Monta Ellis: The Prodigal Son Returns
By: Rick Blaine
It’s been almost a year since the last Warriors Media Day where Monta Ellis fired a shot heard around the Bay, one that seemed to be aimed squarely at rookie golden child Stephen Curry. Media Day, which annually falls on the eve of training camp, is supposed to usher in hype, hope, and excitement. The players and coaches throw out the usual platitudes, superlatives, and clichés, ushering in the start of a new season with a cocktail of high expectations and spirited vibrations. The disenchanted Ellis obviously didn’t get the memo last September. Speaking with audacious candor, Ellis sapped the life force out of Media Day enthusiasm by expressing that he and Curry could not coexist as a successful backcourt. Here is exactly what Ellis said:
-Q: Can you see yourself playing with Curry in the backcourt?
-ELLIS: I can’t answer that. Us together? No.
-Q: Why not?
-ELLIS: Can’t. We just can’t.
-Q: Too small? Too similar?
-ELLIS: Just can’t.
-Q: The Warriors say you can.
-ELLIS: They say we can? Yeah. If they say it. But we can’t.
-Q: You wouldn’t want to give it a shot?
-ELLIS: I just want to win. That’s… not going to win that way.
-Q: Why not?
-ELLIS: It’s different when you’re trying to compare me and Stephen, when you’re trying to go back to when me and BD were playing, it’s a different situation. You’ve got a nine-year veteran who’s been in the game, who understands the game, knows how to play the game, and he’s a big body…You can’t put two small guys out there and try to play the 1 and the 2 when you’ve got big 2 guards in the league. You just can’t do it. OK, yes, we’re going to move up and down fast, but eventually the game is going to slow down. You can’t do it.
Media Day was not just an inauspicious start to training camp and the season; it was created a dramatic wedge between the team’s best two players. Curry, to his credit, made valiant efforts the entire season to bring harmony and bridge the gap. Despite those efforts things would get worse after Media Day. The cantankerous Stephen Jackson would be suspended and finally traded for pennies on the dollar, Brandan Wright would go down in camp with another separated shoulder and be lost for the season, Kelenna Azubuike would also go down with a serious knee injury ending his season, Anthony Randolph would play erratically and ultimately miss half the season with an ankle injury, Andris Biedrins would have his worst season as a Warrior, missing most of it due to groin and abdominal injuries, and a listless Don Nelson would sleep through most of the season. You know the story.
Behind this depressing backdrop was the story of Monta Ellis. Coming into his first full season after his serious ankle injury sustained while riding a moped two summers before, Ellis was primed to be a team leader. Statistically, Ellis had his best season as a Warrior. He averaged 25.5 points a game (6th in the league), 4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.23 steals (2nd in the league). All Star numbers. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Though statistically better than ever, something changed in Ellis’s game. He became far less efficient than the player with whom fans had become enamored just two years before. The “one man fast break” had become a volume shooter. Though he regained his explosiveness and speed once fully recovered from the moped accident, he was viewed as a shoot-first point guard whose game often stifled ball movement. For the first half of the season, Ellis was the main cog on the team. The problem was the team wasn’t winning and the team chemistry was weak. Ellis was getting his numbers, but the team wasn’t playing well together. When it came time to select All Star reserves, Ellis’s name came up, but because the Warriors were not winning, he was snubbed. Guards with much more modest numbers who played on winning teams were selected over him.
By the second half of the season, Stephen Curry would emerge as the team’s most promising star. This clearly did not sit well with Ellis, the heir apparent to Baron Davis and the man with the new shiny contract. Ellis’s demeanor during games, his volume shooting, and his out-of-the-way attempts to avoid communication with and acknowledgment of Curry depicted him as self-centered and close to cancerous. Fans took notice. By the second half of the season it became clear to many that a backcourt of Ellis and Curry was just not going to work out, and Ellis needed to be traded. He became the movable piece, the center of trade rumors. His stock dropped so low that some fans embraced the rumors that Ellis would be traded for the very average OJ Mayo and draft bust Hasheem Thabeet. Even Joe Lacob suggested that the Warriors had two stars (Curry and Lee) and needed a third to become a legitimate force, conspicuously leaving out Ellis. Later, he would make up for the omission noting in an interview with Kawakami that Ellis is one his favorite NBA players to watch on the court.
So in spite of a season with career high numbers in points, steals, and assists Ellis’s sun was setting while the object of his derision, Stephen Curry, was a star on the rise. All the evidence seemed to suggest by season’s end that Ellis was going to be yet another talented Warrior shipped off for a player of lesser value.
