Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks was a marriage of convenience, not love. When Ellis opted out of a $11 million player option for 2014, he was undoubtedly expecting to be paid like Dwyane Wade, another guard who "had it all." The Mavs, meanwhile, had broken apart a championship team to create the cap space to pursue a max-level free agent like Dwight Howard. Three weeks into free agency, they both realized nothing better was coming along.
Ellis was one of the final pieces of a haphazardly constructed puzzle in Dallas. For the second straight year, the Mavs are bringing in three new starters to play around Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. This time, though, the newcomers are on long-term contracts, ensuring more continuity than last year's group of mercenaries on one-year deals. Ellis signed a three-year contract that will take him into his 30s, so his time in Dallas is his last chance to turn his career around.
After a fast start in Golden State, Ellis' reputation has taken a major hit in the last few years. You can see it in the last two contracts he received: five years, $67 million in 2008 and three years, $24 million in 2013. Since averaging 20 points a game on 50 percent shooting as a 22-year old, his efficiency has steadily declined, culminating in a 42-percent shooting season last year. More than anyone else, Ellis has been a victim of the devaluation of raw point totals around the NBA.
To be fair, there is some context to his poor efficiency numbers, especially his last 1.5 seasons in Milwaukee. While floor spacing has become the name of the game in recent years, the Bucks regularly played lineups with three or four non-shooters. They didn't have a frontcourt player who could create his own shot and only one (Ersan Ilyasova) who had to be defended on the perimeter. Often, the only shots available were off-the-dribble jumpers from Ellis and Brandon Jennings.
The Mavs are counting on a change of scenery to revive Ellis' offensive game. In Dallas, he'll be able to play off Dirk, still one of the most dominant offensive players in the NBA. When Ellis has the ball in his hands, he'll be surrounded by players like Dirk, Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, Marion and Brandan Wright, all of whom are capable finishers. Ellis, one of the most explosive scorers in the NBA, is a very dangerous player when operating in space.
One underrated aspect of his game that could shine in Dallas is his passing ability. Contrary to his reputation as a one-dimensional gunner, Ellis has always been capable of distributing the ball, with career averages of 4.7 assists on 2.8 turnovers a game. By the end of his time in Milwaukee, it was Ellis, not Jennings, who emerged as the Bucks best playmaker. In the last month, he had nine games with at least eight assists, including a 17-assist game at Atlanta and an 14-assist outing against Charlotte.
The main thing he'll need to improve is his shot selection. While Ellis is capable of creating a shot for himself from nearly anywhere on the floor, he isn't nearly as efficient as he needs to be to justify some of the shots he takes. Last season, he took four three-pointers a game despite shooting only 28 percent from deep, which is laughable decision-making. He should consider following a path similar to Wade, who took only one three a game in 2013.
Like Wade, Ellis could benefit from becoming a second option in his late 20s. If he doesn't have a good shot, he can always just give the ball to Dirk. In a half-court offense, Dirk is the ultimate bailout. A 7-foot pure shooter who can create a decent look for himself just by facing up his defender, Dirk is one of the most indefensible one-on-one players in NBA history. In Dallas, Dirk, not Ellis, will be the one taking low-percentage shots at the end of the shot clock.
With so much talent on the offensive end, the Mavs should be able to score points this season. The real question comes on defense, where they have a lot of older players on their last legs. Calderon (31) and Dirk (35), in particular, are bad enough defensively that they have to be hidden on a nightly basis. That puts a lot of pressure on Ellis, who will have to be able to hold his own against athletic Western Conference point guards like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Tony Parker.
At the very least, Ellis won't lack for confidence when facing the best. Playing with Dirk is no cure-all, as Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo found out last year, but combo guards like Jason Terry and J.J. Barea have had their best seasons with him. Terry, before coming to Dallas at 27, was seen as a brash scoring guard who couldn't play defense.
Stardom may not be in the cards for Ellis, but if he can have a second act like Terry, his time with the Mavs will be a success.