The Monta Ellis Project: Warriors Building a Team Around a Scoring Point Guard
Basketball development expert Brian McCormick has written a few articles explaining why Monta Ellis will not be an effective point guard for the Warriors.
“Monta Ellis possesses all the skills to play PG,” writes McCormick in an excellent piece titled, “The Personality of a Point Guard”. “He is quick, handles well, shoots well, attacks the basket, penetrates, etc. But, he is not a PG and he never will be. He is a scorer. To cast Ellis as a PG is to misuse his skills and strengths.”
Nevertheless, the Warriors are set to usher in the post-Baron Davis era with Monta Ellis at point guard, despite the concerns of many in the basketball world.
Although McCormick makes a solid case for why Ellis should not be a full-time point guard throughout his work, I have a more optimistic perspective.
First, Ellis has demonstrated the ability to run the team in spurts—I would suggest doubters watch his February 20 game against the Boston Celtics for proof of that.
But second, and more importantly, I think there’s more than one way to play the point guard position. Just because Ellis doesn't fit the profile of the traditional point guard who will look to distribute first does not mean he is incapable of playing point guard.
Therefore, the way to analyze the Warriors’ future is probably to move beyond rigid definitions of what it means to play point guard and look at the team they have put together around Ellis. In particular, I think it's important to appreciate that the Warriors have laid out a long-term plan that could be extremely successful, without sacrificing too much in the short-term or salary cap room for the much anticipated 2010 free agent signing period.
So for a moment, put aside concerns about whether Ellis’ playing style resembles what you would normally expect from a point guard. Instead, ask whether the team the Warriors are building around Ellis is capable of developing into a strong unit in the future.
If we assume that even half of their young talent develops over time, it’s hard to deny that this group has a chance to become something special.
Credit Chris Mullin (and Don Nelson) for building a coherent team around Ellis
I think McCormick actually put it best when he wrote the following at his blog:
"The Warriors, however, have managed to rebuild for the future without becoming a terrible team. Unfortunately, they are in the stacked West."
Of course, that leaves plenty of room for anxiety among Warriors fans. How well do the pieces they’ve assembled currently complement each other? Can they really make the playoffs this year? And what does that bring future really look like?
When I thought about the Warriors’ future after Davis opted out, I figured the Warriors could go in one of two directions at the point guard position—find the coveted “big point guard” who could defend off-guards, or play Ellis at point guard and surround him with good passers that can take care of distributing the ball.
It appears the Warriors are starting to do the latter. That’s why I find reason for optimism.
Here’s the Warriors roster for the season, assuming they don’t make any more moves:
Right now, the Warriors have at least three players that have demonstrated good passing skills—Stephen Jackson, Marcus Williams, and Anthony Randolph. Of course, we’ll have to wait for the season to figure out how productive Williams and Randolph can be—but conceptually, the direction they're going seems fruitful.
If we consider that this is an uptempo team that likes to run, and which lacks a dominant post scorer, let’s think about what Monta might have to do as a point guard.
We already know how effective Ellis can be in fast break situations. But even in half court situations, the ideal offense for Ellis would have him bring the ball up the court, quickly pass it off to one of these other passers, and then move around screens or cut to the basket to find scoring opportunities with his speed.
It would be a departure from the way the Warriors have played in the past with one player coming up the court and being responsible for distributing the ball, but it would be a considerably more effective way to maximize Ellis’ talent.
If we look beyond just the ballhandling responsibilities, we can see even more evidence that this could be a strong team in the future. If Ellis is the focal point of the offense—primarily shooting jumpers and slashing to the basket off cuts—then it would make sense to put perimeter scorers and good offensive rebounders around him.
In other words, you want to keep the tempo high and constantly put pressure on the defense to respond. It would seem that’s exactly what the Warriors are doing.
Player styles and potential chemistry
The Arbitrarian blog provides us with a unique tool for understanding the styles of the Warriors have brought in—the SPI player styles spectrum. “SPI” stands for scorer-perimeter-interior—and as you can probably guess, what it does is show us the extent to which a player is a scorer, perimeter, or interior player.
What’s great about it is that it gives us a sense of how players compare to one another, how productive they are (the size of their name) and the degree to which players fit a particular style (click here for more about the methodology).
