Court Changes: Monta Ellis Picks Dallas

by July 16, 2013

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

by Jay Wallis / @JayWallis11

Monta Ellis signed a three-year, $25-$30 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Mavericks made this signing because: they are trying to be as good as possible while Nowitzki is still on the roster.

Dirk is an anomaly in the world of professional athletes. Being one of only three active players still on the same team since 2000—Duncan and Kobe being the others—the Big German feels connected with the city, owner and franchise he has shared most of his adult life with. Mark Cuban put a no-trade clause in Dirk’s most recent contract, preventing the team from trading him unless he gives his approval. It’s doubtful either side will be asking the other for a change this summer or next season.

Keeping that in mind, the Mavs won’t be able to rebuild any time soon. As enticing as it may be to begin starting over right before the summer of 2014—an offseason filled with high-quality draft picks and free agents—Dirk has too much of a positive impact on the game for his team to become a bottom feeder.

Last year’s Mavs roster was patched together for the short-term with many one-year players and lacked stability, showcasing Eddy Curry at one time and Derek Fisher at another. Even with this inconsistency and Dirk’s 27 missed games at the beginning of the season, Dallas still finished the regular season 41-41 and only four games out of the Playoffs. This was in large part due to Dirk and his ability to will his team to wins. It’s not a coincidence that the Mavs haven’t had a losing record since Nowitzki’s second season.

Once Dallas heard of Devin Harris’ injury and rescinded their three-year, $9 million contract for the former Maverick, the path was cleared to add another guard to the roster. With the way these past two offseasons had gone up to that point, the Mavs needed to make this high-profile signing.

By bringing in Ellis, the Mavs front office provides head coach Rick Carlisle with an athlete that will inevitably give him plenty of headaches and restless nights; however, considering the players that were left in the free agent market, Ellis gives Carlisle’s team the best chance to win basketball games. To give Dirk a shot at another Playoff run, Cuban needed to find three pieces for him this offseason: a pass-first point guard, a No. 2 scorer and a defensive-minded center. The first two pieces have now been acquired.

This is bad for the Mavs because: Ellis could be yet another Mavs guard taking shots away from Dirk.

Whether or not it was due to the fact that Dirk joined an already meshing roster a third of the way into the season, guards Collison and Mayo did not create much chemistry with their All-Star forward. In many fourth quarters and late-game situations, the ball wouldn’t even touch Dirk’s hands before a shot was put up. Even though he may be on the decline, Nowitzki should have still been the focal point and had every offensive possession run through him. Collison and Mayo didn’t get that.

Ellis could potentially be even worse. In each of the last six seasons, Ellis has taken between 15-22 shots. Too many of these shots turn out to be contested pull-up jumpers and misses for the shooting guard as he has always struggled with his shot selection.

Last season in Milwaukee, Ellis did average 19.2 ppg, leading his team in scoring; however, how he went about getting those points is what scared away many teams from pursuing the unrestricted free agent. He had a true shooting percentage ranked 118th out of 148 guards, was ranked 134th in three-point shooting (28.7 percent) and had the worst field goal percentage (32.3) on jumpers off the dribble last season. Even though the Bucks’ scoring-deficient roster forced Ellis (and Jennings) to jack up many bad shots, he is clearly one of the most inefficient offensive players out there.

Not only will a barrage of pull-up jumpers from right inside the three-point line by Ellis cause Carlisle to consider an early retirement, but that will take away from what Dirk brings to the court. Ellis’ irrational confidence could turn into too many shots for himself and too few shots for his power forward, leading to more losses than wins. Carlisle will expect Ellis to serve a specific role for the Mavs. Will he comply?

This is good for Ellis because: he is finally in a position where he has everything he needs to have his most effective season.

If Ellis decides to comply and be more than just a ball-hogging, black hole for the offense, he has the pieces to look like he did early in his career. With the past few seasons being so ugly in terms of percentages for the shooting guard, it is often forgotten what Ellis once was. After receiving the Most Improved Player of the Year Award in the 2006-07 season, he followed that up by averaging 20.2 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the field, which was the highest of any guard and 14th in the League. Just three years ago, Ellis shot 45.1 percent from the field, a percentage much more respectable than his 42.4 percent shooting with the Bucks. It’s not as if he has been inefficient since he came into the League; he can be selective. Being only 27 and in the prime of his career, Ellis has room to grow and can find his touch again—if he’s willing to work for it.

Ellis has never played next to someone that creates space like Dirk does, hasn’t played with a pure point guard like Calderon and hasn’t played for a creative offensive coach like Carlisle. Dallas gives him all three at the same time.

As long as Ellis quickly figures out that he has a reliable scorer in Dirk to share the load with, Dallas potentially has two players that can consistently go off for 20 or more points every single night. A Dirk/Ellis pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop could be deadly, and Carlisle will certainly run both of those plays to their maximum usefulness.

Since Terry left for Boston, Dirk has desperately needed someone that confidently shoots the ball and can explode for a lot of points, especially when Dirk is having an off night or finds himself on the bench. He may have come with a little too much confidence, but the Mavs now have Ellis, who has averaged 21.6 ppg when playing at the American Airlines Center during his career.

Baron Davis has been the closest thing to a pure point guard teammate for Ellis, which isn’t really that close at all. Ellis will start in the backcourt with Calderon, who has a high-basketball IQ, a league-best assist-to-turnover ratio and one of the purest strokes in the NBA (League-best 46.1 percent three-point shooting last season). Even though Ellis is an underrated passer and averaged 6.0 apg the past two seasons, he can hand off the reins to Calderon and focus on taking better shots.

