The Mavericks head into the 2013-14 season optimistic that they have assembled a team with enough talent to return to the playoffs. The Mavericks were aggressive in free agency and they improved both their starting five and bench in the process. One of the Mavericks biggest free-agent signings was shooting guard Monta Ellis. The Mavericks chose not to re-sign shooting guard O.J. Mayo, which left a glaring need for a guard capable of filling the 15.3 points per game that Mayo took with him to Milwaukee.
The options available in free agency at the shooting guard position were thin and dwindling fast. The Mavericks were thrilled to sign the top remaining shooting guard, Monta Ellis, to a three-year deal for $24 million. Ellis is an explosive scorer who has averaged 19.4 points per game throughout this eight year career. The Mavs were in need of a dependable secondary scoring option to pair with Dirk Nowitzki and they locked up the best option in free agency at an affordable rate. What’s not to like?
The reaction to the Mavericks signing of Ellis was surprisingly mixed among those who cover and watch the Mavericks closely. While he is a talented scorer, Ellis is also known to be a volume shooter and in today’s NBA that is more of a negative than it was in previous years. The advent and adoption of the PER as a measureable, combined with the accessibility of advanced statistical measurements, has changed the perception of players like Monta Ellis.
Those who dismiss Ellis’ scoring ability may point to the number of shots he takes in order to achieve the 19.4 points per game he has averaged in the NBA. Ellis shooting percentage in 2012-13 was a career low .416 and Ellis was eager to leave Milwaukee in the rearview mirror this off season. The popular notion that Ellis needs to shoot the ball less to be more effective is not necessarily true. Ellis enjoyed the best season of his career in 2009-10 and actually shot the ball 4.5 times more per game than he did last season. So what has changed during the last two seasons that has caused Ellis shooting percentage to drop to the lowest point of his career?
Before making the assumption that Ellis has reached his zenith as a basketball player at age 27, it is important to examine the situation that surrounded Ellis the last two seasons. The Bucks 2012-13 season was a mess, to put it gently. Bucks’ coach Scott Skiles was fired after a 16-16 start and the change did little to improve the situation in Milwaukee. The Bucks eventually finished the season with a 38-44 record, which was good enough to land the No. 8 seed in a watered-down Eastern Conference.
The difference in the best years of Ellis’ career in Golden State and his two seasons in Milwaukee may be at least partially attributed to the level of surrounding talent in both situations. Ellis played in a motion offense with Stephen Curry, David Lee and Dorell Wright in 2010-11, his last full season in Golden State. The Warriors were not a great team in 2010-11, as they finished with a 36-46 record, but their offense was highly effective as demonstrated by their 103.4 points per game, good for No. 7 in the NBA in 2010-11.
The Warriors’ offensive system allowed Ellis to create his own shots and he benefited from playing with a collection of talented offensive players. Neither one of these factors worked to Ellis benefit in Milwaukee. Ellis played with point guard Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee and while Jennings has a great deal of talent, he is not a pass-first point guard. Ellis played without a post threat or a legitimate secondary scoring option in Milwaukee and it affected his opportunities on offense. Ellis was so frustrated with the situation that he was in with the Bucks that he reportedly turned down a contract extension that would pay him $36 million over three years.
I spoke with Ellis at the Mavericks Tip Off press conference and asked him if the talent surrounding him in Dallas was the best group of players he has had around him during his career. “If not the best, it is second to the best, I feel good about it and I’m just excited to get going.”
The key to Ellis’ success in Dallas may hinge on his relationship and trust in head coach Rick Carlisle. Carlisle has a 2011 championship ring on his finger and that level of success typically goes far with players. Carlisle is known to be hard on players, but he is also honest with them, something players in Dallas have said they appreciate.
Carlisle will have little patience for shots that are forced or taken early in the shot clock without running the offense. How Ellis responds to playing with Dirk Nowitzki and how well he plays within Carlisle’s system will go a long way in determining the type of season he has.
Ellis will be playing with the one of the best passing point guards in the NBA in Jose Calderon. I asked Ellis if he expects better looks on the offensive end of the court playing with a point guard like Calderon. “Yes, you have someone like Calderon who can really pass the ball well and also shoot the jump shot. He can attack the basket as well. When you have guys like that with Dirk and you bring in Wayne (Ellington) and Devin (Harris) who can knock down shots it makes it much easier.”
Teams will often have to overpay for a player of Ellis caliber in free agency. Ellis will be making less annually in 2013 than shooting guards DeMar DeRozan, Marcus Thornton, Ben Gordon and Tyreke Evans. Ellis’ contract pays him only slightly more per year than Arron Afflalo, O.J. Mayo, Rodney Stuckey and Trevor Ariza. The Mavericks decision to sign Ellis is easily justifiable when comparing other shooting guards in the NBA that have similar deals.
The situation that Ellis finds himself in with the Mavericks is ideal. Ellis will be surrounded with a legitimate star in Dirk Nowitzki and a skilled passing point guard in Jose Calderon. The Mavericks averaged the fifth-most assists in the NBA last season and that was with an ineffective point guard in Darren Collison. Scoring opportunities will find Ellis this season if he stays patient and works in Carlisle’s system.
The Mavericks need an explosive scorer like Ellis and he needs a situation that provides him with the opportunity to thrive once again. The Mavericks will work to put Ellis in a position to succeed and a rejuvenated Ellis could flourish in Dallas. If that happens, the Mavericks could once again be a dangerous team in the Western Conference.