March 13th will mark the two-year anniversary of the Golden State Warriors’ most consequential non-draft personnel move of the last decade: the Monta Ellis trade. Let’s rewind the tape a bit to get a sense of where the Warriors were then, and then fast-forward a bit to see where they are now.
The Warriors’ 2011-12 season was tumultuous, to say the least. It had been several years since the raucous heights of “We Believe,” and the Warriors had suffered three straight underwhelming seasons following Baron Davis’s move to Los Angeles. Coach Don Nelson had been canned following the 2009-10 season after the Warriors put up a horrible 26-56 record. Nellie was followed by Keith Smart, who was himself fired unceremoniously after a single mediocre year at the helm.
The strike-shortened 2011-12 season was supposed to be different. The Warriors came into the year with high hopes. They finally had stable ownership willing to spend money for good talent. They had an All-Star talent at the power forward slot in David Lee, a borderline All-Star at the two-guard slot in Monta Ellis, and a budding supernova in third-year point guard Stephen Curry. Finally, they had a new coach in Mark Jackson, who vowed to turn things around, going so far as predicting the team would make the playoffs for the first time since “We Believe.”
Setting the tone for the year to come, the Warriors were blown out by 19 on opening night by Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers. Things got ugly quickly as Curry went down with an ankle injury only five games into the new season, forcing him to miss two weeks of action. This would become a familiar refrain throughout the year as Curry missed 40 out of 66 total games.
Ellis and Lee weren’t enough to keep the Warriors afloat with Curry out, and as the rest of the team struggled mightily to play some semblance of professional-quality basketball. Andris Biedrins had become so wary of the free-throw line that he became unplayable. Dorell Wright deeply underperformed based on the team’s high expectations for him coming into the year.
The rest of the team was filled with marginal D-League talent, like Charles Jenkins, Dominic McGuire, and Jeremy Tyler, and unrepentant gunners like Lil’ Nate Robinson and rookie Klay Thompson. Without Curry, the team flailed on offense. And with or without him, the team was a defensive disaster.
Jackson preached D, but the only league-average defensive player of the Warriors’ top six was sixth-man Brandon Rush. Despite having his best year as a pro that season, Rush was too inconsistent to rely on for big minutes. It became clear that something had to be done.
And so, the Warriors began to search for trades near the deadline, hoping to build a squad capable of consistent skill and effort on both sides of the ball. Lee was signed to a monster contract and nearly immovable—and remember, this was before Kirk Goldsberry outed him as a bottom-three big defender last season—which left the team with only two real options: move Ellis or Curry.
Looking back, the answer seems obvious. But at the time, Ellis was putting up very good numbers and Curry’s stock was at its lowest due to his flimsy, injury-prone ankles. Do you move Curry for a defensive presence and hope that Ellis can improve his ball-handling and decision-making? Or do you instead move Ellis and hope that Curry’s chronic ankle injuries subside over time?
The Warriors ended up siding with the unknown and bet on Curry to recover, rather than Ellis to change. Monta’s always gonna Monta—that much will always be true. Keeping Curry was more of a boom or bust decision—his potential outcomes were either All-Star level, generational shooter and ball-handler or broken-down injury washout like Sam Bowie or Brandon Roy. But with great risk comes the possibility of great reward.
On March 13th, the Warriors’ front office pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Monta along with big men Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh to the Milwaukee Bucks for the injured Australian center Andrew Bogut and former Dub Stephen Jackson, who would be immediately moved to the San Antonio Spurs for Richard Jefferson.
It was clear at the time what this meant for the Warriors’ season. They had a lottery-protected pick that would go to the Utah Jazz if the Warriors finished too high in the standings. Moreover, their two best players—Bogut and Curry—were ailing and unable to play. The ceiling was low, but so too was the floor. So the Dubs went big and tanked hard to keep their pick.
The only player remaining in Milwaukee from the trade is Udoh, who has yet to make a name for himself and has been consistently overshadowed by other Milwaukee bigs. He’s currently far back on the depth chart behind the injured Larry Sanders, John Henson, Zaza Pachulia, and Ersan Ilyasova. (And, arguably, rookie Miroslav Raduljica.)
Milwaukee’s front office cut their losses on Ellis during the offseason, preferring to let him leave for nothing than to re-sign him. It was understandable, because Ellis was remarkably inefficient for the Bucks. Last season, he scored 18 points per game on 41.6 FG/28.7 3P/77.3 FT percent shooting splits. He played poorly at best, and actively harmed his team at worst.
On the other hand, Andrew Bogut has become perhaps the Warriors’ second most important player behind Curry. His work on the interior is the lynchpin of the Warriors’ top-five defense this season, and the team routinely looks lost without him in there. He may not score much, but he’s always working—and it shows.
Bogut’s rebounding and defense is back to what it was at its pre-injury peak. (He’s averaging 13.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per-36 minutes played.) Moreover, his offensive game, while limited due to lingering elbow issues, has been remarkably efficient—he has a true shooting percentage of 61.4 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 63.3 percent.
Without Ellis around, Curry has been freed up to handle the ball full-time and has thrived doing so. This season, he’s averaging career highs in assists (8.5) and points (23.2) while maintaining remarkably high shooting numbers, at 46.1 FG/41.6 3P/86.4 FT percent.
Ellis, for his part, signed with the Dallas Mavericks during the offseason. He has found new life playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki, Jose Calderon, and Shawn Marion. Always known for his driving prowess, Ellis is now using it to better effect because he trusts his teammates to make shots. His shooting has improved to the level he displayed during his glory years in Oakland: 45.5 FG/31.0 3P/79.4 FT percent.
Although Ellis had a rough couple of years in Milwaukee, he has finally found a team for which he’s a perfect offensive fit. (The Mavs have the league’s fourth-ranked offense this year with Ellis at the helm. The only other year in which Ellis featured on an offense ranked nearly as highly, 2007-08, the team’s primary ball-handler was peak Baron Davis. Though I should note that to some extent he’s fallen back into old habits lately.)
All in all, the trade seems to have been an unmitigated disaster for the Milwaukee Bucks and an unqualified success for Bogut and the Warriors. For Monta specifically, the trade has been something of a qualified win, but only after two years of terrible, unwatchable play alongside Brandon Jennings in Wisconsin.
Golden State now finds itself in the heart of the playoff hunt, vying for a spot against Monta’s Mavericks squad, who were written off at the beginning of the year as a potential lottery team. The Bucks are now the worst team in the league, hoping to pick at the top of this year’s loaded draft.
Two years after the trade, Bucks fans can see clearly where the team went wrong in moving their All-Star caliber—albeit injured—center in exchange for a tiny chucker and scraps. And with a top-five defense and playoff prospects in-hand, Warriors fans can fondly look back and see those old squads for what they were: go-nowhere offenses with terrible defenses, led by a player just as likely to shoot the team out of a game as into one.
The Warriors are clearly better now. But speaking as someone who’s been there all the way through—damnit, sometimes those Monta-led squads were really fun to watch.