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How Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks saved each other

As the first Thursday of March Madness unfolds on a flat-screen inside the Dallas Mavericks’ locker room, Rick Carlisle is just a few feet away from a noisy pool of beat reporters crowding around the TV to watch Dayton finish its midday upset of Ohio State. And he couldn’t care less.

“Those guys are idiots,” Carlisle says.

He’s not talking about the reporters, or Thad Matta’s squad. He’s talking about the haters. Specifically, those who were quick to dismiss his shooting guard, Monta Ellis. “Those people that were down on him for whatever reason, the analytics guys or whatever, those guys are idiots.”

Last year those people were easy to find; this year, not so much. Seventy-two games into the season, the 43-29 Dallas Mavericks are a potential playoff team in the fierce Western Conference. Ellis is a big reason why. In the span of 10 months, the Mavs have redesigned their team, and the former Warriors and Bucks shooting guard has transformed his image. That’s not a coincidence.

According to Carlisle, the Mavs have tailored this year’s offensive system around Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki.

“I made a conscious decision as a coach a few years ago to always do my best to take the personnel that I have and put them into the right system,” he says, “and not be someone that is very stringent about the type of system that he runs. So, when you get a guy like Monta, you gotta tweak some major parts of it, because he is now our leading minutes guy, and he and Dirk get the most shots, so you have got to adjust, and we have.”

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The Mavericks spent the summers of 2012 and 2013 angling to land a big-time free agent. They had the cap room and the championship pedigree, and they felt they had the pull to attract another superstar. In 2012, the Mavs targeted Deron Williams; they didn’t get him. In the summer of 2013 they courted Dwight Howard; they didn’t get him, either. After Howard chose Houston last summer, the Mavs found themselves at a crossroads. Aside from a core group of aging veterans, they’d already thinned out their roster with an eye toward paying Howard. They could’ve traded away Nowitzki and other vets like Shawn Marion or Vince Carter for future assets and joined the growing band of “smart losers” strategically racing toward the bottom of the NBA, but they chose a different tack; they chose to reload and to fight. They signed all kinds of guys to all kinds of contracts. Jose Calderon for four years. Monta Ellis for three years. Samuel Dalembert for two years. Devin Harris for one year. When all was said and done, the 2013-14 Mavs roster added nine new faces, including three new starters. And Ellis — Monta Ellis! — has been the most valuable addition.

Although Carlisle has coached Ellis for less than a season, he’s watched him play for years. He always knew he was a pain in the ass. But he also always knew he was good.

“I always liked Monta a lot as a player,” Carlisle says. “There are very few players in this league that you had to game plan for more than him. He would hit you with rim attacks, midrange jumpers, long-range jumpers, he would steal the ball — there was just a lot of things you had to prepare for.”

Nowitzki was also fond of Ellis, and has come to appreciate his versatile playmaking abilities.

“I knew he could score with the best of them, but what I didn’t know is how good of a playmaker he was off of the pick-and-rolls,” Nowitzki says. “He makes shots off of it, he gets in the lane off of it, he makes the little dump passes to the center, he finds the shooters on the weak side. It’s that playmaking ability that has set him apart this year.”

Ever since he entered the league, Ellis has had a questionable reputation. For years, analysts, scouts, and fans all seemed to agree he was not the smartest player on the court, he took bad shots, he was inefficient, he was a chucker. Ellis was the NBA’s prince of poor shot selection. His stats supported these claims. He was a mediocre jump-shooter with a bad volume habit.

It’s not so much that Ellis has improved as a player since last year, as it is his surroundings have improved. In basketball — more than almost any other sport — players are a product of their environment. This is something not lost on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

“Coaching matters and culture matters,” Cuban says. “If you have lots of turnover coaching, that’s a problem. You get conflicting messages every year. And then culture is where they don’t know how to win or they aren’t guided in how to act.”

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Contrary to what message boards suggest, there aren’t really any bad basketball players in the best basketball league in the world. But there are plenty of bad basketball situations. Basketball, after all, remains a team game. Context matters, teammates matter, and tactics matter. Ellis left a bad situation in Milwaukee and came into a good one in Dallas. When he was evaluating free-agency offers last summer, Ellis didn’t just think about dollars, he thought about culture.

“I left $11 million on the table to come and sign here,” Ellis says, recalling his decision to decline the Bucks’ contract offer. “For me it was more important to be in an environment of winning, and to be on a team with a great group of guys.”

