At times this season, Monta Ellis has served the Bucks well. He gets to the rim as much as Brandon Jennings and finishes better when he gets there. His passes put teammates at point blank range more than any other Buck. When the tempo races, Ellis uses his speed in a multitude of ways: outpacing defenders, snagging loose balls, cutting off passing angles in transition D.
So it’s not all bad for Ellis this season. But he is making just 40% of his shots. That’s a valid criticism that sticks, and it has held up for over a half-decade now.
Not all is lost. If the Bucks want that number to improve, the move to make is fairly simple. It would help his shooting percentages as well as his overall efficiency.
Stop putting him on the floor with Luc Mbah a Moute.
Or at least do it as little as possible. With the pair together in the starting lineup, they get a big chunk of minutes together. In a lot of ways, it makes sense on paper. Mbah a Moute can guard the bigger perimeter wing threat and let Ellis, who is a much poorer defender, take the easier defensive assignment. Luc isn’t going to score much, but Ellis can create his own shot and take the burden off the Mbah a Moute in that regard.
Or can he?
When Mbah a Moute is on the floor (as has been the case for 620 of Ellis’ 1594 minutes this season), Ellis’ shooting percentages sink. (Image and data from NBA.com)
At first glance, it would seem that the cause would be that when Mbah a Moute is in the game, defenses can sag away from him, totally surrendering to him outside shots and only paying attention to him as he works in or near the paint. As NBA perimeter players go, Mbah a Moute is as big a non-threat to score from outside as anyone.
The first and last numbers don’t matter as much. At the rim, there will always be traffic most of the time — whether the help is coming from Luc’s side or not. Ellis is athletic enough and skilled enough to finish there on par with most NBA guards. (Also, many of these shots are in transition.)
The same can be said for the above-the-break 3’s. Up there, defenses are not going to help much, there’s plenty of space, and if there were ever a shot not to help on, it would be a pull-up Ellis 26-footer that could fly free and easy in a room with 11-foot ceilings.
It is those pesky three numbers in the middle that are disheartening. On those shots, Ellis converts 28.5% with Mbah Moute on the court and 40% with him off.
Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings do not have the same dip with Mbah a Moute. Both have better range than Ellis and can generate looks from the top of the three-point circle, especially using high pick-and-pop action.
For all the criticism of Ellis, his preferred shot is still at the rim. But no NBA player can get there on every play, so Ellis certainly mixes in his other favorite shot: the pullup. He relies on shifty moves and a quick release to find daylight among taller players, and he usually does it around 15 to 18 feet from the basket. Presumably, the task comes easier with Mbah a Moute somewhere else.
Here is an example from the loss to the Bulls:
At this point, Ellis has the ball, and he has already come around a screen from Ersan Ilyasova that forced a switch. He is being guarded by Taj Gibson and should be able to use his speed to get past the bigger player.
But there is help waiting. Per usual, there is help from the weak side — in this case, Joakim Noah. The surprise is on the strong side where Luol Deng waits. Deng is paying Mbah a Moute virtually zero attention. (It’s a safe bet which way he has his weight shifted.)
Ellis eases up on the drive and opts for a stepback jumper. Deng gets there to turn a simpler shot more difficult.
And now Deng has the momentum for a runout opportunity awaiting as Mbah a Moute watches and waits to see if the shot goes in. (Luckily for the Bucks, the ball bounced off the rim straight to Samuel Dalembert.)
So what can be done? Ideally, one of the pair could come off the bench. Would it make sense to use Ellis as a primary player/sixth man the way the Spurs use Manu Ginobili or the way the Thunder used James Harden a season ago? Perhaps. Would Ellis endorse the switch, if the Bucks could still find him 30+ minutes per game? That’s another matter entirely.
(At this point, I would advocate for Tobias Harris over Luc, but I may be alone in that regard so I won’t.)
One last thought: Putting the ball in Luc’s hands helps. Defenses have to guard the ball, and Mbah a Moute has done a nice job this season alternating between baseline drives and post-ups. But sometimes it appears that when he goes to these moves, he is locked in on scoring. Until he becomes a better passer out of the post, this tactic probably won’t help.
But help they need. The Bucks have a lot of trouble winning the games where Monta makes 5-of-17 field goals. If you have an idea, please share. All brainstorms are welcome below in the comments.