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The Evolution of Monta Ellis: Mercurial Former "Chucker" Is Thriving in Dallas

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The Evolution of Monta Ellis: Mercurial Former
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DALLAS — The reeducation of Monta Ellis began in August, in a Houston gym, where he was confronted with a sobering portrait, a detailed profile of every glitch in his game and every perceived flaw in his character.

Over eight NBA seasons, Ellis had assumed the aura of a prototypical gunner—his shot count high, his accuracy low, his judgment questionable, his conscience undetectable. Selfish. A bad teammate.

That was how fans had come to view Ellis, and that was the stinging image painted by Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle last summer, shortly after Ellis signed a three-year, $25 million free-agent contract.

"He gave me a rundown of what was said about me," Ellis said in an interview with Bleacher Report last week. "Me being all about offense. Didn't want to practice. Really wasn't a vocal leader. Didn't want to buy into systems."

There was more.

"And then," Ellis said, "he told me what he sees for me with this team."

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A partnership with Dirk Nowitzki. A devastating two-man game. Open lanes to attack the basket. A cast of savvy veterans: Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Jose Calderon. The chance to be a playmaker. The chance to win, to change perceptions, to change habits. To evolve.

Two months into his Mavericks career, the 28-year-old Ellis looks and sounds like a changed man—his shots down, his accuracy up, his passing fluid and frequent, his portrait in flux.

As of Monday, Ellis was exceeding his career averages in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, free-throw attempts and assists, while still averaging 20.7 points per game, helping Dallas build a sturdy 15-12 record, seventh best in the Western Conference.

Little was expected of the Mavericks this season, given their aging lineup and the curious gamble on a talented-but-mercurial combo guard.

But Ellis has made the Mavericks more dynamic, easing the burden on the 35-year-old Nowitzki, who has been pining for a viable tag-team partner for years.

"For my career, at the end, he's exactly what I needed," Nowitzki said. "He's an explosive guy that can get in the lane at will. On the break, he's awesome. And his decision-making has been great. I was hoping that he was going to be exactly that when we got him."

Nowitzki has played with his share of quality teammates, from Steve Nash and Michael Finley to Jason Terry and Tyson Chandler. But Ellis is a different species entirely, a dazzling athlete and deft passer who can get to any spot on the floor at any time and turn defenders into pretzels.

"I've never played with an explosive guard like that in my career," Nowitzki said.

Such enthusiasm was nowhere to be found in Milwaukee, where Ellis spent a miserable season-and-a-half after a trade from Golden State.

The Bucks paired Ellis with Brandon Jennings, another shoot-happy combo guard, in a backcourt that offended the sensibilities of basketball purists and analytics experts alike. It was as if the Bucks had set out to destroy the laws of basketball physics and chemistry all at once.

The results were predictably awful. Ellis shot a career-worst .416 from the field while wrestling with Jennings for control of the offense. Ellis averaged 19.2 points and a respectable six assists per game, but he took 17.5 shots a night, his chucker reputation growing with every heave.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

"I was frustrated," Ellis said, reflecting on the last few years, "so I couldn't perform the way I want to perform. I think I got into a dark place where I wasn't myself. Some games I'd come and I could be motivated to play. And some games, it was hard, because of the type of players I was around. I was trying to find my way back to being that type of player that I was my few years in Golden State."

Ellis declined a two-year, $25 million extension from the Bucks, then opted out of a contract that would have paid him $11 million this season. He effectively took an $11 million pay cut just to get out of Milwaukee.

Ellis said the Bucks were "confused" about their direction as a franchise. His unhappiness also "had to do with some of the guys that was on that team," Ellis said, without elaborating. "It made it real hard to go to work and play."

The poor environment produced poor habits and mocking caricatures. "Monta Ellis Is Probably Shooting Right Now," declared the headline of a Grantland story last April. The subheadline posed the question, "Conscience-free chucker or transcendent scoring talent?"

The answer was probably both, but Ellis is now proving that, under the right conditions, he can be a great scorer and a great teammate. The statistics, both traditional and new age, suggest as much.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
Source: basketball-reference.com

As of Monday, Ellis was averaging 20.7 points per game, 18th best in the league. He was shooting 47 percent—the seventh-best rate among all 20-point scorers. His attempts per game, which peaked at 22 in 2009-10, were down to a modest 16.2.

Ellis was one of just seven players averaging at least 20 points and five assists, placing him alongside LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving. Of that group, only James has a better field-goal percentage.

The advanced statistics are even more illuminating.

