Monta Ellis is a magnet for opinion. Some see a level of athleticism the Dallas Mavericks, and their fans, have long lusted over, particularly from the guard position. They see the aggression, fearlessness, penetration and ability to get hot and bury an opponent at any given moment. Others see the sulking after missed shots or silent whistles, turnovers and a shot selection that can veer into recklessness.
From deeply researched dissertation to emotional diatribe, he’s been called everything from a savior to waste, revelation to revulsion.
As is the often the case, the answer likely rests somewhere in the wide chasm between.
As Dallas readies for tonight's visit from Utah (7:30 tip at the AAC), he’s shooting his highest percentage from the floor since 2007-08, his best season in the NBA, when he converted an impressive 53.1 percent, and is doing so in large part because he’s trimmed the worst part of his offensive game, averaging his fewest 3-point attempts since 2008-09. His 17.7 PER is the third best of his career.
Ellis has done a lot to dispel the reputation he arrived in Dallas with, that of an inefficient shot-hunter.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, such as two games within a week of each other with eight turnovers, finishing without turning the ball over only once all season, while posting the second worst turnover numbers of his career, averaging 3.4 per contest, a fact that can’t be glossed over.
There have also been the questionable shots, reined in when compared to his recent past, but not vanished. These are the attempts that can invite a TV remote or a coach's clipboard to take to angry flight, but are also a fairly standard side effect of aggression.
When you have the player that leads the league in total “drives,” and is asked to be the primary creator, facilitator (he leads the Mavs in assists per game at 5.9) and scorer when the ball isn’t in Dirk Nowitzki’s hands, you’re going to endure some questionable shots … they’re collateral damage, easy enough to digest if kept to an acceptable level.
Most would agree, beyond a couple of memorable late-game attempts that failed to properly bleed the clock, the frequency of questionable shots from Ellis is at a palatable level on the whole.
These are the easy, quick-reference statistics. Beyond these, some are quick to point to the plus/minus and on/off the court numbers in an attempt to condemn Ellis. In some respects, that’s fair. In others, it’s delivering a fact devoid of context.
In plus/minus per 36 minutes, the Mavs have been essentially even with Ellis on the court (minus two points total prior to Wednesday’s win in Memphis, plus two after … but when condensed to per-36 minutes, that rounds to 0.0 in either case). With Ellis on the bench, Dallas has been +5.5 per 36 minutes.
(We’re using per-36 minutes as we’ll be looking at a handful of players, and that minute total more closely represents the amount of time a high contributing player will be on the court, and evens the field for others … all numbers current through Feb. 4, 2014, prior to the Memphis game)
On the current roster, his plus/minus ranks 10th, tied with Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon, above only Wayne Ellington (-0.5), Bernard James (-0.7) and Shawn Marion (-2.8).
In a vacuum, that’s not so pretty. The game doesn’t take place in a vacuum, though. Context matters.
So, bear with us as we attempt to place some context, and see how Ellis comes out on the other side.
For example, it’s worth noting that Ellis has played 475 minutes (a little over a fourth of his total minutes), at a -6.5, with both Vince Carter and Shawn Marion on the court, a duo that holds the team’s worst plus/minus as a pair (minimum of 100 minutes), at -7.6 per 36 minutes … with Calderon added to the mix for 343 of those, those four as a group yield a -9.2.
Moving on, let’s compare Ellis to a few of those who have filled similar roles beside Dirk, whether that’s as the team’s second leading scorer, such as Jason Terry (in 2008-09, his best personal numbers within the available on/off database on NBA.com’s media site, and the highest PER of his career, in addition to the peak season for the franchise, the 2010-11 championship) and Josh Howard’s 2007-08 (his best statistical year), or those charged with running the offense, such as Jason Kidd and JJ Barea in 2010-11. We’ll also throw in last year’s guards, OJ Mayo and Darren Collison (looking only at their performances after Jan. 5, when Dirk returned to the starting lineup), and his current contemporary, Jose Calderon.
First, a few numbers when these players shared the court with Dirk:
|Player w Dirk||Yr||Per 36 +/-||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating||Asts per 36||Ast/TO||TS%|
Looking at plus/minus and net ratings within this group, only OJ Mayo ranked lower than Ellis when paired with Dirk, primarily due to the worst defensive rating of the group for Ellis/Dirk.
By offensive rating, with Ellis the team hasn’t capitalized as well as all but Mayo and Darren Collison on the altered “geometry” at the offensive end of the court Dirk’s presence provides, that extra space that comes with the attention defenses must pay him.
It’s worth noting that 917 of the 1121 minutes Ellis has played with Dirk also featured Jose Calderon … meaning 82 percent of the time Ellis has had with Dirk was also with Calderon, helping to make sense of that defensive rating.
As a trio, Dirk/Ellis/Calderon are plus-3.4 per 36 minutes, meaning Ellis has fared even worse with a Calderon-replacement beside Nowitzki (think Gal Mekel, Shane Larkin, or lineups with Ellis at point guard).
Another fact that must be considered: Terry, Barea, Kidd and Howard had all been allowed time to adjust to and grow beside Dirk prior to the season’s captured here. We’re seeing their peeks. Coincidentally, the rest (Mayo, Collison, Ellis and Calderon) had each played exactly 49 games in these windows with a 28-21 record … again, looking from when Dirk became a starter, Jan. 5, 2013, until the end of the season with Mayo and Collison.
