This is working. This is really working.
Patchwork transactions have turned the Dallas Mavericks into one of the NBA's biggest early season surprises. More specifically, the Dirk Nowitzki-Monta Ellis pairing, borne out of haphazard desperation, is working. Dominating. Winning.
Offseason failure has plagued Mark Cuban's Mavs since 2011, right after they upended the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. That summer, they lost Tyson Chandler. The next, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry followed suit. Failure to lure Deron Williams to Dallas forced them to bring in a hodgepodge of talent on essential one-year deals. Commixed with Nowitzki missing 20 games, the Mavs found themselves outside the playoff picture for the first time in 12 years.
This summer brought more of the same—we thought.
No knight in shining armor came to their rescue. Chris Paul re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Dwight Howard shuffled off to the Houston Rockets. Not even Andrew Bynum signed with Dallas, leaving the Mavs to fill out the roster with odds and ends once again.
Ellis, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Samuel Dalembert—these aren't names that instill fear in the opposition. Nor are they ones that suggest the Mavs are making the most of Nowitzki's final days.
But Dallas is 8-4 on the season and firmly planted in the Western Conference's premature-playoff conversation. Led by a timeless Nowitzki and uncannily efficient Ellis, they're making the most out of a situation gone adrift. Turning water into wine. Scrap metal into gold. Blades of grass into a field of dreams. And any other miraculous triumphs you can think of.
Monta Goes Economical
Volume inefficiency. Such was the case for Ellis before now.
In each of his previous two seasons, split between the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks, Ellis failed to convert more than 43.3 percent of his field-goal attempts. Of all players to average under 20 points a night during that time, he was the only one jacking up more than 17 shots every game. Notoriously careless marksman like Rudy Gay and Brandon Jennings had nothing on him. When it came to matters of inefficiency, Ellis was king.
This season, we've seen a new Ellis. One who's attempting nearly one fewer shot per game compared to last season and averaging almost four points more.
Currently, he's knocking down 49.5 percent of his shots and getting to the free-throw line 7.1 times per game. All this while still dishing out 5.4 dimes a night, too. Positively incredible, hold the coincidence.
What Ellis is showing the Mavs and the NBA isn't by chance. In the season's early going, he's reinvented himself.
Through the previous three campaigns, no more than 48.1 percent of Ellis' shot attempts came within 15 feet of the basket, according to NBA.com (subscription required). Thus far, approximately 57 percent of his attempts are being taken within that area.
Attacking the rim more has afforded Ellis additional free-throw opportunities. Easier scoring opportunities. We're not seeing a disorderly jump shooter live and die by the long two. We're watching him tailor his offensive tendencies to a more productive regimen.
Where he was once averaging the most shots of anyone scoring under 20 points per contest, he is now one of only nine players recording 20-plus points while shooting better than 49 percent from the floor. Quite the change.
Quite the improvement.
Dirk Still Being Dirk
Nearly a half-year removed from his 35th birthday, Nowitzki has spent the early part of 2013-14 flipping off Father Time.
Knee injuries were compounded by a below-average supporting cast last season, prompting what was construed as Nowitzki's decline. Then, poof. Out went O.J. Mayo and in came Ellis, bringing Dirk reloaded with him.
Nowitzki's offensive numbers are up across the board, as he's currently on course to average over 20 points per game for the 13th time in his illustrious career. Oh, and he's pacing himself to do so while attempting fewer than 15 shots a night. The last player to accomplish the same feat was Howard in 2011-12.
Those marks stand to change as the season progresses, but there's no denying the impact a viable No. 2 like Ellis has had on Nowitzki.
Fewer double-teams, more open spot-up opportunities—having a legitimate sidekick (plus a pass-first floor general in Calderon) has looked good on him. And a better, healthier Nowitzki has looked great for the Mavs.
Together, Ellis and Nowitzki make for an odd couple. But they also make for a demonstrative dyad.
When they're on the floor together, the Mavs are outscoring opponents by nine points per-48 minutes. Of the 214 two-man combinations that have logged at least 250 minutes alongside each other this season, their plus-nine ranks 48th, or in the top 22 percent.
Prior to this season, if I told you Ellis and Nowitzki would be amongst the most effective two-man combinations in the NBA, would you have believed me? If you answered yes, more power to you. I wouldn't have guessed the same, and I don't believe I would've been in the minority.
What if I told you the two would actually play better alongside each other than separately? Would you have believed that? Maybe, but that would have been a tough case to make. Now, it's simply truth.
Here's a look at how their individual production in certain categories deviates from their overall per-48 minute averages with and without one another:
Two players, best known for their on-ball capabilities, are thriving alongside one another. Absolutely crushing it.
In most instances, they're producing at a higher rate when the other is on the floor, no insignificant occurrence when you consider how easy it is to bolster production in small sample sizes. Most of their time is spent playing together. If they explode while playing separately for a few minutes or so, the differentials tend to favor their detachment.
But not here. Not now. They're a formidable duo.
Just for kicks, check out how either fared next to their most prominent partner from last season, when Nowitzki was paired with Mayo and Ellis with Jennings:
Ellis and Nowitzki are already better suited for each other, and it's not even close. Their numbers alongside one another are staggering. Encouraging.
They make for a winning combination.
United, and It Feels Better Than Good
Ellis is still shooting, and it's a good thing. Nowitzki is no longer the featured option on offense, and it suits him. Somehow, this is working. For Ellis, for Dirk, for the Mavs—it's working.
Dallas' defense remains a work-in-progress, if that, but the Mavs rank fifth in offensive efficiency and ninth in assists per game. The ball is moving, the offense is flowing and Ellis and Nowitzki are on the same page.
More importantly, the Mavs are winning. They've shown they can come from behind and beat good teams like the Rockets, shown they can hang in a deep Western Conference. Shown that this mishmash of talent is for real.
"We're really just playing off of him," said Nowitzki of Ellis after the win over Houston, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "He's been aggressive, he's been shooting the ball well, but what's been great is that he has been making plays for others. He's making all of us better."
The Mavs are playing off Ellis. Off Nowitzki. Playing together.
Playing as if they actually have something here.
Who'd have thought?