There have been a lot of surprises so far this season even though we’re still in the first month. One of them is the play of Monta Ellis, especially in tandem with franchise star Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk finally has a complimentary scorer to ease his offensive burden, and a terrific pick-and-roll partner.
Monta is a prototypical chucker. He admitted as much in a long profile by #LongReads extraordinaire Jonathan Abrams of Grantland. That might be why why he’s perfect for this Mavs team. His defense this season â€” at least according to Synergy â€” is atrocious in comparison to last year, and the Mavs as a team are giving up almost four points more per 100 possessions when Monta is on the court than when he’s off. For defensive-minded coach Rick Carlisle, that would usually be enough cause to yank the guy, except Monta’s leading the team with 521 minutes played so far this season. How is this so?
The biggest reason is how well he works with Dirk. Of the two-man groups on Dallas who have appeared on the floor together for at least 120 minutes, Dirk and Monta have the highest plus/minus on the team and the highest points per possession (PPP) of any tandem at 111 points per 100 possessions. Only the Heat (111.5) average higher, and no other NBA team is over 110 in offensive efficiency, so when Monta and Dirk share the floor this year, they’re devastating on the offensive end.
Especially in the pick-and-roll action, the bread-and-butter of every thespread-the-floor contemporary offense. Most sets â€” despite some minor differences â€” lead back to the P&R. Of the P&R ball handlers who qualify, Ellis is fourth in the entire league for P&R possessions that end in a shot, turnover or shooting foul. When Dirk is the P&R roll man, he’s 20th in the league. The year prior to the melding of their talents, Dirk ranked 74th as the roll man and Ellis was 101st as the P&R ball-handler.
The numbers through the first month bear out the eye test: it’s really hard to defend a Monta Ellis – Dirk Nowitzki pick-and-roll. One is too quick and creative finishing at the rim, while the other is too tall and accurate a shooter.
Ellis is a horror coming around the corner, never giving the defender time to stop and work his way in front of the screen. Monta’s explosive first step is enough to get around his man under normal circumstances, but the added presence of Dirk almost makes it unfair. If there’s any hesitation by the big man defending Dirk, Monta’s got a layup. He’s just too fast to spend too much time worrying about an open Dirk on the pick-and-pop. The big man needs to hop out and almost bump Ellis then quickly turn back to get his body on Dirk.
But it’s just as productive for defensive efforts agaisnt Dallas if the power forward defending Dirk decides to pay too much attention to Monta coming around that screen, either. This goes double if they switch, as teams are oftentimes want to do.
If a defense does a simple switch on the pick-and-roll, Monta’s man is never big enough to cause Dirk any sort of discomfort, especially if Nowitzki has time to do his little pump-fake step-back. That shot is unguardable under the best of conditions, but especially so when the switching guard is 6-1 Patrick Beverley.
Basically, a defense has to corral Monta before he gets that first step past the screen, and keep an eye on Dirk the whole time, without switching defenders. That’s borderline impossible, which forces other defenders to collapse. It’s a recipe for a whole lot of open looks for their Mavs teammates, which is why their two-man lineups shoot better overall than almost every other two-man group shoots overall (the only exception is Shawn Marion and Nowitzki, but they’re a lot worse defensively).
The team’s defensive rating when Monta and Dirk share the floor â€” despite Monta’s drop from last season’s surprising production with Milwaukee (look at how stingy he was: 39th in the league at just .77 PPP allowed!) â€” is actually more than four points lower than the team holds opponents to this year (104.8 vs. 100.1). So while Monta is a negative by himself on defense, when he shares the court with Dirk they’re giving up less while scoring at close to a league-leading rate.
At 9-6, the Mavs are right in the thick of a Western Conference made murkier by the injuries to Andre Iguodala and Marc Gasol. With the Blazers playing so well, that leaves only a spot remaining in the West after you give HOU, OKC, SAS, MEM*, GSW**, LAC the first six spots in some order. Add in Portland, and that leaves just one more spot for the Lakers, ‘Wolves and Mavericks.
With Dirk and Monta complimenting each other so well in the pick-and-roll, don’t be surprised if the Mavs are back in the playoffs. It appears the Mavs, Dirk and Monta were listening to our advice.
*The only caveat is Memphis survives Gasol’s absence before he returns.
** Ditto Iggy.
Do you think Monta can help lead the Mavs to the playoffs?
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