Imagine for a minute that you are an NBA talent evaluator. Now imagine scouting a potential 6’3″ draftee with the following traits:
* Blazing speed, even with a basketball in his hands
* Skilled at finishing high and strong at the rim or dumping it to an open teammate when help defense arrives
* Reasonably accurate on jump shots inside 17 feet, but not so much from longer distances because of his shot’s low trajectory
* Defensively challenged at times, but his top skill on D is quick hands and the ability to pursue a ballhandler
Now find this kid an NBA position. Go.
Done yet? It doesn’t seem that hard, does it? Maybe you’ve just scouted the next Tony Parker.
It was my attempt — however flawed — at trying to describe exactly what Monta Ellis does on a basketball court. Is there a reason that Monta Ellis doesn’t play point guard when other players like Tony Parker do?
Numbers support the assertion that the Bucks have done well this season when Monta has played the point. Here’s one, for example: Since March 20 (when Beno Udrih was traded away and Ellis became the backup point guard), Monta has played 724 minutes with Brandon Jennings and 415 without him. With Jennings on the court, Ellis is the shooting guard. Without Jennings on the court, Ellis slides over and handles the point guard duties. Now look at the efficiency splits per 100 possessions.
When Ellis played with Jennings: Offense: 101.5, Defense 107.4.
When Ellis played without Jennings: Offense 108.2, Defense 97.3
That’s a 16.7 point-swing per 100 possessions. Instead of being six points worse per 100 possessions, the Bucks are ten points better than their opposition. And a big part of the improvement comes defensively.
Included in those minutes was Ellis’ first start at point guard, a 109-104 loss to the Hawks. Ellis finished with 27 points, 17 assists, 8 rebounds and 5 steals. No NBA player has had numbers that large in each category since Magic Johnson stuffed the boxscore in a 1987 game.
Former Bucks and Warriors coach Don Nelson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame back in September. As he made the pre-induction media rounds, he was asked about the trade that swapped Andrew Bogut for Ellis, among other players. Back then, Nelson liked the trade from Golden State’s perspective.
As much as I love Monta I thought he was – just because of his size and not his ability, a 6-3 two guard – it’s very hard to win with a small two guards in our league. When I first had him, I tried to get him to think more like a point guard – if he could ever be a point guard.
He does have (the ability to pass). He’s doing more of that now. But you know, a player has to be willing to see that and to do those things. His approach when he was younger was a like a lot of guys. He wasn’t ready to do that. So he was going to be what he was. But now he’s more of an all-around player than I’ve seen out of him. He is passing more and seeing players. He’s a good teammate now.
Nelson should know Ellis well: he coached him for four seasons. But Nelson’s tenure didn’t begin until Ellis’ sophomore NBA season. The job of teaching Ellis as a rookie fell to head coach Mike Montgomery when general manager Chris Mullin decided to draft Monta with the 40th pick of the 2005 draft.
According to Geoff Lepper, who covered the Warriors for the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times, Montgomery ‘openly derided Ellis’ point guard skills.’ The coach/player pair was a shaky fit from the start. Montgomery wanted to control his team’s offense like a college coach. Ellis, on the other hand, came to the Warriors straight out of high school where he had mostly played shooting guard. At 19 years of age, he was younger than most of the kids Montgomery had as starters at Stanford. Ellis was used to dominating high school kids in Mississippi with his breathtaking physical gifts, and Montgomery couldn’t — or wouldn’t — let him try his hand at the point in the NBA.
In the summer of 2006, the Warriors let Montgomery go, traded away backup point guard Derek Fisher, and brought in Don Nelson for a second stint as their head coach. In his second season, Ellis developed into the Warriors’ third guard behind starters Baron Davis and Jason Richardson. When Richardson, then later Davis, got hurt, Ellis took their spot as a starter, notably as the starting point guard when Davis was shelved with a knee injury.
Then all three played together in the ‘We Believe’ smallball lineup — with Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, plus sub Matt Barnes — that upset the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs.
