Context is everything in the NBA.
Basic box score stats can only tell you so much about how a given player is doing or to what extent he's contributing to (or responsible for) the end result on any given night. Even the most sophisticated of advanced metrics can only tell you so much about one person's value on the basketball court or whether he is or can be a "winner."
The Dallas Mavericks, though, just might be in possession of the formula that every team has been after. At least, that would seem to be the case when considering the early-season success of Monta Ellis.
A run that kept chugging along during Dallas' 123-104 demolition of the defenseless Los Angeles Lakers at the American Airlines Center on Tuesday. Ellis finished the game with 30 points in just 31 minutes, thanks in large part to a superb shooting effort: 11-of-14 from the field, 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
You could lay much (if not most) of the blame on the Lakers' porous defense for Ellis' excellence if you so chose. Certainly, there's no ignoring just how easily Monta was able to blow by Steve Nash and Steve Blake, and just how open Ellis was every time the Lakers' bigs were slow to rotate in support.
But that wouldn't do much to explain how Ellis lit up the Atlanta Hawks for 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting in the Mavs' opener or how he's managed to shoot better than 53 percent from the field so far this season. Nor would a single opponent's defensive putridity clarify why Ellis has notched eight free throw attempts per game—a mark that, if it holds, would easily be the best of his nine-year NBA career.
Context, though, could help.
For much of his career, Ellis has been the sort of player on whom mediocre teams have depended to not just score, but to do so in bunches. He became one of the Golden State Warriors' top options in 2007-08 (i.e. the year after "We Believe") and established himself as one of the premier scorers in the NBA following his recovery from injuries suffered during a moped accident in the summer of 2008.
That accident, and the series of untruths that preceded the eventual revelation, cost Ellis dearly with regard to his reputation in the eyes of Golden State's management.
And, as enjoyable as Ellis' scoring exploits were to watch at times, they were often cold comfort for Warriors fans, who watched as their team slipped deeper and deeper into perennial lottery territory. Along the way, Ellis developed a reputation as a "volume shooter," as someone who needs lots of shots to put up gaudy scoring totals.
That rap followed him when the Warriors traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2011-12 season. Once again, Ellis was counted on to bring home the offensive bacon for his team, albeit with another shot-happy scoring guard by his side. A stodgy, stagnant offense absent any decent options up front left Ellis with more than his fair share of bad shots and the blogospheric ire that typically accompanies them.
So, when the Mavs came calling with a four-year deal worth just over $32 million this past summer, naturally, there was some grumbling from those (like yours truly) who tend to grumble about how wealthy men go about spending their money on basketball players.
Not without some good reason, though. Ellis, the story goes, was an inefficient scorer and a defensive sieve. His poor shot selection, combined with the lingering effects of prior injuries, had him following a path that inevitably led him to the career-low field goal percentage (.416) that he posted in Milwaukee last season.
How could the stats-obsessed Mavs fork over their cash to this guy? How could they possibly hold up MONTA FRICKIN' ELLIS as their biggest signing of the summer after passing on their own title defense in 2011-12 so that they could lure another superstar (i.e. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams) to Big D?
Because, again, context is everything.
Perhaps the Mavs understood better than most that Monta would benefit so handsomely from (finally) playing alongside a star like Dirk Nowitzki, who can (and does) command a larger share of the opposing defense's attention.
Perhaps Ellis knew it himself, and is now relishing the opportunity in front of him. As he said at his introductory press conference in Dallas this past August, Monta, like Brian Fantana's favorite cologne, was asked to do "60 percent of everything" when he was with the Warriors and the Bucks (per The Associated Press).
That's no longer the case for Ellis. Now, he can be the guy who gets good looks because Dirk is out there, particularly whilst running the pick-and-roll with the giant German. Ellis addressed this very point after Big D's blowout win over the purple and gold (via Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com):
No longer must Ellis bail out a stagnant offense orchestrated by an unimaginative coach, as he did in Milwaukee, or launch jumpers at a break-neck pace, as he so often did for Don Nelson in the Bay Area. Instead, he can use his signature quickness and surprising athleticism to get good looks for himself (only four of his 14 shots against LA came outside the paint) and create opportunities for others when the defense collapses (nine assists vs. the Lakers).
All of which both contributes to and is reflective of a greater level of comfort for Ellis in his new digs. He doesn't have to "The Man," the one burdened with the sorts of responsibilities and expectations that usually fall on the shoulders of superstars. Nowitzki fills that role beautifully for the Mavs and has for well over a decade now.
It also helps that Ellis has the support of one of the best coaches in the NBA in Rick Carlisle. Ellis spoke highly of Carlisle upon his introduction to Big D (via The Associated Press):
"That was a great sign for me to know that he's here for me. He's here for the team. Every player on the roster is the same. I heard that through a lot of players who played with him and I played with them. That's his personality and I think it's going to help us a lot."
Likewise, Carlisle—who's one of only four head coaches in the NBA today (along with Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra) with a championship on his resume—seems to appreciate Ellis' abilities and on-court personality better than just about anyone for whom Monta has ever played. Said Carlisle after ushering the Lakers on to Houston (via Sneed of Mavs.com):
Indeed, and now he is playing for a different kind of coach, alongside a different kind of all-time great, on a different kind of team, in a different kind of city.
Which is to say, for the first time in his career, Ellis is reaping the benefits of a stable, successful environment. Sure, the Mavs missed the playoffs last year, but they'd qualified the 12 years prior, thanks in no small part to their rock-solid organizational structure.
Better than that of shifting ownership in Golden State. Better than that of middling contentment in Milwaukee.
Don't discount Ellis' role in pushing Dallas back into the postseason picture in the crowded Western Conference. Remember, the Mavs won 41 games last season, despite a slow recovery from Dirk and a backcourt that featured a rotation of castoffs (Darren Collison, Derek Fisher and Mike James) playing alongside O.J. Mayo. Nowitzki is healthy now, accompanied by a pair of solid guards.
Ellis included, if not Ellis chiefly.
A strong run of efficient production and positive outcomes in the win-loss column could, in time, be enough to expunge Monta's prior record as "just" another guy who puts up big numbers for bad teams.
So far, Ellis has done plenty to instigate the shifting of his own professional narrative. As basketball blogger Zach Harper noted (however facetiously), Monta's turnaround could set him apart in history as far as awards are concerned:
More than anything, though, Monta's improved play might just be the byproduct of an improvement in circumstances. As he made clear back in August—and as any working person can surely confirm—being happy with where one is and what one is can boost a person's performance considerably:
"When you're in a place where you're unhappy, it's very hard to perform to your best ability."
"So this is a new beginning, a new fresh start, better organization, better teammates. It's going to make everybody, everything a lot more better."
Like I said, context is everything in the NBA, especially when you're as misunderstood and miscast as Monta Ellis had been prior to his debut in Dallas.
We're all mad about Monta on Twitter now!