Monta Ellis' peculiar game makes him difficult to trade or build around
By Rob Mahoney
The Bucks are positioned (and due) for an overhaul and figure to be involved in much of the chatter leading up to Thursday's trade deadline as recently extended general manager John Hammond susses out the best course of action. The future of the coaching position is still undecided, though Jim Boylan has done a respectable job on an interim basis. Brandon Jennings will be a restricted free agent, but is reportedly seeking a far larger contract than he's actually worth. Three rotation-level role players are on expiring deals, and the Bucks will need to account for a potential extension for Larry Sanders in a year's time.
All of which makes it easy to forget that high-scoring guard Monta Ellis also has the potential to enter free agency if he so wishes -- an outcome that Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe refers to as being "expected." Ellis has an early-termination option that would allow him to opt out of the final season of his six-year agreement with the Bucks, though in doing so he would leave $11 million on the table.
The chance that Ellis might bolt from Milwaukee this summer should give the Bucks some pause in navigating a potential reboot. Teams in this position can't afford to give up useful players without receiving something in return, and yet re-signing Ellis could prove to be a terrible mistake for a franchise that may be best served by moving on. That's true for exactly the same reason that the Bucks may have trouble getting any value in a potential liquidation trade. As good a scorer as Ellis is, he's a very particular talent that requires specific conditions to be successful. Among them:
• He needs to be hidden defensively. The public estimation of Ellis' defensive abilities are unfortunately quite fair: He's the kind of liability that coaches have to go out of their way to hide, which makes him a difficult piece to manage in a league where more and more teams are loading up on the perimeter. In some cases, Ellis can be stashed on a spot-up shooting specialist at some position or another, but cross-matching Ellis to a hand-picked opponent requires his team to have two standout (and versatile) perimeter defenders capable of handling the remaining threats.
Even beyond that, Ellis has a bad habit of ball-watching when defending a cutter or shooter, leaving him vulnerable to backdoor action or unexpected screens. That makes him an imperfect cover for some of the league's more active perimeter shooters or against teams with creative play design and a special type of player who is a liability within a greater liability.
• He should not be a team's primary ball handler. My qualms with Ellis' game have little to do with the fact that he's a scoring ball handler, and everything to do with the fact that he's an easily baited scoring ball handler. When Ellis works from the top of the floor, it's just far too easy to lure him into a difficult attempt. He's among the least disciplined players in the league in the pick-and-roll, in part because he tends to fire an attempt as soon as he hits any pocket in the defense. As such, savvy defenders tend to give Ellis a bit of cushion, happily ceding a long two-point jumper to him as opposed to handling his drives or wrangling a rolling Bucks big man. Those looks may result in some impressive shots at times, but take a look at how Ellis grades out in terms of overall shooting performance:
The problems are even more exaggerated beyond the three-point arc, where Ellis has developed an annoying habit of hoisting shots off the dribble that are well outside his range. Ellis has never been a very accurate shooter from that distance, but this season he's shooting an especially atrocious 26-for-130 (20 percent) on above-the-break threes -- the guilty-pleasure shot of ball-handling guards everywhere.
These aren't just temporary blind spots, but enduring flaws. Ellis' decision-making is altogether regrettable despite the fact that he can otherwise complete some really nice plays off the dribble. Which brings us to our next consideration ...
• He's too talented a slasher -- and too limited an outside shooter -- to work exclusively off the ball. Ellis can get to the basket pretty consistently when he's so inclined, a habit that only makes it that much more infuriating to watch (and I'd assume, to coach) him as he gives up on possessions long before they've run their course. Some of his driving success is a product of a hardened handle and natural agility, though it's the way that Ellis maneuvers through tight quarters that really sets him apart. His right-to-left spin move is a thing of beauty, and the fact that he can execute it to split defenders (rather than merely circumvent a single opponent) before collecting himself for a soft finish demonstrates a special level of spatial awareness and body control.
He also makes some decent feeds out of his forays deep into the paint, though not consistently enough. Ellis tends to follow his first instinct (scoring) to the point of marginalizing a strength, becoming a below-average finisher at the rim this season by way of choosing audacious, contorting attempts over hitting open teammates. While he could really stand to find his teammates more frequently on those deep drives, his pushes toward the rim -- even the overly ambitious ones -- are ultimately far more helpful to his team than settling for contested 20-footers could ever be.
All of the above puts Ellis in a peculiar subset of wing players. He can create as a lead guard, but shouldn't be trusted without caveats. He should work off the ball more often, but can't space the floor as a spot-up shooter. He can score, but rarely does so efficiently. He's not even a particularly good isolation option when we really boil down his game, making him something of a dingier Lou Williams or a range-less Jason Terry. That's a hard piece to drop into a lineup without the utmost consideration, and it's those converging elements of Ellis' game that make him more trouble to accommodate than he's really worth. The problems are only compounded when Ellis brings this kind of mindset to the table:
Even if you're in the minority that still considers Ellis a star, it's difficult to contend at this point that he's really a star worth building around -- or in Milwaukee's case, re-building around. He's a good player, but in the NBA's current economic climate, I'm not sure a team can afford to pay him eight figures annually unless it already meets several of the aforementioned prerequisites. Ellis just needs too much -- and may cost too much -- for most teams to shoulder the limitations of his unusual game, with Milwaukee particularly ill-equipped to handle such a project. There's no theoretical roadblock in Ellis working with another ball-handler like Brandon Jennings. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Ellis' ideal role might be something similar to his niche with the 2007-08 Warriors -- a team that allowed Ellis to work as a complementary creator alongside two other playmakers (Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson). But Jennings and Ellis share enough flaws that there's serious reason to doubt their long-term viability as a highly paid duo on a team with some mid-level obligations already on the books.
It would make little sense at this point for the Bucks to hold on to Ellis for the sake of re-signing him, but a potential trade is more complicated than it may seem due to the fact that Ellis is far from an ideal plug-and-play deadline acquisition. Positional ambiguity aside, teams can't just pick up Ellis on a whim in the same way that they might conceivably acquire, say, J.J. Redick. This is a player with the potential for a decent offensive payoff, but with a game that has to be carefully managed. Even squeezing Ellis into the right role will require a certain amount of creativity and finesse, thereby introducing more uncertainty than most deadline suitors are typically comfortable accepting.
H/T on the Globe's report: PBT. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.