And Carlisle is an excellent coach to help Ellis cut down on his poor shot selection. Look at Jason Terry. In his first five seasons before being traded to the Mavericks in 2004, Terry never shot better than 43.6 percent from the field. The year before the move, Terry had the same shooting percentage as Ellis did last year. In his first year beside Dirk and his excellent spacing ability, Terry shot a career-high 50.1 percent from the field. Once Carlisle joined the Mavs before the 2008-09 season, he created countless plays specifically for Terry, who finished the season with a career-high 19.6 ppg and a Sixth Man of the Year Award. It all came together during their 2011 championship run, when Dirk and Terry had a quintessential two-man game. Once known as an inefficient shooter in Atlanta, JET is now one of the NBA’s most respected shooters.

Mayo might not have had much chemistry with Dirk once the big man returned from his injury, but Carlisle helped Mayo shoot a respectable 44.9 percent from the field, 4.1 percent better than his previous season, and a career-high 40.7 percent from three-point range. Carlisle has one of the NBA’s most creative coaching minds, and he can put together plays for Ellis that his new two guard has never seen. Being a more athletic and creative player that either Terry or Mayo, Ellis has the opportunity to improve his game, perhaps even surpass the progress of those former Mavs, and in the process, change the nation’s perception of his play. It’s up to him to take advantage of what his new teammates and head coach have to offer.

This is good for the Mavs’ frontcourt opponents because: Dallas is overwhelmed with guards, and they’re all lacking in size and defense.

As it looks right now, the Mavs backcourt will consist of Calderon (6-3), Shane Larkin (5-11), Gal Mekel (6-3), Ellis (6-3) and possibly Josh Akognon (5-11) or Harris (6-3). Unless Ricky Ledo (6-7) can find a way to put on some weight and rapidly form a defensive presence accustomed to the NBA game, the Mavs might just have the smallest and most defensively vulnerable backcourt in the League.

Last year, their defense ranked 27th in scoring (101.7 ppg allowed) and lacked any sort of commanding presence on that end of the floor. Even though the Mavs are still desperately searching for Tyson Chandler’s replacement—a defensive-minded center to anchor the D—perimeter defense is still crucial for success.

Adding Ellis and his short arms to this backcourt only heightens the Mavs’ defensive issues. Even though he has quick hands and has ranked 4th, 14th, 3rd and 2nd in steals the past four seasons, he obtains most of these steals by gambling on passes rather than committing to his man and playing sound defense. When matched up with his opponent, he rarely exerts much effort.

Starting him next to Calderon, who is even worse than Ellis on the defensive end, could be worrisome in late-game situations when they need a stop. Additionally, if Marion is shipped off in a sign-and-trade in order to bring in a much-needed big man, the Mavs then lose their best perimeter defender and simply replace one glaring issue with another. Whether or not Marion stays or the team finds a respectable center, Ellis does not have the defensive skillset to help Dallas rediscover their Chandler-esque defense.

This is good for Mavs’ ticket sales because: much-needed entertainment is coming along with Ellis.

He may not be that “big fish” that Cuban promised Dirk a few years ago, but Ellis brings with him some notoriety that will satisfy hungry fans. Since they won the championship, Dallas hasn’t had much to sell to its ticketholders. It seems like the team was playing possum—just waiting until “that guy” arrived; there has been little enthusiasm, excitement or electricity surrounding the Mavericks. A Mavs game was no longer a must-see.

Ellis is a lightning-quick guard that has crafty ballhandling skills, can penetrate and can finish at the rim in very imaginative ways. He has the all-time second-highest career scoring average (19.4 ppg) among players without an All-Star selection. Ellis might have cost the Mavs more than they would have liked, but with him on this roster, there should be greater anticipation for their upcoming season.

This signing will have a moderate impact on the Mavs because: the one-time champions continue to wade in mediocrity.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Mavs’ plan to “keep their powder dry” has officially and definitively failed. Two years ago, Cuban decided to break up their championship team in anticipation of some big-time free agents. Last summer, they went all out for Deron Williams. Miss. This summer, they put all their eggs in one basket case known as Dwight Howard. Miss. Dirk and Marion are the only champions left, and their team has gone from raising a championship banner to fighting for their playoff lives in back-to-back years.

So, Ellis becomes their consolation prize (at the moment). As long as a capable center (or two) finds his way to Dallas, Ellis is a prize worth valuing. This team finally has a legitimate No. 2 scorer and an actual asset rather than simply cap space. There are plenty of unknowns and question marks surrounding this signing since the chance of success heavily relies on Ellis’ willingness to play his part in Carlisle’s intricate system. This could be an opportunity for Ellis to finally become an All-Star or an opportunity for Dallas to have trading bait.

With the six elite West teams (Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, Grizzlies) clearly controlling the conference, this signing only pushes Dallas into contention for the bottom two playoff spots. It may seem like a wasted investment with such stacked competition, but to put it simply—why not risk it now? Dirk has already been spotted at the AAC facility many times, working on strengthening his legs for another 82-game season. There won’t be many more summers of this training. The Mavs might as well give Dirk another chance for postseason play while he’s still on the team, and making Ellis a Maverick increases that chance. It may be impossible to visualize what the franchise’s makeup will be in a few years once Dirk takes a paycut or retires, but next year, the former champions will be fighting for their playoff lives. Again.



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