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Monta Ellis Signing Allows Indiana Pacers to Move into Future

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 7, 2015

Apr 15, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis (11) during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Trail Blazers 114-98. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Newly signed Monta Ellis and the Indiana Pacers can help each other, but you have to look past the superficial incongruity to see how.

As skill sets go, Ellis' defensive indifference and freelance approach to scoring don't jibe with Indiana's rigid, slow-it-down style. The Pacers are defined by their structure, and Ellis is best when plans are scrapped altogether.

But because Indy is on the cusp of a new era—theoretically one with a better balance between offense and defense—and because Ellis addresses so many of the current roster's needs, this odd coupling could work out for everyone involved.

Apr 24, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis (11) drives against the Houston Rockets in game three of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Monta's Fit

As a default starting position, it's fair to be skeptical about Ellis.

He's a low-percentage scorer whose reputation doesn't include much defense or success as an off-ball option. A career accuracy rate of 31.4 percent from long range illustrates how Ellis must be used in a specific way to maximize his offensive value.

Put him in the wrong situation, and things go badly.

A dismal season and change with the Milwaukee Bucks showed how Ellis' production and efficiency could crater when he is forced to play off the ball more. And without a strong defensive wing to hide him from opponents' backcourt weapons, Ellis was doubly exposed.

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OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 16: Teammates Monta Ellis #11 and Brandon Jennings #3 of the Milwaukee Bucks check into the game against the Golden State Warriors on March 16, 2012 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
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The Pacers offer Ellis exactly what he needs to thrive. They need a primary ball-handler to attack defenses in ways neither George Hill nor Paul George (capable in their own ways but better as finishers than facilitators) can.

In 2013-14, Ellis led all NBA players in total drives and total points on drives, according to NBA.com. His usage rate that year was 26 percent, second only to Dirk Nowitzki on the Dallas Mavericks roster, per Basketball-Reference.com.

In short, he had the ball all the time, and he attacked relentlessly.

Not coincidentally, the Mavs had the league's third-best offense that year.

Last season, Rajon Rondo's midyear arrival in Dallas torpedoed the team's offensive flow. Yet Ellis still ranked third in the NBA in points scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Still frighteningly quick around a screen and gifted with grossly underrated vision, Ellis can pick a defense apart with decent spacing and a sliver of daylight.

The Pacers' current roster looks like it was built to accommodate a player exactly like that, as Grantland's Zach Lowe explained:

In the meantime, Monta Ellis brings some slicing off-the-bounce dynamism these guys badly need, and the Pacers are better equipped than almost anyone to hide him on defense. George Hill can defend most shooting guards, meaning the Pacers can shift Ellis around to the weakest perimeter player more freely than Dallas could. George has never been a great arc-to-rim driver, and though Hill excelled last season under a heavier scoring load, he can munch on spot-up looks when Ellis runs possessions.

Ellis is an imperfect talent, advancing into his 30s with a game dependent on athleticism and speed. That's a scary proposition.

But the Pacers need what he can provide. And as much as anything else, the fact that he's so obviously important to Indiana's success should cultivate the kind of focus we saw from Ellis during most of his Dallas tenure—arguably the best stretch of his career.

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 02:  David West #21 and Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers check out of the NBA game late in the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on December 2, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Moving On

Even before agreeing to a four-year, $44 million deal with Ellis, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, the Pacers weren't going to resemble the team that made a pair of conference finals in the past three years.

Roy Hibbert and David West won't return, and neither will the bulk and defensive stoutness that defined recent Indiana teams. The Pacers seem prepared to replace their former identity with one built on smaller lineups, speed, flexibility and more athleticism.

Rookie Myles Turner, drafted with the No. 11 pick in June, looks like a promising stretch big—one who could replicate some of Hibbert's rim protection while adding offensive spacing Big Roy couldn't come close to providing.

Pacers head coach Frank Vogel liked what he saw from Turner in a July 6 summer-league performance on NBA TV:

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.@Pacers HC Frank Vogel spoke highly of @Original_Turner's strong start and the state of Indiana #NBASummer http://t.co/3i21luYcVG

George, coming off a season lost to a broken leg, could see more time as a power forward by default. Among frontcourt returners, only LaVoy Allen and Ian Mahinmi could be labeled traditional bigs. Unless second-year forward Solomon Hill makes an unforeseen leap, Indiana's best player on the wing, George, might pull double duty as its best option on the front line.

That's fine, though, as more minutes for George at the 4 will push the Pacers toward a faster pace and a more dynamic offense. Such a change is going to feel weird for the traditionally bogged-down, bulked-up Pacers.

As Brett Koremenos explained in a piece for RealGM, however, it's necessary to keep up with the high-scoring times: "And given those Hibbert-West centric years produced three consecutive seasons in which Indiana failed to rank higher than 19th in offensive efficiency (Paul George's absence in the latest campaign obviously did the team no favors) such a shift certainly seems warranted."

It's time to move ahead stylistically, and Ellis can help the Pacers do that.

Dec 13, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis (11) during the game against the Golden State Warriors at the American Airlines Center. The Warriors defeated the Mavericks 105-98. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

An Unlikely Team

You can't rule out disaster here. Indiana's roster is in a state of transition, and Ellis has only really played one complete season of unequivocally excellent, win-generating basketball (2013-14 in Dallas).

But there's promise here.

If the Pacers mesh, embrace their new approach and get the good version of Ellis playing in the proper role, it's entirely possible we see one of last season's most disappointing teams rebound all the way to the upper half of the East playoff bracket.

The Pacers of the past are gone; Ellis' arrival is proof of that.

Whether the Pacers of the future are anywhere near as good depends largely on the success of an unlikely but potentially perfect fit.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gt_hughes.

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