But something happened over the summer that has surprised fans. Ellis has had an about face on Curry. Curry was one of two Warriors invited to his wedding, and Ellis reportedly splurged on a birthday celebration for Curry. In Sam Amick’s recent Fanhouse.com articles, Ellis explains how he is now reconciled with Curry and believes the two can be an effective backcourt unit. Assistant Coach Stephen Silas, who has been been working with Ellis over the summer, says in the article, “I would say his favorite player on the team right now is Steph, and to go from media day last year to where he is now is something. That’s one of the only guys he’ll contact during the summer.”
Credit to Ellis for admitting he was wrong and for improving his relationship with Curry. That shows maturity. Sometimes a leopard does change his spots. Sometime people do change. Sometimes they surprise you. Like the prodigal son, Ellis has returned to the Bay Area to show the organization and his teammates that he is back to atone for a lost season and to be a better teammate.
Looking at Ellis and all those tattoos, you wouldn’t know that he is an old soul. But I think he is. He’s a country boy with roots, and he anchors himself in family and community. That’s why he spends so much time back home during the off-season. He’s grown into a man, a husband, and a father, and he finds peace, solace, and a healthy, balanced perspective through his family. That has served him well during the last two rocky seasons.
With a new-found attitude, there is a reason for fans to be bullish again on Ellis. He is willing to share the backcourt with Curry, and even more importantly, he is willing play the two spot. Said Ellis in the Amick interview, “I see now that I have to play the two (shooting guard). I have to play the bigger guards, and I’m cool with that. I can do that. Let’s just put our games together, get everybody else around us on the same page and play basketball.” The implications of Ellis’s paradigm shift are huge for the Warriors. For the past year we have been doubtful that Ellis would be willing to play next to Curry, especially if Curry was to be the one with the ball in his hands. In acknowledging that Curry is the better fit at point guard, Ellis is putting his brains before his ego. This gives hope to fans who would like to see Ellis revert back to the energizing force who played so well off the ball and was for a short time one of history’s most efficient guards. Fans can reasonably be optimistic that the “one man fast break” is back and that volume shooting is a thing of the past. Ellis is ready to be the recipient of David Lee outlet passes and the preternatural assists of Stephen Curry. Let’s get it on.
For Ellis to play at his optimum level, he should revert back close to where he was in 2007-2008. That season his scoring was down by 5 points from this past season, he averaged one less assist, but he averaged one more rebound per game. He was a more complimentary player, but a very effective and efficient one. Like Rip Hamilton he was deadly off the ball hitting mid range jumpers, but also lethal leaking out on the break and scoring a ton of easy baskets in transition. The addition of his three point shot only adds to his arsenal. He will be just that much more difficult to stop driving to the basket when guards have to keep him honest at the arc. It’s good to know that he is studying film with Stephen Silas and analyzing where he is most effective on the court shooting the ball. Silas commented, “I showed him different places on the floor where he gets his shots and his percentages from those spots year to year, and he was really receptive to it.” This furnishes even more evidence that we will see the return of a more efficient Ellis.
So now that Ellis has had a change of heart, I doubt that Riley or Lacob will be as eager to trade him. His future as a Warrior is certainly more secure than it was a few months ago. And that then opens up again the old argument that the Warriors have too small of a backcourt. That concern, however, is mitigated by the fact that together Ellis and Curry average nearly double digits in rebounds. Both are exceptionally good rebounders for their size and positions. Besides Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest of the Lakers and Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha of the Thunder, there are no better rebounding guard tandems in the league.
Defense is also a legitimate concern. There is no question that the Warriors backcourt has had difficulty with on ball defense. However, you will not find a better guard tandem in the league in terms of steals. Last season Ellis and Curry were ranked second and third respectively in the steals. Only Rajon Rondo averaged more steals per game. At over 4 steals per game combined, Ellis and Curry created more opportunities to score points off steals than every team in the league except the Boston Celtics. The Warriors averaged a league best 9.28 steals per game and gave up 7.87 steals for a differential of +1.41, second best in the league. There are many ways to score off of turnovers, but the research shows that steals create the most fruitful scoring opportunities. Though the backcourt of Curry and Ellis may have room for growth in terms of man defense, they make a formidable combination in ball hawking. And their productivity on offense more than offsets any liability they pose on defense.
So long as Monta Ellis stays true to the words he has spoken this summer, the Warriors look to have one of the league’s most dynamic backcourts, and the doubts that were raised on Media Day last year and endured through the 2009-2010 season are now erased. Ellis has redeemed himself, atoning for his past sins and just like the parable of The Return of the Prodigal Son, he will be welcomed back with open arms. But those familiar with the parable know that it has a bitter sweet ending. While the father is overjoyed by his son’s return, the brother—jealous and self-righteous—resents the son’s return. Here in Oakland, Curry will take joy in welcoming his brother back. This is where the story takes a different path. There is no bitterness. It is simply sweet.