Posted February 18, 2013

Monta Ellis’ peculiar game makes him difficult to trade or build around

Milwaukee Bucks, Monta Ellis, Rob Mahoney
Monta Ellis puts a layup off glass

Bucks guard Monta Ellis can opt out of his contract this summer. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

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:

2013 ellis 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.

5 comments
dinohealth
dinohealth

Nay, I think drawing any conclusions off Monta's worse shooting season, in his first, full, season as a Buck, on a team that has not found an identity, with an interim coach, is not very tangible. The Bucks have a heck of a lot of good pieces in place, on the starting rotation, and, on the bench. The backcourt needs a firm hand to guide them and to develop defensive and offensive sporadic play. What is needed is some solid coaching experience and stability, and, a year, or, two to gel under him. I am not a believer of extended Interim Coach labels and periods of time, if, you want a team to grow and be successful If, Monta is traded to a team that is stable, it will be the Bucks' loss and the other team's gain..

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

HEY.....KOHL! Just SELL the team already.....YOU will NEVER win a championship in Milwaukee, and the fans can't stand your LOSER .500 something team every year. 

jsteppling
jsteppling

listening to him, the kid is delusional. He is a streaky shooter.....no question he can get hot. And he's astounding quick and explosive when he takes it to the rack..........but man, he is a liability on defense, plus he's just clueless and not a guy who makes his teammates better. If Im the bucks, i just let him walk. It was a bad trade, but cut your losses and move on. The bucks have serious talent...Sanders, Illysova and Luc when healthy. And potential in tobias harris......though one is starting to wonder if he can really take the next step. They need to try to keep jennings.....try to pawn off at least one bad contract (Goodan can still play by the way, he just doesnt get any minutes in milwaukee) and try to cash in an asset .......id like to see them try to get gortat actually. With sanders, henson and gortat you have a big three rotation as good as any in the league. Hope jennings figures it out more and draft a wing player.

CZForce
CZForce

This Sports Beat Writer is pretty much right on when it comes to Ellis! He's a ball movement killer! He blows more easy layups than anyone in the NBA. Monta Ellis has this real annoying tick. He dribbles around the top of the key while his teammates move around trying to get open and run their set. But just as Ellis is supposed to start moving the ball, he'll use a cross over dribble and throw up a 3 point shot 4 feet behind the line that ends up abusing the rim so bad that the rim would have a great case for assault! I was kind of excited when we got him and now I'd do anything if he wasn't on our team! As right as you were about Mota Ellis, you couldn't be more wrong about Jim Boylan! You obviously only look at the Bucks record with this man as Head Coach because if you watched the games like I have, you'll see that Boylan is nothing but a career assistant that gets out coached every night! He stays too long with struggling players,doesn't know how to find the right  matchups, and never makes any kind of adjustments! He's just in over his head and he's had a huge hand in wasting a talented roster! Why fire Scott Skiles only to keep his Clones on to finish the job the same way he would have had he stayed! John Henson has produced every single time he gets minutes but yet he can't get into games because this coach is too busy trying to get his first Head Coaching job, that he isn't doing what's right for the Franchises future! He makes me sick! The Bucks need to go young and change this team for the better! GO BUCKS!!!

Mark4
Mark4

 @CZForce Someone really needs to remove the exclamation point key from your keyboard.