The next season was both more successful and less. Baron and Monta developed a chemistry. Ellis scored 20 points per game and converted 53% of his field goal attempts, a mark he hasn’t come close to before or since. According to Lepper, “That’s what Ellis did throughout 2007-08, playing off Baron. Teams knew it was coming but still couldn’t stop him, especially when Davis would find him on a kick-out. When Ellis could catch the ball with his momentum already flowing to the hoop, it was all over.”
The Warriors won 48 games and lost just 34. Ellis blossomed as an undersized shooting guard. Remarkably, Golden State did not make the playoffs.
Yet Ellis still had one more surprise opportunity to run the point in Oakland. Baron Davis stunned the Warriors by opting out of the last year of his contract — one that would have paid him $17.8 million — and signing with the Clippers. The Warriors volleyed back with a countermove/panic decision: signing Corey Maggette for $50 million over five years (a sour deal that Bucks’ fans got to taste when Milwaukee traded for him in 2010).
Would Nelson consider shifting Monta over to the point guard spot? From a story by Lepper on the day Baron left town,
“Nelson said last season that Ellis wasn’t ready to handle point-guard duties full-time but sounded a different tune Monday.
‘That’d be a possibility,’ Nelson said. ‘I think he’s ready for the next step. He’s going to play as much as he can regardless. He’ll just play more point.’”
The loss of Davis certainly could have nudged Ellis toward being a point guard. But Ellis hurt his ankle in a moped accident the same summer, then Stephen Jackson became one of a long line of Nelson’s ‘point forwards’ — a position Nelson first used with Paul Pressey back in Milwaukee in the mid-1980s.
When Ellis came back from the ankle injury, he was locked into the shooting guard position for good.
Can Ellis defend the point? Would he do a better job defending point guards than he does on shooting guards?
Instead of being asked to close out on shooters who are taller than him or forced to bump them in the low post, Monta could guard ballhandlers. This season, he has handled that task surprisingly well. Here are his defensive numbers according to Synergy. The numbers as a pick-and-roll defender are rather staggering. Monta ranks 10th among all NBA players in points per possession allowed when defending ballhanders coming around picks.
Part of the reason for Ellis’ proficiency is the scheme: the Bucks’ bigs “show” while the ball defender chases around the screen from behind. Another part is Larry Sanders, who may be the best shot blocker in the NBA. (Case in point: Luc Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels are 10th (tie) and 16th, respectively, in the same measurement. But fellow point guard Brandon Jennings gives up 0.8 points per possession (134th in the NBA) when defending the ball handler in the pick and roll. It’s not all about the system.
To be clear, Ellis isn’t going to win Defensive Player of the Year anytime soon. He gambles for steals far too often when left one-on-one in space. Also, the “Monta double team” is one of the worst sights in basketball. He sags off his man without fully committing to helping his bigs in the low post. Stuck halfway, he provides little help to his teammate while opening another avenue for the opposition to score.
But putting him at the point would partially negate this bad habit. As a point guard, he’d be guarding on the ball more and guarding away from it less. The change would play to his strengths: quick hands and a nose for the ball.
There are other numbers, too. Numbers that show that Monta finds his big men for passes more often and closer to the hoop than Brandon Jennings. Numbers that show that over the course of the entire season, both Monta and the Bucks have fared better with Ellis at the point.
There are certainly flaws. Ellis turns the ball over at a much higher rate than Jennings. He occasionally throws boneheaded passes right into the hands of an overplaying defender. His dribble isn’t as smooth as those of most NBA starting point guards. For a long time, he’s been stuck with the label of being a bad passer — or worse, a non-passer — when all evidence points to the contrary.
But Ellis has been good — VERY good — when running the offense for the Bucks this season.
Ellis holds a player option on his contract with the Bucks for next season. Now is the right time to make Monta a full-time point guard. Will it happen in Milwaukee, or will it happen someplace else?