As far as backup plans go, Monta Ellis has worked out brilliantly in Dallas.
Instead of leaping to the top the NBA by adding a star like Deron Williams or Dwight Howard, the Mavs have built steadily with Ellis, who is turning the corner toward stardom in his ninth NBA season. "When you feel comfortable and you feel wanted," said Ellis, "it makes you want to go out every night and leave it on the court."
The 31-21 Mavs have won a season-best five straight to maintain their (momentary) hold on the No. 7 spot in the crowded West. After missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, they've begun to reinvent themselves around the unlikely pairing of Nowitzki, the 35-year-old All-Star still humming along and averaging 21.9 points, and Ellis, who at 28 is reinventing himself as a future All-Star with a game more complete than Nowitzki expected.
"I knew he could score and everything," said Nowitzki, "but the thing that surprised us the most is his playmaking ability off the pick-and-roll. He'll get in there, get our 5s involved, get our shooters involved, give me a lot of open looks every night. He makes my game a lot easier.
"One little mistake in the pick and roll coverage and his strides are so long -- one dribble from the three and he's laying the ball up on anybody. He's so athletic, so fast, even off the dribble. He's been amazing for us."
Ellis is his new team's No. 2 scorer (19.3 points) and its unanticipated leader in playmaking (5.7 assists) and steals (1.8). His arrival in Dallas has enabled the 6-3 shooting guard to make good on the original projections fans of his had when he entered the 2005 draft as a 19-year-old senior from Lanier High School in Jackson, Miss. At that time some scouts compared him to a more athletic version of Sam Cassell.
Ellis isn't quite as crafty as Cassell; on the other hand, he hasn't been anything like the selfish scorer that he was accused of being in his first eight years with the Warriors (who stole him with a second-round pick) and the Bucks. Ellis opted out of his final year in Milwaukee worth $11 million, and wound up coming to Dallas at a cost-efficient $25.1 million over three years (with a potential opt-out after next season). His decision-making has enabled point guard Jose Calderon (44.5 percent from the three-point line) to play off the ball frequently.
"He knows the game," said Mavs sixth man Vince Carter. "It's not just, 'Oh, I can score' -- he knows and he's willing to learn. He plays with a chip on a shoulder, as he should. I think he felt he's been snubbed and he has something to prove to the world for labeling him as selfish or whatever the stigma on him is. And he's been great."
His teammates appreciate the edge he has brought to a franchise that is hungry to be relevant again. Ellis has proved a willingness to play hurt, as when he overcame a hamstring strain Sunday to contribute 11 points in 28 minutes to a 102-91 win at Boston. "He has not missed one practice all year," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday night. "When he was out there today in shootaround, I was joking with the assistant coaches: He's like Peter Parker, must have got bitten by that radioactive spider that put a jolt into his body where he's healed. Him playing sends a message to the rest of the guys about just being there, and it was big."
Ellis has been hard at times on rookie point guards Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel; and when the second unit hasn't protected the lead, Ellis hasn't been quiet about it. "Playing with a team like this, with guys who've been around, we all hold each other accountable and he's really accepted that call," said Carter. "He holds us accountable. He comes to work every day ready to go at it. And it's actually taken his game to another level."
The problem has been at the less glamorous end of the floor, where the Mavs rank No. 23 in defensive efficiency. In Nowitzki's early years the Mavericks' were a score-first team until coach Avery Johnson emphasized defense, which was followed by the arrival of center Tyson Chandler, who led the balanced Mavs to the 2010-11 championship.
Now these Mavericks appear to be channeling their approach from a decade ago. "You name it, it's been a challenge -- dribble penetration, rebounding," said Carlisle. "We knew coming in that we didn't have a roster of lockdown guys, and so we were going to have to find ways to do it collectively. We've showed some signs of growth in recent weeks and we've got to build on that."
In the meantime, Nowitzki is making the most of his new accomplice. He has never played with a prolific scorer as explosive athletically as Ellis, who has provided Nowitzki with his best pick-and-roll partner since Steve Nash.
"Steve was more the slower kind of guy, and obviously a little better shooter behind the pick and roll," said Nowitzki. "But Monta so well uses his athleticism and speed to get to the rim. If you look at our roster we don't have a lot of drivers out there -- he's one of the guys every night that gets in there for us and makes stuff happen, sucks the defense in, getting those little dump-off passes, getting our shooters shots. We must run 50-60 pick-and-rolls for him every night."
"Teams play Dirk so different," said Ellis, "and with me coming off and attacking, they really don't know what to do. If they show and try to get back, that give me opportunity to get into the paint and make plays for others. And if they show too long, it's always him popping back for the open three. So I think it go both ways.''
Nowitzki is converting 40.7 percent of his threes and shooting 49.1 percent overall, and he has yet to showcase his version of the skyhook that he has been practicing with his German trainer Holger Geschwindner over the last several years. He looks capable of playing for several more years, which gives the Mavs hope that he and Ellis can develop a long-term partnership. But Nowitzki isn't so sure.
"For me to play at this level, it takes so much preparation," said Nowitzki. "This summer I was in the gym every day starting at the beginning of May. It's a lot of work that goes into it. That's something, when the fun and the motivation of that goes away, then I won't be able to perform at the high level, and then I'm not sure if I could do it. But as long as I'm still motivated to work hard and do that stuff around it, I should be OK.
"I still like doing it -- go to the gym, lift. It's kind of evolved from a lot of shooting to now keeping the legs strong. You lift a lot more, do a lot of core stuff so you can still perform at a high level."
Can the Mavs come up with a third star as well as the necessary defensive-minded role players to enable Nowitzki and Ellis to take the next step? That question will be easier for them to resolve if they can finish what they've started and make the playoffs.