Surveying the league, Ellis saw a lot of rebuilding and a lot of mediocrity.

“On the list of teams that I had, Sacramento was in the rebuilding mode, the Bobcats was the same deal,” he says. “Almost all of the teams I was considering were in a rebuilding mode, except for Dallas. I knew that there was going to be a lot of new faces here, but at the same time there was also gonna be a lot of veteran guys that know how to win and understand the game. I knew that would make it so much easier for me to just go out and play as opposed to rebuild, and have to teach young guys how to transition. Dallas was headed in the right direction.”

Ellis has been to the playoffs twice, but he had never played with a truly elite player or under a great coach. He wanted that to change.

“My biggest thing was just to be in a winning organization, and not only that, the chance to play with Dirk Nowitzki,” Ellis says. “I knew he was going to make my game a lot different based on the ways defenses have to play him. So it was an easy decision for me to pick Dallas.”

The Mavericks, who have made the playoffs 12 times in the last 13 years, have a winning culture. The franchise is dominated by two superstars: one who pays the bills, and one who makes fadeaway jumpers. Carlisle believes the Mavericks’ success begins with these two icons. “Mark Cuban gives us the tools for success,” he says. “The culture of a franchise really begins with ownership and its best player. On the court we have the culture of Dirk Nowitzki, and he’s a guy that enhances how well anybody plays. The combination of our owner and our best player really creates a positive situation.”

When the Celtics’ rookie head coach, Brad Stevens, first faced the Mavericks earlier this year, he was struck by how often Nowitzki “touches and hugs” his teammates. Maybe that stuff doesn’t matter on the scoreboard or in the spreadsheets, but it’s a sign that the players genuinely like and appreciate one another. In a game that requires persistent teamwork, constant cooperation and communication are prerequisites for success.

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What gets lost in basketball analytics is that complex ecological context. We assign credit and blame for on-court successes and failures to individual players, as if it were baseball. It’s been called the Moneyball effect. Ever since Michael Lewis dropped that Billy Beane love letter, many of us in the analytics community have been obsessed with creating Moneyball for basketball; we’ve been on a grand quest to identify a unified theory of basketball success. However, on the way to mimicking the wonderful strides of baseball analytics, we forgot to consider how drastically different the two games are. In reality, baseball is only kind of a team sport; basketball is entirely a team sport.

From an analytics perspective, baseball is checkers; basketball is chess. One could even argue that assigning any individual credit in basketball is a fool’s errand, and that contemporary basketball analytics erroneously conflate the circumstances of a player’s environment with his individual ability.

According to Cuban, “It’s not like Moneyball in baseball, where analytics are a good way to determine who to sign or who not to sign, unless where they were is analogous to where you’re trying to bring them. [A basketball player] might have X number of win shares on a team that likes to push the ball, and a team that slows it down is a different beast. A guy might be a great rebounder if a team keeps him close to the basket, but if we show on pick-and-rolls or play zone, those numbers are going to be very different.”1

Last season’s Milwaukee Bucks are not analogous to this year’s Dallas Mavericks, but that basic fact is generally ignored by almost all the stats we lob around as proxies for performance value. Ellis is in a better place now, and when you compare his shot chart from last year to this year’s, it’s almost like looking at two different guys.

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In Dallas, Ellis’s shooting efficiency has improved in every area. He’s getting to the basket more, and converting more of his opportunities when he gets there. Ellis has gone from below average to above average in the midrange, and has become one of the best guards in the league from the right elbow. His 3-point percentage is up, too.

Ellis is quick to point out he’s able to be more finicky with his shot selection this year, in part because he shares the floor with more offensive firepower than he had back in Milwaukee.

“Playing with a group of guys that defenses respect takes a load off of me, so I don’t have to be 75 percent of the offense,” he says. “I can do 45 percent and it frees me up to contribute in other ways to help the team.”

And here we come to the Dirk effect. NBA defenses have to behave differently anytime Dirk Nowitzki is on the court. In last Friday night’s win against Denver, Ellis helped remind the Nuggets why this is true. Dalembert set a screen for Ellis on the right wing, enabling the explosive Ellis to attack an overmatched Timofey Mozgov. Sensing trouble, Nowitzki’s defender, Wilson Chandler, strayed toward Ellis to help. As soon as he detected Chandler’s migration, Ellis fired the ball over to Nowitzki on the weak side — Nowitzki knocked down the 3.