Chemistry builds in layers. (One of the reasons we fully understand owner Mark Cuban's long-held philosophy on "organic management.'') If progression moves as hoped, time can pile those layers to meaningful heights. Some may point to Tyson Chandler’s season to counter this notion, but, in doing so, overlook the fact that Chandler joined a well-versed core as a final piece, he wasn’t asked to create the foundation to build upon, only be a complement to it.
Has Ellis fared better in his time without Dirk?
||Yr||Per 36 +/-||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating||Assts per 36||Asst/TO||TS%|
Here, we see that Ellis falls fairly well in line with the rest of the group, outside of Jason Terry’s best season and the situation last year, that saw Mayo and Collison obtain some level of comfort without Dirk, who missed the first 27 games, and a total of 29.
Beyond of the injury influence of last season, we see that when playing without Dirk, Ellis has one of the best offensive and net ratings of the group and trails only Calderon and Collison in true-shooting percentage.
Pair this with the fact that Ellis has played a higher percentage of his minutes without Dirk, outside of the injury-influenced 2012-13 campaign, only Terry and Kidd in 2010-11 played more without the Nowitzki Safety Blanket, and you start to see a greater hint at the role he’s being asked to play (more on that in a moment).
|Player w/o Dirk||Yr||Mins||Total Mins||% of Mins|
Looking at both how these players played with and without Dirk, who saw their stats drop the most, or least without the crutch that Nowitzki provides?
|Player w Dirk||Yr||Per 36 +/-||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating||Asts per 36||Ast/TO||TS%|
Again, outside of the Mayo/Collison duo, Ellis has the second lowest negative impact to his plus/minus per 36 minutes, and the least negative impact to his net rating. He has also shown the rare ability within this group to improve his shooting efficiency with Dirk off the floor, despite a significant drop in 3-point percentage.
Here we get another glimpse of what’s being asked of Monta, a role often overlooked. We may notice it more with Vince Carter, Devin Harris or Brandan Wright, but Ellis has been charged for most of the season with overcoming the deficiencies at backup point guard (where two rookies have received the bulk of the minutes), and carrying the offensive weight that isn’t directly in Dirk’s hands … in addition to his role beside Nowitzki.
And, he’s done so as well as anyone here.
Ellis is also at the disadvantage of not being allowed to specialize. He’s been asked to be an offensive amalgam of Jason Kidd (setting up the offense), Jason Terry (be the team’s second most proficient scorer), and JJ Barea (attack, attack, attack), where those three shared those responsibilities on the best edition of the Mavs ever created.
Of the nine seasons in this sample, he ranks second highest in percentage of made field goals that have been unassisted (68.6), trailing only Barea (77.2) and well above everyone else but Collison (61.7). For reference, Terry’s higher season was 43.8 in ’08-09, and Josh Howard was at 50.4.
He leads the team, averaging six assists per game. He’s the second leading scorer at 19.5 points per. He’s played by far the most minutes on the roster. It wouldn’t be stretch to say the individual demands that have been placed on him exceed any on this list … though the return of Devin Harris should help lighten this to a degree, and has to this point.
So, how do a few other “Robins” fare?
Following the Mavs so closely as we do at DallasBasketball.com, do we fall into tunnel vision … perhaps unfairly comparing Ellis to the best this franchise has known … such as using Terry and Howard’s best individual years, or the championship season, as points of comparison?
Instead, let’s look at two similar situations, where a power forward is a team’s best player and a guard acts as the “Robin” and a couple of the league’s premiere duos.
First, playing with the team’s best player:
|Player w/ star||Year||Per 36 +/-||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating||Asst/TO||TS%|
Playing without the team’s best player:
|Player w/o star||Year||Per 36 +/-||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating||Asst/TO||TS%|
The Net Difference between playing with and without the team’s best player:
|Net Diff.||Year||Per 36 +/-||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating||Asst/TO||TS%|
As a duo, Ellis and Dirk haven’t played up to the level of these, but most probably wouldn’t have expected to see that Ellis has shown a much smaller dropoff when playing without his star in almost every category … considering that Dirk easily averages the least minutes per game of these superstars, that’s important.
Of the six seasons accounted for (two seasons of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James), Ellis saw the third smallest drop off in plus/minus per 36 minutes, second smallest decline in offensive and net rating, and second largest increase in true-shooting percentage … and has easily played the highest percentage of his minutes without his team’s star, which greatly influences the overall plus/minus of each player.
|Player w/o Star||Year||Mins||Total Mins||% of Mins|
Obviously, there is more to the equation than two players, a fact that should probably add to the benefit of the doubt granted to Ellis. This Mavs roster, beyond Dirk and Ellis, once factoring in considerations for the continuity and/or chemistry contained therein, would likely be considered the weakest of any used in these comparisons (beyond last season’s Mavs squad, and arguably Minnesota).
Much as we stated in the beginning. ... Opinions vary wildly when focused on Ellis. Ten people staring at the exact same set of plays can come away with ten very different observations. Everything from lack of hustle at times (should we note here that only Kevin Durant (10,566) has played more regular-season minutes than Ellis (10,212) when going back through the 2010-11 season, no other player has surpassed 10,000 … or that, thanks to a recent bunching of rest, he has “slipped” to fifth in total minutes played this season and third in total miles traveled, per the SportsVU tracker), to slack-jawed wonder after a magical finish.
(All numbers current through games played Feb. 4, 2014 … prior to the Mavs win over Memphis … per NBA.com)
Time will tell what Ellis’ legacy will become with the Mavs, or if he’s able to do enough to become more than a Mayo-esque footnote. But, it’s fair to say the truth over what he’s been falls somewhere between the extremes that have framed the opinions of some.