Two summers back, coming off an unsuccessful year-and-a-half-long stint with the Milwaukee Bucks, Monta Ellis struggled to generate interest in free agency. The former Golden State Warriors spark plug withered on the vine until the second week of July before eventually inking a three-year, $25.1 million make-good deal with the Dallas Mavericks.
After spending two years making often-beautiful music with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Brandan Wright and Tyson Chandler in the high-screen game under Rick Carlisle, Ellis elected to opt out of the final year of his contract, betting that the promise of a rising salary cap would embolden some suitor to splash the cash and give the 29-year-old shooting guard a raise from the $8.7 million he was set to make.
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The gamble paid off, as Ellis on Thursday agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal to join the Indiana Pacers, according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard and Marc Stein. Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that Ellis was in "serious talks" with Indiana.
Ellis will hold a player option that will allow him to re-enter free agency after the 2017-18 season, when the influx of revenue from the NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast rights deal will have inflated the salary cap to a projected $108 million.
Ellis had also drawn significant interest from the Sacramento Kings, who swung a big trade on Wednesday night with the Philadelphia 76ers to jettison the salaries of power forwards Jason Thompson and Carl Landry — and paid a dear, dear price for doing so — in order to create enough salary-cap space to make big bids for the services of several remaining free agents, with Ellis, Rajon Rondo and Wesley Matthews reportedly at the top of the list for owner Vivek Ranadivé and vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac.
Evidently, the extra funds weren't enough to get Monta to dive into the Kings' big ol' bucket o' crazy:
... which means the Kings are likely to back up the Brinks truck for a non-shooting point guard who disrupted the Mavericks' flow enough to get the heave-ho during a postseason series and no playoff share afterward, or an about-to-turn-29-year-old guard coming off an Achilles tendon tear that's been historically brutal on guards ... or both. The Kings' borderline unbelievable early summer continues.
For Ellis, the new deal — which will pay him an average of $11 million per season, just a tick more than the Cleveland Cavaliers paid Iman Sumpert to stick around, and just a tick less than the San Antonio Spurs will shell out to retain starting shooting guard Danny Green — represents quite the lucrative exit from Big D, where he reportedly wasn't exactly everyone's pal by the end of his stay, according to ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon:
Ellis should not anticipate that raise coming from the Mavs, who would rather move on than make a major long-term investment in a one-dimensional player whose moodiness and selfishness negatively impacted the team’s chemistry last season, according to sources with knowledge of the front office's thought process. [...]
It also didn’t help matters that Ellis and [Chandler]Parsons didn’t click off the court, an issue many within the organization suspect was influenced by Ellis’ bitterness about Parsons being paid almost twice as much as he was.
It remains to be seen if any similar static would exist in Indiana, though only star Pacers swingman Paul George and center Roy Hibbert would stand to make more money than Ellis next season. (That is, if Hibbert's even on the Pacers next season.)
In terms of on-court fit, Ellis could prove a much-needed boon for an Indiana offense that has been dismal for the past three seasons, even when the Pacers were healthy and vying for the Eastern Conference crown. Indy finished 19th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession in 2012-13, 22nd in 2013-14 and 24th last season. For whatever else Ellis doesn't do, the man can score, averaging 19 points per game during his two seasons in Dallas. Even after all the miles he's put on his 6-foot-3 frame over the past decade, the hard-charging Ellis can still break a defense down off the dribble and get to the basket, posting top-five marks among non-point guards in both drives per game and team points created by drives per game last season.
He also chipped in a shade under five assists per contest with the Mavs, often working as a primary facilitator in the screen game to not-elite-but-still-productive effect. Ellis generated 0.83 points per possession finished (with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, the 24th-best mark among NBA players who logged at least 200 such possessions, ranking him in the 73rd percentile of pick-and-roll playmaking efficiency, according to Synergy Sports Technology's play-charting data.
Those scoring and playmaking strengths come with caveats attached, of course. Ellis remains a poor 3-point shooter, having hit at just a 28.5 percent clip last season and a well-below-average 31.4 percent for his career. He's a committed practitioner of the Lost Art of the Midrange Jumper, which has come to be a considered a dark art in the post-Moreyball NBA, but remains a useful tool against defenses that tend to give that up:
He's also a defensive liability whose quick feet, such an important part of his ability to beat defenders one-on-one, have never really translated to the other end. His strong steal numbers (1.9 per game last year, eighth-best in the NBA) betray a tendency to gamble both on and off the ball rather than play sound positional and team defense.
Those weaknesses figure to be mitigated in Indiana, however, where Ellis will likely slot in alongside a back-to-full-health George and incumbent point man George Hill, who both rank among the league's best and rangiest defenders at their positions and can shoot the 3 at a league-average-or-better clip. Returning shooting guard C.J. Miles offers more in the latter category than the former, but he looks like another solid wing complement for Ellis' game, and head coach Frank Vogel should be just the man to effectively hide Monta on defense, having pulled one of the NBA's more remarkable feats last season by crafting a top-10 D — 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, eighth-best in the league, just a tick behind the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks — despite having George for only six games and losing former starter Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets in free agency.
Stephenson's name rings out a bit here, as one of the frequently cited elements in discussing his crash-and-burn campaign in Charlotte — which ended last month in a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers — has been his departure from the environment that Vogel and Larry Bird created in Indianapolis, a development bubble in which Stephenson's significant on-court gifts were maximized and his reported problem-child tendencies minimized. After agreeing to terms, Ellis' representative cited the atmosphere in Indy as a key factor contributing to his client turning down Vivek's extra cash:
There's a chance that Ellis clashes with Vogel as he has with multiple coaches in multiple previous stops, or that his estimable durability — he's logged at least 2,600 minutes in seven of his 10 pro seasons, and has missed just two games in the last three seasons — could wind up grinding him down, sapping his explosiveness and reducing his offensive effectiveness over the full length of his contract. But with no significant long-term money on the books besides George, the cap rising to the point that Ellis will only occupy about 12 percent of the Pacers' balance sheet in Year 2 and Indiana's desperate need for more scoring, playmaking and daring to help George return to his All-Star form, those seem like chances worth taking.
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