See, Monta Ellis loves to pass! (Ronald Martinez/ Getty)
After missing out on this summer's top two free agents, the Dallas Mavericks were forced to assess other, significantly less exciting options. Their next move, a deal with veteran swingman Andre Iguodala, appears to have fallen apart in literally the final hour due to the Golden State Warriors' entry into the pursuit. So, in looking to add useful players, the Mavs have opted for veterans with histories of productions who also happen to have a few glaring weaknesses. In other words, the 2011 NBA champions are now a lot like many other teams looking for a lifeline.
Their newest reported addition exemplifies this predicament quite well. As first reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Mavericks have agreed to terms with Monta Ellis on a three-year contract that could range from $25 million to $28 million, depending on the team's salary cap situation (Sam Amick of USA Today added that it will fall in at $28 million). Given Monta's history of production and the contracts handed out to players like Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith and former Maverick O.J. Mayo, this deal is both the market rate for a four-time 20-ppg scorer and something of an overpay.
That's not to say Ellis won't provide the Mavericks with useful skills. As Dirk Nowitzki nears the end of his career, Dallas needs another scorer to shoulder the load. If nothing else, Ellis, who turns 28 in late October, has proven a willingness to create, take, and often make shots throughout his eight NBA seasons. Despite his deserved reputation as a gunner, Ellis is an adept passer who could create some exciting offensive partnerships with Nowitzki and fellow free-agent acquisitions Jose Calderon, a point guard who can keep Ellis from having to handle the ball at an inadvisable rate.
Of course, Ellis's raw scoring numbers belie his frankly horrific efficiency numbers, which have steadily declined since he notched a 53.1 percent mark on field goals in 2007-08. While Monta's pure talent is undeniable, his decision-making and penchant for bad shots — especially long two-pointers and way too many shots from beyond the arc, where he hit 28.7 percent on 3.8 attempts per game last season — have turned him into something of a bete noire among the league's growing cadre of efficiency-minded analysts. In this era, a likely 20-point scorer coming off a season of 41.6 shooting from the field — his lowest rate since 41.5 percent in his rookie season — just isn't as valuable as in the past.
These marks might be more tolerable if Ellis did in fact "have it all." Again, his passing abilities are underrated, but Monta is a limited defender too undersized to defend most two-guards. He has elite quickness and often jumps passing lanes to create fastbreak opportunities, but it often looks as if Ellis was simply never taught how to move laterally to keep a defender in front of him. It's no great surprise that he saw his best seasons as a pro when paired with a motivated Baron Davis, a big point guard who could facilitate the offense and allow Ellis to play away from the point of attack at the defensive end. Calderon doesn't fit that description, which suggests that the Mavericks will need a shot-blocker — perhaps free-agent target Samuel Dalembert — to cover for perimeter mistakes.
Nevertheless, Ellis is a good enough player that this acquisition reads as an attempt by the Mavericks to stay as relevant as they possibly can. Assuming no shocking moves are on the horizon, we can pencil this team into the fight for the West's final one or two playoff spots, although that projection may depend on Nowitzki playing more than last season's 53 games. Ellis is the kind of established player who does just enough to keep a team in the hunt for a playoff spot without rising up to serious contention (or even dark-horse status). His quality of play, as well as the amount of money and years committed to him, figures to place the Mavericks in the middle of the pack for the foreseeable future.
It's a questionable goal, but also an understandable one. Last Friday, I noted that Mark Cuban's tenure as owner has involved more-or-less uninterrupted success, which could make it more difficult to kiss playoff hopes goodbye and commit to a rebuilding period. The results of these efforts to hold on could be a period of time in basketball purgatory, an unattractive prospect for any team. The silver lining here is that an extended stay could convince the organization's brain trust and fans that a full-scale rebuild is necessary. While it's become conventional wisdom that an Oklahoma City Thunder-style raze-and-rebuild plan is the best course of action for a middling team, it's also true that such a decision requires a full investment to persevere through several seasons of losing. The Mavericks shouldn't go that route until they're ready to put up with being terrible.
None of these developments are likely to make Mavericks fans particularly happy right now, but all is not lost. While Monta Ellis is not going to win the team any championships, he is a uniquely enjoyable player to watch on a daily basis. Ellis has a flair for the impossible, an unparalleled ability to contort his body to finish at the rim, often spontaneously. Put simply, he makes a 40-win team a lot more tolerable to watch. It's not what the Mavericks are used to, but it is one of many things that makes the NBA fun, even when a team isn't as competitive as it used to be.
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