Since winning the 2011 NBA title, the Dallas Mavericks’ all-consuming drive has been to find young superstars to pair with Dirk Nowitzki in an effort to take pressure off the aging player and transition into a new era once he retires.
Even after losing game 4 Monday night against the San Antonio Spurs 93-89, one thing is abundantly clear: The Mavs guessed right when they signed Monta Ellis.
Ellis may not have been a true superstar when the Mavs signed him last summer. Ellis had a reputation as a streaky scorer with a short memory, which means he’s happy to put up a shot even though he’s missed his last five attempts. Defense wasn’t his strong suit. Certainly, the Mavs — specifically owner Mark Cuban — took some shots for signing Ellis in the offseason, even though they had also signed guard Jose Calderon.
Even after losing game 4 Monday night, one thing is abundantly clear: The Mavs guessed right when they signed Ellis.
But Ellis has succeeded where players like Lamar Odom, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison have failed in the recent past, in terms of complementing Nowitzki and fitting the Mavericks’ flow offensive scheme.
Ellis’ ability to freelance, pass and dribble-drive off the pick and roll have made him an ideal fit to take some heat off of Nowitzki in the long term.
“A lot of guys took a lot of criticism,” Ellis said after game 3. “I think we put it on our back to prove everybody wrong.”
Ellis has shown a propensity for clutch shots this season, most notably his buzzer-beating game winner in Portland. During this series — which is now all tied up at 2-2 — Ellis has emerged as the Mavs’ top offensive threat.
While the Spurs are throwing their best defenders at Nowitzki and holding him in check, Ellis is picking up big points. He followed his 21-point performance in game 2 with a career playoff night in game 3, scoring 29 points. He scored 12 of those points in the fourth quarter, including an absurd fadeaway baseline jumper that saw him get fouled as he launched the shot from six inches behind the side of the backboard.
Because of Ellis' previous performances, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan told reporters after game 4 that part of their strategy was not allowing Ellis straight lines to the basket on defense. He still scored 20 points and hit the three-point play that tied the game with 52 seconds left. Ellis even got a layup off with only seconds left on the clock. Had it fallen, he would have tied the game.
This is the sort of stage Ellis has deserved his entire career but never received until now.
This is the sort of stage Ellis has deserved his entire career but never received during his time in Golden State or Milwaukee. There, Ellis was responsible for being the team’s No. 1 scoring option and didn’t have much help. The script is a bit flipped here in Dallas.
“I have a great group of guys who believe in me, who are backing me, and we’re all tied into this thing,” Ellis said. “The points may look like it’s me, but it’s a total team effort.”
Nevertheless, in this NBA era where teams seek to assemble three stars in a constellation, Nowitzki and Ellis only gives the Mavs two. Dallas surrendered its first-round pick to Oklahoma City this summer as part of the Lamar Odom trade (it’s a long story), and even though the Mavs need to get younger, they will be armed with oodles of salary cap space to lure free agents to Big D.
But this isn’t exactly a free agent class armed with top-shelf talent, unless you believe LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all going to opt out of their contracts this summer. That’s the problem with pinning your hopes on assembling a group of stars. You’re at the mercy of what’s out there.
Ellis, however, shows that it doesn’t take a true superstar to fit into the constellation. Sometimes it’s just about finding the right fit. And whenever the Mavs' offseason begins, the team will be looking for a player that complements both Nowitzki and Ellis. Given where this Mavs team sat last year, that is progress.