Who is Monta Ellis, really?
Is he the heavy-minutes, high-usage king of the NBA's gunners that we saw over the last few years with the Golden State Warriors and the Milwaukee Bucks? Is he the picture of efficiency that we've seen so far this season, the one whose partnership with Dirk Nowitzki has sparked the Dallas Mavericks back into the postseason mix in the Western Conference? Or is he something in between?
The answer may well determine the Mavs' ultimate course in 2013-14.
There's no denying that, by and large, Ellis' play in Big D has largely exceeded the decidedly low expectations that many (including yours truly) had for him coming into the current campaign.
He's putting up more points (21.6 per game) than he has at any point since 2010-11, when he averaged 24.1 points for the Warriors. He's scoring more efficiently than he has since 2007-08, just prior to the moped accident that wrecked Monta's left ankle, which cost him 57 games the following season and set him on the path to being a pariah within the Warriors organization.
Ellis' 5.8 assists per game haven't been too shabby, either.
To be sure, he's had his moments this season when he's looked (and shot) like the Monta of old. There was his 9-of-24 performance against Minnesota Timberwolves, his 2-of-16 showing opposite the Golden State Warriors, his 6-of-15 (with seven turnovers) game in Atlanta and his 5-of-13 shortfall against the New Orleans Pelicans.
But the true beauty of Ellis' game has shone brightest in the breadth of his contributions. The Mavs won those aforementioned meetings with the Warriors and the Pelicans, thanks in no small part to Monta's 10-assist efforts in each.
And if we're going to obsess over Monta's scoring, we should acknowledge the ways in which he's tallied his points. He's eschewed a significant chunk of his three-point attempts (2.4 this season, down from 4.0 last season) despite shooting a career-high 36.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Instead, he's getting to the hoop more often—and reaping the rewards accordingly. According to NBA.com's SportVU stats, Ellis is first in the league in player points per game on drives (7.8) and ranks second behind Denver Nuggets speedster Ty Lawson in total drives (209), drives per game (10.4) and team points per game on drives (12.8).
Not surprisingly, then, Ellis is getting a larger share of his shots at or near the rim than he has in quite some time. According to NBA.com, more than 46 percent of Ellis' attempts this season have come within eight feet of the basket, as opposed to just under 40 percent last season and less than 36 percent the season before that.
Unfortunately for the Mavs, Ellis' accuracy on such shots has dipped under 50 percent for the first time since at least 2006-07—a significant change for a guy who finished "chippies" at better than a 60-percent clip at the height of his powers.
But the rewards of such aggressive play aren't limited to field goals. Ellis has parlayed those attacks into career highs in free-throw attempts per game (6.3) and free-throw percentage (.841).
Which, truth be told, is what a lightning-quick guard like Monta should be doing—especially with a pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop partner like Dirk at his disposal. As expected, Ellis is running the NBA's pet set far more frequently and more efficiently in Dallas this season than he did with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2012-13:
|Monta Ellis in the Pick-and-Roll|
That sort of shift is to be expected, considering that Ellis has essentially swapped out Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders for Nowitzki, and Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan for Rick Carlisle on the bench. Superior talent and coaching can (and often does) make a major difference in the NBA.
The question is, can Monta keep this up? Can he continue to attack the basket and refrain from launching low-efficiency, contested jumpers?
My answer: why not? He's never suited up alongside a superstar scorer on Dirk's level, nor has he ever had the privilege of playing for a coach of Carlisle's caliber. He doesn't have to carry such a huge swath of the scoring and distributing loads for his team, to the point where he now has energy enough to play some honest-to-goodness defense.
Not since those "We Believe" Warriors from 2007 and 2008 (the latter of which missed the playoffs despite winning 48 games) has Ellis been a part of a winning operation. If the Mavs continue to rack up victories at their current 60-percent clip, he'll find himself as a key cog on a team challenging for 50 wins.
That's pretty darn good for a guy who arrived in Big D with a reputation for putting up big numbers on bad teams. It gets even better when you consider that the contract he signed this past summer (three years, $25 million) now looks like a bargain, where once it seemed certain to be excessive.
Maybe, then, the important question here isn't "Who is Monta Ellis?", but rather, "What's the context in which Monta Ellis exists?"
Because, right now, that very context is making him look nothing like the guy who was one of the NBA's most polarizing players just a year ago.
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