No, they didn’t hook the “big fish” as advertised, the hope the Mavs’ brain trust sold when they made the CBA-influenced decision to strip down the 2011 championship roster instead of pay big money to keep a veteran cast together. Dallas didn’t even get a sit down with Chris Paul and got nothing but the proverbial participation ribbon for their efforts in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.
They settled for a marriage of convenience with Monta Ellis, a model of inefficiency with the Milwaukee Bucks the previous year and a half. He slipped through the cracks of free agency and signed a three-year, $25 million deal with Dallas.
If the early returns are any indication, Ellis’ contract could end up being the bargain of the summer.
With Ellis driving relentlessly and Dirk riding shotgun, the Mavs are off to a fantastic start after the first week of the season. Ellis’ dominant performance paced a 123-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, sending the Mavs on the road with a 3-1 record.
Ellis arrived in Dallas with the highest career scoring average (19.5 points per game) of any active player without an All-Star appearance. If he keeps this up, that might change at midseason, as will his reputation as a gunner who isn’t the kind of player who can be a key piece on a winning team.
All Ellis has done during his first week in Dallas is average 25 points -- tied for seventh in the league -- while shooting 53.1 percent from the floor and dishing out five assists per night despite playing solely shooting guard. He blew by the Lakers’ lead-footed backcourt on a regular basis Tuesday, lighting up L.A. for 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting with nine assists -- a night so rare it hit a trio of certain statistical landmarks (points, assists, field-goal percentage) not reached in an NBA game since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"He was in the guts of our defense all night," said Lakers point guard Steve Nash, one of Nowitzki’s favorite former sidekicks. "He was getting easy buckets and creating easy buckets for his teammates all night."
Perhaps Ellis is proving that the complementary pieces, not him, were the problem on his recent teams. After all, he did average 20.2 points and shoot 53.1 percent from the floor for a 48-win team as a 22-year-old, but those 2007-08 Golden State Warriors were the last plus-.500 team to employ Ellis. His efficiency plummeted in the six seasons since as he relied more and more on long jumpers.
The Mavs have convinced Ellis to use his inconsistent jumper as an off-speed pitch again. Playing in a pick-and-roll-intensive system that plays to Ellis' strengths and surrounds him with shooters, the Mavs are putting Ellis in position to be in attack mode.
"If anything, it made me the player I used to be," Ellis said. "Continue to attack. Don’t settle for the jump shot. At times I do, but coach keeps stressing attack, attack, attack. We’ve been doing that, and it worked for us tonight."
Seven of Ellis’ 11 buckets against the Lakers came on drives. When the defense collapsed, he kicked it out to a shooter for an open look or dumped it to a big man for an easy bucket.
Ellis’ ability to do damage off the dribble adds an element to the Mavs’ offense that’s been missing in recent seasons, arguably since Nash’s departure from Dallas a decade ago. Jason Terry served as a capable sidekick for Nowitzki during the Mavs’ best years, when the franchise made two Finals trips and won the 2011 title; but "Jet" was a jump-shooting assassin.
"He’s just a different kind of weapon," coach Rick Carlisle said of Ellis. "His catch-and-go ability, his speed in transition, his ability to change direction and attack the rim is unique in this league."
Carlisle put Ellis in an elite class of active players when it comes to those characteristics, naming Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook off the top of his head. There is no doubt that Ellis, as Dirk declared at the opening of training camp, is the most explosive teammate of Nowitzki’s career.
"He’s so fast to the rim that if the defense makes one little mistake in the pick-and-roll coverage, one fast dribble and he’s right up there at the rim," said Nowitzki, one of seven Mavs to score in double figures against the L.A. "It’s been impressive.
"Obviously, there are some players that are so fast getting to the rim that if they make their [jump] shot, they’re tough to guard. That’s the case with him.
"If that thing is going, he’s tough to stop."
So far, Ellis has been a phenomenal fit for a Dallas team that, frankly, didn’t have much interest in him at the beginning of free agency. Mavs owner Mark Cuban admitted recently that it "did take some warming up" from the analytics-savvy franchise once Ellis’ asking price dropped from eight figures per year into a more Mavs-friendly price range. And it took Devin Harris’ deal being voided due to a flunked physical for the Mavs to offer Ellis as much money as they did.
But the Dallas decision-makers talked themselves into believing Ellis would benefit greatly from playing for a creative coach and alongside a pass-first point guard (fellow free-agent addition Jose Calderon) and a historically elite power forward who would be the focal point for opposing defenses.
It’s hard to argue with the early returns. With Ellis putting up huge numbers and Nowitzki complementing him with 20.3 points per game, the Mavs rank second in the league in scoring (114.3), behind only the Los Angeles Clippers.
"It really starts with Dirk because defenses play him so differently and he spaces so well," Ellis said. "It’s hard for them to even stunt or try to do anything on the back side. We’ve got so many shooters on this team that can get it going any given night and make it tough on defenses."
That makes it easy for Ellis to get in the guts of the defense -- and that gives the Mavs hope they’ve found a suitable sidekick for Nowitzki’s golden years.