. The end result—19.2 points, 6.0 assists and 3.9 rebounds last season—looks strikingly similar to his past production, but the way he reaches those numbers has changed for the worse.
On the verge of his ninth NBA season, his first with the Dallas Mavericks, his basketball reputation has been tarnished. Once regarded as a highly potent offensive spark-plug, Ellis now produces numbers that have lost their luster. He's a volume contributor, who looks at times as though he's incapable of playing winning basketball.
It hasn't always been that way, though, and there's still time for the 27-year-old to reverse the trend. With a little help from his new supporting cast and a reworked mental approach, Ellis can become something he hasn't been in a long time—a respected NBA commodity.
Sharing the Struggle
Ellis' fall into the ranks of the inefficient hasn't been solely the result of unfortunate circumstances, but he has been dealt a few tough hands over the course of his career.
He watched as the "We Believe" Golden State Warriors' playoff roster was gutted around him. He went from an undersized defenseless backcourt in the Bay (with Stephen Curry) to a second one with the Milwaukee Bucks (alongside Brandon Jennings).
His offensive responsibilities rose as his supporting staffs worsened. He needed to create for his teammates, but not to the point of limiting his own production. As the best scorer on the roster, Ellis needed to pour in enough points to compensate for his defensive shortcomings.
His effort wasn't the unmitigated disaster it was made out to be, but that lack of assistance wreaked havoc on his stat line. Here's a look at how Ellis fared as his supporting scorers went from Baron Davis, Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson in 2007-08, to Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova in 2012-13.
This Mavericks roster might not be the most talented one Ellis has played with, but it will be the most offensively beneficial.
For the first time in his career, Ellis will be sharing the floor with a pass-first point guard in Jose Calderon. Not only will Calderon's court vision (see: career 7.2 assists against 1.7 turnovers) help put Ellis in prime scoring chances, it also eases Ellis out of the distributing role he was never meant to play.
As the top scoring option on some bad Warriors and Bucks teams, Ellis was often left on an island with the ball in his hands. And rather than work off the defensive attention being paid to him, his teammates would stand around and wait for Ellis to make his move.
For someone who's never been a strong shooter from distance (career 31.8 three-point percentage), the lack of any shooting or passing threats closed off all windows to efficiency. He'd either drive into nonexistent lanes or fire ill-advised attempts from deep—there wasn't a right choice to be made.
But not only has Ellis shaken those setup duties, he's also lost the label of primary scorer. That honor falls on the shoulders of Dirk Nowitzki, the most complete offensive teammate Ellis has ever had.
With Nowitzki drawing the lion's share of defensive attention, Ellis will have more opportunities to show his strengths in the 1-on-1 game. Quick off the dribble and acrobatic near the rim, he can rediscover his true calling as a lethal secondary option.
He may never average 25 points again. But as Mavs owner Mark Cuban told Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News, his impact could shift from the stat sheet to the win column:
He’s committed to playing defense, he’s a willing learner and he’s got a high basketball IQ. I think he wants to be complementary to Dirk as opposed to being the guy. I don’t think Monta is coming in to prove he can score. I think he’s coming in to prove he can win. And there’s a big difference there.
Cuban's taking a few different leaps of faith there—defense and high basketball IQ don't show up in most Ellis scouting reports—but the part about serving a complementary role is particularly intriguing.
If Ellis is willing to share the spotlight, especially now that he has someone to share it with, it will be a major step in his climb back to efficiency. The next step in the process can't come from the outside, it can only come from within.
Amid those bad hands he's been dealt, Ellis hasn't always kept the best poker face.
When he tore a ligament in his left ankle over the summer of 2008, he panicked. Just months after inking a six-year, $66 million contract extension with Golden State, he claimed the injury happened during a game of pickup basketball. The real cause was a mo-ped accident, which violated his contract and eventually earned him a 30-game suspension.
When the Warriors drafted scoring guard Stephen Curry the following summer, Ellis trashed the pairing before it ever got started. He told reporters at media day in 2009, via Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group, that the two could not share the floor. It was hardly the way for a team leader to greet the franchise's top-10 pick.
But those stumbles can be chalked up to a lack of maturity.
His on-the-court struggles are more concerning for Dallas.
Just 6'3", 185 pounds, the combo guard has inherent challenges due to his lack of size. It presents a host of problems at both ends, and those won't go away by pairing up with Jose Calderon (6'3", 210 lbs).
The biggest challenge for Ellis is not letting those problems keep him from positively impacting the game.
That means not settling for the long jump shots that have plagued his shooting percentages of late.
Via ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon, Ellis shot 32.3 percent on off-the-dribble jumpers in 2012-13, last among all players with at least 250 attempts. His 28.7 three-point percentage was the worst among all qualified shooters last season, yet he finished tied for the 41st most attempts in the league (328).
With his explosiveness and Charmin soft touch around the basket, he should never stop attacking. Good things will happen when he puts the ball on the floor, and not just for himself.
Those dribble drives fueled his past successes. And they should propel his future production now that he'll be surrounded by a horde of perimeter marksmen: Nowitzki (career 38.1 percent), Calderon (39.9), Vince Carter (37.6) and Wayne Ellington (38.2).
It also means competing for entire defensive possessions.
He doesn't have a bad feel for the defensive end (career 1.7 steals per game), but his tendencies and techniques need work. He gambles more than he should and struggles to keep himself from getting posted up by bigger guards.
With Samuel Dalembert and Brandan Wright guarding his back, Ellis shouldn't feel left on an island. But he can't use that as an excuse to gamble.
Ellis has shown the necessary defensive effort in spurts. It's time for him to harness that energy for a full 48 minutes.
Reason for Hope
When Ellis signed his three-year, $25 million deal, he was seen as something of a desperation move by Cuban. After another summer sans superstar signing, Ellis was Cuban's half-court heave in free agency.
But the odds of this being a success are better than advertised.
Players don't stumble into Ellis' across the board production. His scoring drives discussions for better or worse, but he's left imprints with his passing, rebounding and steals.
It hasn't always been pretty, but Ellis has continually gotten the job done. For the first time in a long time, he can expect to see the same from his teammates.
A successful season may be nothing more than one of the Western Conference's final playoff tickets, but anything can happen in the postseason. If Nowitzki and Ellis can feed off of each other, that's a tough one-two punch for any defense to weather.
Ellis isn't going to be the superstar that Cuban's been looking for. But if he turns out to be a winner, then this was definitely worth Cuban's investment.