So now let’s look at the styles of the players in the Warriors’ projected rotation, with a projection for Randolph based on comparisons to existing players:
Starters: Ellis (perimeter scorer), Jackson (perimeter scorer), Maggette (perimeter scorer), Harrington (mixed), Biedrins (pure interior)
Bench: Turiaf (scorer’s opposite), Wright (pure interior), Azubuike (interior/scorer), Williams (perimeter scorer), Randolph (mixed), Watson (perimeter scorer)
What you have around Ellis are a lot of scorers, a few interior players who can rebound, and a few players who can pass the ball well. If Marco Belinelli can develop into a more consistent shooter and play-maker—he demonstrated solid ball handling skills in summer league—he could be an additional passer and perimeter shooter. This is easily the most complementary roster the Warriors have had in years.
Although the team doesn’t figure to be a strong three-point shooting team, what we can say is that they have the makings of an ideal team to play around Ellis. Three-point shooters are easy to draft or pick up along the way and they might already have two in Belinelli and Williams.
The Maggette signing might look like a glaring deviation from the youth movement, but consider that he adds free-throw shooting, an important aspect of the game that the Warriors really struggled in last year.
It’s still not an ideal signing—but on paper, it’s not terrible either. If Maggette can improve his willingness to pass, he could become a huge asset.
But can this roster make the playoffs?
As bright as the future is and as well as the players might complement each other, I don’t think they’ll be making the playoffs in 2009. The Arbitrarian blog provides us with another tool that is worth using with regards to projecting wins—Boxscores. It is described at length at the blog, but what it breaks down to is assigning credit to each individual player for wins.
What those numbers show is that in losing Davis, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus to free agency, the Warriors lost approximately 16.32 wins. However they have only gained nine wins, not counting rookies Randolph, Richard Hendrix, and Anthony Morrow. Unless the rookies play well enough to make up for seven wins (not particularly likely), this team will not reach last year's total of 48 wins, and probably won’t have enough for the playoffs, especially with Portland figuring to begin a new playoff streak.
However, they might also be able to expect increased production from Ellis, Wright, Biedrins, Williams, and Belinelli, as each of them should be expected to improve. That’s still a lot riding on young players, but increased contributions across six to eight players (including rookies) should make this team at least competitive, if not a playoff contender.
The way I see it, this is a 40-42 win team maximum—if they don't sustain any major injuries to rotation players. That means they would have to play beyond perfect basketball for 82 games to make the playoffs in a tight Western Conference. That's not very likely, given that growing pains should be expected.
What does the future hold?
To gauge the future, I think you have to look at the Warriors’ young core. I would say the core right now consists of three primary players (Ellis, Biedrins, Randolph) and three secondary players (Wright, Williams, Belinelli). Each one of those players has considerable potential and is likely to improve this season.
When I look at these groupd the first thing I see is versatility—Randolph can be one of those three-to-four position type of players, Ellis can play two positions, and the players around them will give the team a number of combinations and mismatches to play with. Really, it’s the ideal Nellie team.
However, it's also too early to make any hard and fast judgments about this team. Despite all their talent, Warriors fans will have to be patient—the payoff for this team is to to threee years down the line.
So it seems that McCormick was right—the Warriors have managed to rebuild for the future without going into the tank. That is a noteworthy feat.
For fans of the tank strategy, consider that if they have faith in the young talent they already have, there's no need to tank just to get more lottery talent. This is a time for the franchise to show they can do something they've been notoriously poor at—developing players they already have.
The 2008-09 Warriors will have the same opportunity that the 2007-08 Trailblazers had—giving their young players experience that will payoff in the future. In that regard, Mullin has done an excellent job of buying the Warriors a three-year development window. The questions are whether they will develop as we expect, and what pieces they need to add.
Even with big signings this summer, they could still have approximately $14 million in cap space for the much anticipated 2010 free agent extravaganza (if they renounce a number of contracts).
If Belinelli doesn’t work out, three-point shooters to spread the court will be vital. If Ellis doesn't work out as a point guard, they can find a big guard to pair next to him (Joe Johnson would be a perfect fit next to Ellis). Otherwise, more versatile players at the two and four who can pass and defend would be useful.
Although the concerns about the void left by Baron Davis are valid, two things were clear by the end of last season—the Warriors were too dependent on Davis to win games, and that style of play was unsustainable.
While some may quibble with some of their signings since Davis’ departure, if you look at the big picture, what they have done is build a team around Ellis that should maximize his talent as a scoring guard and have an exciting future. For long-suffering Warriors fans, the next three years should be as exciting as any of the last decade.
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