How Monta Ellis Can Help Lead The Mavericks Back To The Playoffs

The midrange chucker who pissed off stat nerds in the Bay Area and in Milwaukee is going to Dallas. But midrange Monta Ellis might get a new slate in the summer heat of Texas, and he’s never teamed up with an NBA champion like Dirk Nowitzki before.

Dallas’ team last season was in disarray at the point guard position, with an underachieving Darren Collison giving up wide-open lanes to the basket to try his hand at a 20-footer. Dirk looked old, and Mike James actually stole the starting point guard job from Collison because he wasn’t playing hard enough defense for coach, Rick Carlisle.

If that above graph doesn’t sound eerily similar to the Monta Ellis bloggers love to write, then you haven’t been paying attention. Monta shoots a lot of shots from that inefficient place between the restricted area near the rim and the 3-point line. He also shoots a lot three’s, and at a low percentage. Ellis shot 36.2 percent from the midrange, via NBA.com/stats and that included almost five attempts per game from 16-23 feet, where he shot just 34 percent, by way of hoopdata.com. Even Darren Collison shot a respectable 43.7 percent from the midrange.

While Monta shot well from the mid-range earlier in his career in Golden State, he hasn’t done well enough from that that area to necessitate the sheer number of attempts. Jonathan Abrams highlighted Ellis’ insistence on gunning it for Grantland last season, and while it’s commendable to understand why Monta shoots so frequently, it also does little to curb the practice.

Ellis’ shooting numbers make amateur analytics gurus explode in anger and that’s primarily because he’s considered a top flight guard in a league full of them. Unfortunately, the stats don’t bare that idea out at all. Ellis’ too-infrequent forays into the paint and his underrated passing ability—he averaged 6.1 assists per game last season, and has been over five per game since 2009—conspire against the numbers. He looks good, but that shouldn’t be confused with actually being good. Smart GMs have wizened up, and that’s why Ellis had to accept less from the Mavs than he would have made if he’d opted in for one more year in Milwaukee. That’s also why his former backcourt mate, Brandon Jennings, isn’t getting the $12 million a year he’s looking for right now.

But Ellis’ black mark in the stats community may come to an end under Rick Carlisle in Dallas. You can be sure Dirk, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, new backcourt mate, Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington and others will be ready and willing to accept the dimes we know Ellis can throw. The question is whether he’s able to sacrifice his midrange jumpers to help the betterment of the team. That’s where Carlisle comes in. He’s not mentioned very often when people talk about the best coaches in the league, but Carlisle has won a title, and he’s a hard-nosed guy who isn’t going to accept less than 100 percent on the defensive end. That resume of Carlisle’s will hopefully earn Monta’s respect. But for the jumpers, that’s another question entirely.

The Southwest Division that the Mavs are in might be the toughest in basketball now. After Dwight went to Houston, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans went to New Orleans, Memphis re-signed Tony Allen and San Antonio re-signed Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili. All five of these teams are gunning for a spot in the tough Western Conference playoffs. But with the exception of the always-consistent San Antonio, all the other teams have had drastic overhauls to their roster this season, so it might take a while for all those new pieces to gel.

Monta might fit-in faster with Dallas and help them come out of the gate strong to thwart their divisional competitors. But he he must remember two things once he hits the court in a Mavericks uniform.

*** *** ***

1) Attack, attack, and then attack some more.

Monta’s love for the midrange takes away from his superior penetration skills. He might perform the best layups in the league, and his ability to beat a man on the perimeter and then finish at the rim with all sorts of acrobatics in-between is a large reason so many casual basketball fans think he’s a borderline All-Star. It’s no coincidence that Monta’s two best seasons as a pro in terms of PER and Win Shares occurred in 2008 and 2011 when he was attempting better than five shots in the restricted area. He was up over that amount this past season, but shot just 41.6 percent from the floor as a whole.

Part of that awful percentage was his insistence on the 3-point shot. While it’s more efficient than his midrange J, Ellis shot well below the league average last season, connecting on just 28.7 percent of this long-range bombs on the year, per NBA.com/stats. That plays a large role in his overall shooting since he attempted four 3-pointers a game last season. If Monta gets the spacing from defenses having to key in on Dirk, he will find more room to drive to the basket, and a more open look at a jumper. If he’s going to shoot them, he might as well be open.

It’s a little hard to pinpoint what Dallas’ finished roster will look like since we’re still in the midst of free agency, but they’ve never been a grind-it-out team like Memphis. Brandan Wright looked good last season in spots, but the law of diminishing returns doesn’t mean he’ll be an actual threat on the block, and his future in Dallas is still up in the air.

More than likely, Dallas will have Dirk set a high screen for either Monta or Calderon with the other guard running off-the-ball action along the baseline. Monta can fill the vacated O.J. Mayo role, and he’s a good cutter. But he’s also a better penetrator than Mayo, with more explosive leaping ability and a knack for taking contact and getting a good shot up on the rim. He needs to consciously do this more often than he has in the past if Dallas is to survive the Southwest slugfest.

2) Use Dirk

Many people think Dirk is done. He turned 35 in June, and since having surgery on his knee during training camp last fall, his production as the offensive leader of the Mavs has suffered. But he’s healthy now, and still has a sense of humor. Though older and with a ring in a safe at home, he’s still not done chasing the Larry O’Brien trophy one last time.

It’s hard to say how Carlisle will incorporate Monta into Dallas’ attack, but if we were calling the plays, a high screen from Dirk could put defenders in the uncomfortable position of leaving Dirk to corral the explosive Monta as he turns the corner off that screen. If his defenders go under the screen—which the scouting report will call for—then Monta needs to use that extra room as leverage to get a head-of-steam for another jaunt towrds the rim. Or, he’ll just jack up another jumper, but at least Dirk’s presence will give Monta more daylight when he inevitably decides to shoot.

Monta needs to ignore the contested jumpers from above the foul line extended where he was sometimes forced to take when things fell apart in—first Golden State—and then Milwaukee. More open looks as defenders go under the screen to limit an open Nowitzki, could allow Monta the room to operate he needs to get back to the peak levels he achieved earlier in his career by the Bay.

The odds are stacked against Monta Ellis making this work. Defenders are still going to try and lull him into a contested 18-foot jumper, and he’ll still have some trouble adapting to being a second fiddle to Nowitzki and sometimes Carter/Claderon on offense, especially if they show more signs of decline as Father Time encroaches on their abilities.

But this might be the best opportunity for the 27-year-old out of Jackson, Mississippi, to grab a hold of his prime and use all the opportunities Carlisle and Nowitzki provide him, to turn a chapter on his still-unrealized career. It’ll be a tough challenge, but if Monta’s smart, he’ll use this Dallas signing as an opportunity to grow into the player so many people expected him to be.

Can the addition of Monta Ellis get the Mavs back into the playoffs next year?

Follow Spencer on Twitter at @countcenci.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.