Monta Ellis is a polarizing player.
That says nothing about who he is off the court or what kind of teammate he is. His playing style to this point in his career and the skills he has shown are the kind of thing that make for good philosophical debate in the NBA.
Can a small swing guard be an inefficient, high-volume scorer and yet a champion and good teammate? Is this type of player destine dfor gaudy numbers but little in the way of postseason success, the place where value is ultimately measured.
In seven season, Ellis has proven he can score. He averaged 20.4 points per game last year for Golden State and Milwaukee. That kind of number is normal for a guy like Ellis. Certainly part of it was spending most of his career in Don Nelson's unconvention, fast-paced offense. In those Warriors years, his highest scoring average was 25.5 points per game, set in 2010.
Yet, Ellis' only Playoff appearance came when he was still coming into his own as a former second-round pick. He averaged 16.5 points per game in 2007, but only 8.0 points per game in the Warriors' surprising Playoff run.
However, this is where the Ellis criticism comes, Ellis is not the most efficient scorer. He is seemingly a callback to the late-90s, early 2000s gunners like Allen Iverson and Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady who scored points and let efficiency be damned. A time when individual stats and some semblance of "swagger" mattered more.
Ellis has posted the numbers. He is one of the elite scorers in the NBA. But his usage rate has been 29.4 percent, 28.1 percent and 28.7 percent the last three seasons. In 37 games with the Warriors last year, he had a usage rate of 30.7 percent. Part of that was by necessity because Golden State frankly did not have much else to go around him.
But in those last three season, Ellis shot better than 45 percent only once. His effective field goal percentage of 47.6 percent three years ago and 49.3 percent two seasons ago were pretty good for such a high volume guy. But the results continue to struggle for his teams.
After his trade to Milwaukee, he posted only a 44.9 percent effective field goal percentage. There was some struggle in the transition to Wisconsin.
There is nothing wrong with this post-Michael Jordan culture and Ellis does not fully embody some of the problems that plagued the NBA during that era — these stars struggled to connect with fans. The NBA has just grown from it and demand more things from its superstars. He fights some perception issues from his high-scoring and general lack of success for his teams (maybe even from his appearance — maybe a sociological debate for another post).
Like so many scoring guards, Nelson tried to change and reign in Ellis some. He tried to make Ellis a point guard. It turned out to be one of Nelson's biggest regrets, as he tells Matt Steinmetz of CSN Bay Area.
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 did have the ability to pass. He does have that. 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’s not 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. When he was young he was just … he thought he was so dominant that he could do all these things that we witnessed that he can do. He can get you 35 (points) in a game and that’s what he wanted to do. Now that he’s maturing, he’s a better basketball player.
Ellis' scoring ability is unquestioned. As he heads into the next phase of his career — and prepares for free agency next summer — Ellis is going to have to begin redifining who he is as a player and what he can do. He has to show that he is more than just a pure scorer.
That task might be made more difficult by the team he is joining. The Bucks have Playoff dreams, but another guard that plays very similar to him. Brandon Jennings has the skills and size of a point guard, but has already gained a reputation as a gunner and pure scorer more than a passer. This is a tough perception to shake and could keep Ellis (and Jennings) from displaying his talents on a bigger stage.
Ellis has a lot he can teach Jennings, who posted 19.1 points per game and shot 41.8 percent from the floor (both career highs, but hardly impressive). Jennings also had a 25.9 percent usage rate, but an assist rate of 26.7 percent. Jennings' assist rate has gone down each of his three seasons.
To his credit, Ellis has seen his assist rate jump up the last three years as he has had to become Golden State's playmaker. In 2010, Ellis had a 21.4 percent assist rate. Last year, Ellis posted a 28.6 percent assist rate including a 27.3 percent assist rate with Milwaukee.
As much as Ellis and Jennings are going to have to learn to work together and improve while playing off each other, Ellis has to find his fit with Scott Skiles and his defense-first approach. Ellis has had freedom to operate offensively in Golden State without much forucs defensively for almost the entirety of his career. Even adjusting to Mark Jackson's defense first approach was a new endeavor for Ellis.
The controversy or debate over Ellis will surely only intesify as he heads into the final year of his contract and free agency (Ellis has an early termination option before the 2014 season). Figuring out his value will be an extremely difficult exercise considering all the skills he has, his reputation as a player and the relatively meager performance of his teams while he was its featured player.
The next year will go a long way at defining what kind of player Ellis will evolve into. Seven years into his career, Ellis is established as a scorer but is fighting to prove he can be much more.
The debate over Ellis will rage on as he enters this incredibly important season.
Images: SteadyProgression.com, Associated Press, BayAreaSportsGuy.com