Monta Ellis started his NBA career on a team full of gunslingers.
The Dallas Mavericks, acting out of absolute desperation, were wise to pair him with this generation’s ultimate gunslinger, Dirk Nowitzki. The move had shadows of the Detroit Pistons, who have settled for big-money consolation prizes in Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, and have paid dearly for their mistakes.
Unlike the Pistons, the Mavericks are reaping the benefits of their consolation prize.
In Ellis’ second season in the NBA, as a 21-year-old, he led the 2006-07 Golden State Warriors in total points, appearing in 77 games and averaging 16.5 points and 4.1 assists a night. He was joined by star point guard Baron Davis (20.1 points and 8.1 assists per game), on-court leader Stephen Jackson (16.8 points and 4.6 assists per game), stretch-4 Al Harrington (17 points and 6.4 rebounds per game) and the rim-rocking Jason Richardson (16.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game).
Together, and with the help of lone interior player Andris Biendrins (before he completely lost his groove) and seemingly superfluous wings Mike Dunleavy Jr., Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes, the Warriors were the most exciting team to watch in the NBA. They could beat anyone on a given night, spreading the floor with a mix of knockdown shooters and efficient slashers, finishing second in the NBA in scoring.
Unfortunately, the Warriors were pathetic defensively, giving up a league-high 106.9 points per game, as Don Nelson’s propensity towards using small-ball lineups hurt them on the boards and in the paint.
The Warriors barely made the playoffs, finishing 42-40, and drew the juggernaut Dallas Mavericks in the first round. At the time, Dirk Nowitzki was at his peak, winning MVP honors while leading the Mavs to a 67-15 record, but Dallas’ lack of interior difference makers (Erick Dampier was their center) made the Warriors a nightmare matchup.
The Warriors were able to top the Mavericks in six games, in what was the most entertaining non-Finals series I’ve seen in my lifetime. B Diddy, Captain Jack and J-Rich combined to average 67.3 points per game, and Ellis learned a valuable lesson: Gunslingers always have a shooter’s chance.
Unfortunately for young Monta, the Warriors weren’t on an upward trajectory. They improved their win total to 48 games the following year, with Ellis carrying a heavier load, but failed to make the playoffs in a Western Conference that flaunted eight 50-win teams.
The following summer, Davis slid down the coast and signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. Ellis spent the next three seasons putting up solid numbers, but was labeled selfish and unengaged defensively and the Warriors missed the playoffs all three years.
In the middle of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Ellis was shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Captain Jack, with the Warriors handing over their backcourt to youngsters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
In Milwaukee, Ellis was paired with Brandon Jennings and the partnership was relatively ineffective. The Bucks missed the playoffs in Ellis’ first (half) season with the Bucks, but squeaked in the following year, earning the right to be swept by the eventual champs, the Miami Heat.
After the 2012-13 season, Ellis was a free agent and it was unclear who his suitors would be. With a bad reputation as a one-way guard who was too selfish to play the 1 but undersized as a 2, Ellis’ stock had fallen dramatically since his early years in Golden State.
That’s where the Mavericks come in. After whiffing at big-time free agents for a pair of summers, the Mavs were forced to move forward with a consolation prize. They signed Ellis to three-year, $25-million deal and signed Jose Calderon to a four-year, $29-million deal to be Ellis’ backcourt mate.
Whether they knew it at the time or not, Calderon has turned out to be a perfect compliment to Ellis, essentially serving as the anti-Jennings. Dallas also inked Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair and Devin Harris to share rotational minutes with incumbents Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter.
With Nowitzki healthy again heading into the season, the Mavericks once again had their offensive leader and crunch-time scorer, but Dirk alone isn’t enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Ellis has provided Nowitzki with a running mate and although Ellis still isn’t a defensive stud, his intangibles have improved since joining the Mavs. Ellis’ shot selection isn’t always the best and he still shoots poorly from distance (just 31 percent for the season), but the 28-year-old gunslinger has been a godsend for the Mavs.
Let’s be realistic for a second here: the Mavericks aren’t going to win a title with Nowitzki and Ellis serving as their backbone. Although I do believe they’ll make the playoffs (as the No. 7 seed, with the Memphis Grizzlies earning the No. 8 seed and the Phoenix Suns ending up in the lottery), the Mavs are long shots to make it out of the first round.
To be perfectly honest, the future prospects for the Mavs aren’t all that great either. They have nothing in terms of young assets and Dirk isn’t getting any younger. Marion is 35, Calderon is 32 and their top bench scorer, Carter, is 37.
However, the fact that Dirk is still the best player on a playoff team in the loaded Western Conference is important. As a fan, it’s sad to see great players waste away the back end of their primes on unsuccessful teams, with only the occasional game-winner or 40-point game their only major exposure to the national audience.
Nowitzki can thank Ellis for keeping his Mavericks semi-relevant. Ellis’ attitude has been fantastic, proving to be a perfect Robin to Nowitzki’s Batman. Once labeled a selfish player, Ellis has changed in Dallas, as he’s finally reached his potential as a team player. Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery and in Ellis’ case, that’s the truth.
As fans, we should commend Ellis for the team-first changes he’s made to his game. Nick Young has switched teams several times and the only thing we learned about him is that he’s all about Nick Young. O.J. Mayo had his chance to shine in Dallas last season, but failed to live up to expectations and now he’s wasting away on the league’s worst team. Even Ellis’ former teammate, Jennings, who left the Bucks for a considerably more talented team in the Detroit Pistons, is proving that he’s still the same me-first point guard, failing to create any form of unity in his locker room or on the court.
Ellis is certainly a success story and although the Mavericks won’t get out of the first round, the fact that they’re going to win 45-48 games in the league’s tougher conference is an accomplishment. If Ellis were scoring 25 a night in Philadelphia or Sacramento and his team was still losing, that wouldn’t be progression. The fact that Ellis is the second star on a competitive team is a sign of progress. Progress is never a bad thing, especially for a cold-blooded gunslinger who could have spent his entire career piling up numbers on bottom-tier teams.