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Ellis described this exact situation to me the day before that game in the locker room. “Dirk makes the pick-and-roll easier with the five-man because usually the other team — the defenders on the weak side — have to help on that screening big man, but they are so hugged up on Dirk that they don’t want to help, so it makes the pass to the five much easier to get a layup or a dunk. And if they do help, you can kick it back to Dirk for the 3.”

When Nowitzki sets the screen himself, he creates other issues. Against the Nuggets, Ellis caught Randy Foye cheating toward a Nowitzki pick a little too much, and made him pay with a ruthlessly quick crossover attack.

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It’s that unique combination of attacking and distribution that makes Ellis so good this season. He leads the NBA in drives to the basket and total points on drives, and leads his team in assists. One thing the doubters failed to notice about Ellis over the past few years is just how gifted he can be on the pick-and-roll. But can you really blame them? In Milwaukee, he had hardly any offensive help, especially in the frontcourt. As a result, he says, “everything was keyed on me” defensively, and coaches designed their game plans around shutting him down and taking away his shots.

In Dallas, he’s liberated in part by playing alongside the best shooting big man in recent NBA history. Nowitzki spaces the floor better than any big in the league, and he will make any open shot he gets. He has the scariest shot chart in the NBA this year.

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Carlisle was certain Ellis and Nowitizki would form an excellent partnership. “I knew that he would fit perfectly with Dirk, because Dirk’s mere presence on the court creates a lot more space and Monta is a guy that thrives on space and the opportunity to attack the rim.”

The Mavericks currently rank third in offensive efficiency, trailing only Miami and the Clippers. For years, Ellis was mocked as a selfish player, but now he’s the leading assist man and the second-leading scorer for one of the NBA’s best offenses. Maybe this all means Monta Ellis is much better now, or maybe it’s just proof of what Cuban asserts: “Coaching matters. Culture matters.”

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The 2013-14 Dallas Mavericks will not win the NBA championship, but that doesn’t mean their season is a wash. In a year that many will remember for tanking, the Mavs chose a different road. They recommitted to their winning culture, added several new pieces, found ways to assimilate them, and competed for a coveted Western Conference playoff spot 2 With 10 games remaining, it’s unclear if they will make it to the postseason, but they are already more successful than last year’s team, and that’s a good sign.

Tanking relies upon the bizarre premise that the road to the top of the NBA must somehow start at the bottom. It’s an approach Cuban outright rejects: “It’s wrong. The strategy has failed far more often than it works. People forget that the team with the worst record rarely actually gets the no. 1 pick.”

And it’s not as if getting the no. 1 pick is necessarily the answer. Over the last 20 years, only three of those top picks have won rings: LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and yes, Glenn Robinson. It’s fair to say guys like that don’t come around too often.

Cuban believes trades and free agency offer superior ways to improve his franchise, but as Nowitzki pushes toward 40, the owner is going to have to do more than secure new complementary pieces — he’s going to have to replace the best player in the history of the franchise. Having Carlisle in place is a great help, however, because championship anchors like Nowitzki (and James and Duncan) are hard to find via trade or free agency. You have to have a little bit of luck to end up with one of those guys.

As accomplished and sophisticated a franchise as the Mavs are, without a superstar like Nowitzki, they’re in danger of entering a holding pattern and getting stuck in the league’s middle class, a phenomenon Pacers executive Kevin Pritchard once described as the “mediocrity treadmill” of the NBA. That’s a legitimate concern, and one reason teams tank in the first place. In some ways, being in the middle of the NBA pack is the worst place to be — not good enough to win a championship, but not bad enough to load your roster with lottery picks.

One thing lost in tanking discussions is the simple value of being a competitive team. There will be champions and there will be cellar dwellers, but the meat of the NBA will always be the stuff in between. The emerging dogma around tanking and team building threatens the core of the league. And sucking sucks; it’s hard to watch and even harder to root for. The Celtics turned a struggling team into a champion when they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Lakers did the same when they traded for Pau Gasol. Both teams had a decent foundation in place prior to those acquisitions. With those new pieces in place, they were ready to win.

Now more than ever, the league itself needs to reevaluate its incentives. Dallas made a conscious decision to put a solid product out on the court for its fans (and for the Mavericks themselves). There should be no cons associated with that choice. Many other teams made the opposite decision in part because they believe there are competitive perks associated with losing. That kind of systemic losing is exactly the kind of situation Monta Ellis was so eager to leave behind. At least he got his wish.

Filed Under: NBA, Dallas Mavericks, Kirk Goldsberry, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry

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