In the course of nine days this month, the Dallas Mavericks have welcomed former teammates Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan, and Monta Ellis back to the American Airlines Center in quick succession. Rondo, now with the Kings, and Jordan, with the Clippers, were booed every moment they touched the ball, even when they sheepishly stood at the free throw line like cats on a diving board.
But when Ellis came to town, it was like he'd never left. The Dallas crowd cheered when he was introduced with the other Indiana Pacers at Saturday's game. Ellis was characteristically aggressive on offense and characteristically absentminded on defense. He was relatively cold to the Dallas media—"He'll talk after the game, but I would be here as soon as the locker room opens up if I were you," a Pacers employee told me—and he refused to come out of a game after getting injured, a recurring theme his last season in Dallas that some speculated affected the team's performance.
When Ellis lost the ball at midcourt in the third quarter and grimaced in pain while favoring his left leg, the Pacers called a timeout. Ellis limped away from the huddle and brushed off approaching trainers. "I asked him [in the timeout] whether it was ankle or knee and he didn't answer me," Frank Vogel said after the game. "He just said 'I'm good,' so we let him stay in."
"No pain, no gain," Ellis said when asked about the injury.
All of which is to say that the whole day was a pretty good encapsulation of the Monta Ellis Experience, accounting for the moderation that has defined his NBA middle age. Ellis's 17 points, seven assists, and five rebounds certainly helped the Pacers take down Dallas 112-105. It was also a reminder that the common perception of "Monta Ball"—that it doesn't work enoughto accomplish certain teams' lofty goals—overshadows the fact that it works more often than not.
Leading up to the game, Dallas forward Chandler Parsons referred to Ellis as "just another player on another team to me," to which Ellis replied with a "no comment" before a reporter could even finish asking him about it. When Ellis intercepted a pass in the second half and finished a transition layup while Parsons fouled him from behind, it was the only time in the game that he let out a brief smile.
There are enough clues implying that Parsons didn't like playing with Ellis last season. "Moodiness" is always a vague and easy label to put on a player, and it is one Ellis has attracted throughout his career. There's smoke and there's fire, but there's also the possibility that the reason Parsons didn't love sharing the court with Ellis was that Parsons wanted the ball and Ellis truly needed it.
Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki, on the other hand, have both been vocal about their appreciation for Ellis's effort and mentality. He's the type of player that other players talk about Wanting to Go to War With, which is a cliché but not just that. It's the dynamic that would naturally adhere to one of the NBA's true gunners—he might cost your team a game while being the only reason you had a chance of winning that game in the first place. That's the price of the ticket, and it's mostly worth it.
The key to unlocking Ellis's offensive mastery is more specific than what we normally consider great scorers. In his most human moments, he's an undersized guard and an unreliable shooter who holds the ball too long. But when Ellis is driving to the basket and finishing, his defenders adjust accordingly, which opens up his midrange game. Pick-and-rolls become as simple as they sound: lay the ball in the basket or drop off the assist. The game becomes one giant momentum swing predicated on his playmaking.
The accepted and understood sentiment about Monta Ellis is that he doesn't understand the flaws in his game, or at least he doesn't sufficiently realize the benefit or efficiency in other styles of play, but that's something more than unfair. It's insulting to imply that Ellis can't see or comprehend things about basketball that are clear to critics on the couch. He sees it, he comprehends it; it's just that Ellis believes so deeply that he is so tremendously good at basketball that he can transcend all that.
The greatness of Monta is that he might not be completely wrong. Look, for instance, at the Dallas Mavericks. Letting Ellis walk away in free agency reflected a conscious decision to go in a different direction based on style of play. Adding Deron Williams and Wes Matthews gave the team ball movement and defense, two things in which Ellis does not specialize. Early in the season, the ball would indeed become noticeably less stuck in the same particular spot, which might have been seen as validation for Ellis's absence. Nearly halfway through March, however, the Mavericks are muddling around .500, and have looked helpless for long stretches.
This evaluation is grounded in ignoring Ellis's ability to take over a game in a vacuum, which is hard to do when presented with the chance to watch him do it. There is some complicated math involved here: Ellis's relentless attacks in the fourth quarter shouldn't cancel out him failing to stay with his man in the third. Still, there doesn't seem to be any doubt that the Mavericks were more dangerous with Ellis on the court last year than they are this season.
"Monta is a good guy, and we'd be better if we had him this year," Mark Cuban said a few hours before the Mavericks and Pacers met. "But that's not going to get us over the top."
It's a totally reasonable sentiment, but decidedly different from the way the Pacers see Ellis. For them, putting a player with his abilities on the court takes pressure off Paul George to create all of the team's offense. "That's the reason why we got him," George told me. "So teams aren't just dialed in on me. He definitely helps out a lot. And I try to help him, too, by staying aggressive and keeping the defense locked in on me."
With 17 seconds left in the game on Saturday, Dallas was down by six and had the ball on the sideline. Ellis called out the Mavericks' inbounds play to his teammates before Parsons even threw the ball in. "He saw what was coming and we busted up the play," Vogel said.
Later, Ellis wouldn't indulge any question of gamesmanship on the play. "No," he said. "We have our defensive schemes that work."
Vogel was similarly evasive when asked if working Ellis into his system presented any challenges. "Not really," he said. "No more challenges than any new player coming to a team."
Both non-answers offer little by design, but in their vacuousness they reveal something all the same. The Pacers feel no need to explain Monta Ellis—his role there is clear, which is more than can be said of his other NBA stints. To the Pacers, Ellis is not an enigma in an increasingly efficient basketball scene or a paradox between entertainment and proven results. He's just a guy that does certain things really well, and who is not asked to do anything else.
That last part matters: the Pacers cover for Ellis with good perimeter defenders and decent rim protection. George Hill is a steady point guard who can shoot, their big men are quality finishers at the basket, and they have one of the league's true superstars in George. Ellis might be the wildcard that pushes the Pacers deep into the playoffs and challenges Cleveland or Toronto. That or his typical narrative will play out. Either way, he's out of his old context.
Monta Ellis's problem has long been that he isn't quite good enough to be great. And, really, there are only two things in the NBA: great players and role players. When I asked Ellis if his role was different on the Pacers compared to years prior, he seemed almost annoyed by the phrasing. "My role," he said, "is to help this team in any way I can." Even now, he sees himself as far too good to accept anything less than greatness.