Reflecting On Monta Ellis' Time In Milwaukee

The Monta Ellis Era in Milwaukee is over, as the Mavericks will sign Ellis to a three-year deal.

With Dallas swooping in and working to finalize signing Monta Ellis to a three-year deal reportedly worth $28 million Friday, the mercurial guard’s tenure as a Milwaukee Buck is all but over.  For most Milwaukee fans, this means a sigh of relief and perhaps a celebratory drink or two. But let us not forget that a mere year-and-a-half ago, the acquisition of Ellis was lauded by many as an exciting and bold move from a notoriously conservative Milwaukee franchise.

At the time of the trade – March 13, 2012, to be exact – the Warriors were careening toward yet another lottery pick (that would eventually manifest as Harrison Barnes) and looking to unload the $27 million remaining on Ellis’ deal. He was averaging a team-high 21.9 points per game and held a reputation as one of the game’s elite scorers.

The primary piece Milwaukee sent to the Warriors, center Andrew Bogut, was recovering from an ankle injury, and the reality that he would never return to pre-Amare shove form was beginning to set in. The Bucks were also able to dump problematic swingman Stephen Jackson in the deal while bringing in a young, recent lottery pick in Ekpe Udoh.

So at the time, the trade seemed like a win for Milwaukee. They had caught the Warriors at the right time – preparing to enter full-on tank mode in an effort to avoid losing their top-seven protected pick to the Jazz – and procured one of the most dynamic guards in the league. I was happy, Twitter was abuzz, and Bucks fans were anxious to see the new-look Ellis-Jennings backcourt in action.

In retrospect, Milwaukee fans – and even casual NBA fans – were duped. Even as a close follower of the league, I was intrigued by the trade and, regrettably, excited for the Monta Ellis era to begin. His percentages weren’t that terrible, he was an exciting player to watch, and – most importantly – he brought some attention to a franchise in desperate need of just that.

The problem was Bucks fans didn’t know any better.

Ellis toiled away for six-and-a-half years on a team that played most of its games when much of Milwaukee was crawling into bed and rarely earned a national TV spot. What fans did see were the highlights on SportsCenter and cries from Warriors fans each winter endorsing Ellis as a worthy All-Star candidate. But highlights are just that – HIGH-lights. ESPN’s 45-second recaps omitted the missed jumpers and atrocious shot selection that would come to define Ellis’ stay in Milwaukee.  From afar, it appeared one of the best scorers in the league was stuck in a bad situation preventing him from reaching star status. In reality, he was the best player in a dysfunctional situation that allowed his deficiencies to be masked.

In acquiring Ellis, Milwaukee rolled the dice hoping that he’d somehow recapture the shooting touch that carried him to a 53.1 field goal percentage in 2007-08. But that season, as a third-year player, Ellis attempted just 0.6 threes per game, making a living on drives to the basket often capped off by remarkably acrobatic finishes. Following that anomaly of a season, Ellis still showed plenty of flashes of that ability but seemed much more satisfied settling for 3-pointers and forcing contested jump shots. An injury-plagued season in 2008-09 saw Ellis play just 25 games, and when he returned healthy in 2009-10 it became clear that he had shifted his focus away from the drive. Ellis attempted 3.6 threes per game that season, followed by 4.7 in 2010-11 and 4.2 in 37 games for the Warriors in 2011-12.

We soon found out that the Monta Ellis Milwaukee received was not the Monta Ellis fans expected. It wasn’t Ellis’ fault – his numbers in 21 games as a Buck in 2011-12 were nearly identical to those he put up with Golden State – but the team failed to reach the playoffs and concerns about whether he and the similarly-inefficient Jennings could co-exist began to rapidly surface. Still, for the most part, Ellis and the Bucks were given the benefit of the doubt. After all, Ellis had barely any time to adjust to a new style and notoriously-difficult coach in Scott Skiles.


But as the 2012-13 season unfolded, it became clear what Milwaukee was going to get from Ellis. Sure, he averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 assists and 3.9 rebounds – very respectable numbers for a score-first guard. But the problem, as always, was that Ellis’ relative success came at the detriment of the team. His 41.6 field goal percentage was his lowest since his rookie season of 2005-06, and he shot just 28.7 percent from beyond the arc – a laughable percentage for a player chucking up 4.0 threes per game

In spite of the negativity that will always define Ellis’ stay in Milwaukee, it’s important to note that he had his fair share of positive moments in a Bucks uniform:  The memorable in-again-out-again game-winner against Houston on February 27, a ridiculous 27 point, 17 rebound, eight assist, five steal performance on April 12, and a gutsy 38-point (14-25 FG, 6-11 3Pt) performance in a loss to the Nuggets three days later. Ellis also put together one of the best cumulative months of his career this past March, averaging 22.6 points, 6.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals on 48.0 percent shooting. He shot 37.1 percent from beyond the arc and topped 20 points in 13 of 16 games.

But all in all, Monta Ellis’ season-and-a-quarter with the Bucks will be remembered as a disappointment. He quickly became the scapegoat for a fan base tiring of annual mediocrity, and the Mavs’ decision to offer him a contract continues to be mockery fodder on Twitter as I type this sentence. But, as I said before, his lack of success in Milwaukee was not his fault. Ellis didn’t ask to be traded to Milwaukee, but when it happened he didn’t stop playing like himself. Close followers of the league and Ellis’ career knew what Milwaukee was getting itself into, but the casual Bucks fan was expecting the Monta Ellis they saw on Top Plays each week.

Only time will tell if Ellis finds success with the Mavericks, but his reputation as a player in the summer of 2013 is considerably more tarnished than it was in the spring of 2012 (there’s a reason players like Tyreke Evans and Jarrett Jack received significantly more free agency interest). What makes the Mavs’ decision to bring him in so puzzling is that Ellis’ weaknesses were exposed in Milwaukee, and even the casual fan is now aware of what he’s going to bring to the table on a nightly basis.

Dallas, buckle up. I can assure you you’re in for a long, inefficient and wild ride.

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