Ellis makes 48.5 passes per game, according to SportVu, the league's player-tracking system, a rate that places him just behind James (48.9). His "secondary assist" rate—the pass that leads to an assist—is 1.2, just a tick behind James and Lillard. Ellis also ranks among the league leaders in points created by an assist and assist opportunities (passes that lead directly to a shot).

These are not indicators of a selfish player. But then, as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban asserts, everything we thought we knew about Ellis "was wrong."

"I have a rule," Cuban said. "Numbers on bad teams don't count. It's just, you can't tell. Because guys get desperate, they get frustrated. Every player in the NBA feels like they can take over a game and win, particularly the more talented players."

Cuban credited Ellis with "a great basketball IQ" and a willingness to listen and to work. Cuban also lauded his self-awareness, for recognizing his own flaws and committing to fix them. Both Cuban and Carlisle spoke at length with Ellis about his reputation.

"He knew the difference" between the right way and the wrong way to play, Cuban said. "That's why he left (Milwaukee)."

The Mavericks employ a team psychologist, so Cuban was confident that Ellis did not fit the profile of a typical gunner. Cuban also knew that Ellis, given a better lineup and a healthier environment, could be an efficient player.

Indeed, Ellis proved as much with the Warriors in 2007-08, when he averaged 20.2 points and five assists while shooting a crisp .531 from the field. Ellis attempted just 15.1 shots per game that season. But his efficiency went into decline in the seasons that followed.

Carlisle said he remained an Ellis fan because, despite his poor efficiency, "there were few players on a night-in, night-out basis that you feared more or had to game plan for more than him."

In the years that Ellis was being judged as a me-first, shoot-happy malcontent, he was generally saddled with weak lineups, along with coaching and front-office shakeups.

Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

In Dallas, Ellis has the benefit of committed ownership, a stable front office, an elite coach and, perhaps most significantly, an MVP-caliber co-star.

"He's never played with anybody like Dirk," Cuban said. "He's never played with somebody who's as talented and as unselfish as Dirk."

Even Ellis' defensive commitment, so often questioned in the past, has proven much better than expected. "The dude works on defense," Cuban said.

Ellis has also modified his game rather dramatically, attacking the basket much more frequently while cutting his three-point attempts in half from last season. About 48 percent of his shots are coming within eight feet of the basket, up from 39.6 percent last season.

"I had to take a different approach," Ellis said. "With everything that was being said, I did have to think about, 'What was I doing? What can I do better?' My whole thing was approach this season with an open mind. Continue to do what I been doing, but within this system, I don't have to take 20 shots a game. Because I have so many guys around me that can score the basketball, that it makes the game so much easier for me to just take shots when shots are open."

Joining a franchise with a proven system, one that led to a championship just two years ago, "made me come in with a better mindset," Ellis said.

He also took a subtle shot at his previous coaches, saying, "I know this phrase that I learned a long time ago: You're only as good as your coach thinks you are. So if your coach don't think that you can play at an All-Star level, then you will never get there. And that's one thing I have got from Rick."

Playing for a passionate owner helps, too. Ellis said he never felt supported in Golden State or Milwaukee, and he said he took a beating driving into the paint, without the benefit of foul calls. Cuban, who is known to ride the officials, was a welcome change.

"They fight, and I understand that they're behind me 100 percent," Ellis said of Cuban and Carlisle. "It makes me want to go out and play hard every day for them."

In the locker room, Ellis is universally praised as a good teammate and a hard worker who, in Carter's words, "just wants to win." He has yet to miss a practice, despite some nagging injuries.

"I mean, everybody has a bad situation or two," Carter said. "And it's like finding the right fit. And I think he's found the right fit, because there's a lot of veteran guys who we all have our minds and hearts in the right place."

A year ago, Ellis gave a television interview in which he audaciously—some would say foolishly—compared himself to Dwyane Wade and declared, without a trace of self-awareness, "Monta Ellis have it all." The video is posted on YouTube, under the title, "Monta Ellis is deluded."

To watch Ellis now is to see a player at ease with his place in the game. He still forces a shot now and then, but there are also long stretches where he just seems to blend in with his surroundings, making timely passes and waiting for his turn to shine. Then he explodes into the lane and converts an impossible, off-balance, twisting reverse layup in traffic.

On the practice court and in the locker room, no voice is heard as constantly or as loudly as Ellis'. He is constantly chirping, smiling, laughing, providing running commentary and comic relief. After a game last week, Ellis loudly bemoaned the quarterbacking of the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite team.

"Man, I could play corner AND quarterback!" Ellis announced to anyone within earshot. "You give me a football, I'll show you something."

Monta Ellis has it all. Who are we to argue?

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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