It was a year ago this week that Monta Ellis(notes) watched his close friend, Stephen Jackson(notes), force the Golden State Warriors to trade him. Jackson thought the Warriors were too young, too inexperienced to win, and he wanted out. Ellis wasn't quite as vocal with his frustration, but it was clear he wasn't happy, either. His relationship with coach Don Nelson was distant, at best. On the day he showed up for training camp, Ellis said he doubted he could play alongside the Warriors' hotshot rookie guard, Stephen Curry(notes), because both were small.
Jackson's departure made Ellis wonder if he would – and should – be the next player to leave the franchise. As the Warriors began to succumb to injury after injury, Ellis' discontent grew.
"He felt like a loner," said Keith Smart, an assistant on Nelson's staff last season.
What a difference a year makes. The Warriors now have a new coach, new ownership, a new All-Star power forward, even new uniforms. As a result, Ellis also has a new outlook on life in the Bay Area.
"Whatever happened in the past I'm trying to move on from," Ellis said. "Everybody in the world knows the frustration that was on my face – every player on that team and in the organization. It was a tough time, but now things have changed.
"It's all a new start."
The biggest change has come with the evolution of Ellis' relationship with Curry. Ellis' comments about the pair's incompatibility – which came on the team's media day last season – initially kept them from becoming friends, and the tension carried over to the court, where the two would "bypass each other," Smart said.
The two finally began to grow closer toward the end of last season after Ellis' wife, Juanika, and Curry's fiancee, Ayesha Alexander, became good friends. Juanika had also made it a point to tell Ellis that he was wrong in his assertion that he and Curry couldn't play together. Ellis then picked up the entire tab for Curry's 22nd birthday party in March. Curry also attended Ellis' and Juanika's wedding over the summer in Mississippi.
"I took it as a shock because that was my first exposure to him and the team," Curry said of Ellis' initial comments. "But then I realized he didn't know me well, and I earned his trust with my play."
Smart noticed Ellis and Curry had become closer when they were on the phone together during the NBA draft. They also began to complement each other better on the court.
"Steph kept trying to be friends, and then Monta finally relented," Smart said. "Monta said, 'You know we're both pretty talented, and he's pretty good. We can make it work.' "
While Ellis eventually bonded with Curry, his relationship with Nelson never really improved. Current and former teammates think the decision of the Warriors' new owners to replace Nelson with Smart prior to this season has had a big impact on Ellis. Former Warriors forward Al Harrington(notes) predicted last month that Ellis would lead the NBA in scoring this season with Smart as his coach. So far, Ellis has averaged 26.5 points, second only to the 28.2 last season's scoring champ, Kevin Durant(notes), is averaging.
Ellis wouldn't get into specifics about the differences between Nelson and Smart except to say, "Smart calls plays for me." The signing of All-Star forward David Lee(notes), who has given the Warriors another strong rebounder next to center Andris Biedrins(notes), also has helped.
"I'm not going to sit here and try to bash and say anything bad about [Nelson]," Ellis said. "He was a great coach. If it weren't for playing in his system, I wouldn't be the player that I am and had the [improvements] I had.
"There were some doubts in my mind that he had a leash on me because he didn't let me do certain things that no one knew about. I'm just going to put all that behind me and do what I can for coach Smart."
The Warriors considered trading Ellis last season before rejecting a deal that would have sent him to the Memphis Grizzlies for guard O.J. Mayo(notes) and center Hasheem Thabeet(notes) prior to the February trade deadline. Speculation persisted through much of the summer that the Warriors would move Ellis, but league sources now say team officials couldn't be happier with his game – and leadership. It would a phenomenal offer for the Warriors to even consider dealing Ellis now, the sources said.
"They were open to trading him last season," one NBA executive said. "Now that they are playing well and winning, it would be a bad move. The word out of there is he has matured some. He's changed the last couple of months."
The Warriors believe Ellis' recent marriage and 15-month-old son have made him much more grounded than the player who badly injured his left ankle in a moped accident before the start of the 2008-09 season. The injury required surgery, and Ellis lost $3 million in salary when the Warriors suspended him for 30 games. Team officials also discussed voiding Ellis' contract because of the incident, which created more distrust between Ellis and the franchise.
"When you let stuff get to you and get out of your comfort zone, it messes up a lot of things, not only on the court but also off the court," Ellis said. "So when I had my son and [got] married, it gave me another perspective on life. Life is too short for all the nonsense, all the bickering.
"I just try to stay positive. I ain't got time for all the other stuff. There is no point, no use for it."
Said Smart: "The kid that the incident happened with … that was a kid experimenting with all of life's pleasures from the standpoint of when you work in our business you can do whatever you want, buy whatever you want. Now you have a man who has an equal responsibility with a wife and young son."
The Warriors also have a better player and newfound hope for the future. They opened the season 6-2 – their best start in 16 years – before losing their past two games after Lee suffered a freak elbow injury against the Knicks. The Warriors are now counting on Ellis to help keep the team afloat until Lee returns in a couple weeks.
And all that frustration Ellis carried with him a year ago? He now sees only reasons to stay.
"I'd love to play at Golden State until I retire," Ellis said. "I'm established. There is no need for me to try to go somewhere else and start over again."
- the Warriors