Following Monday's victory over the Toronto Raptors, Monta Ellis was asked if he had any thoughts about facing his old team.
"No, not at all," he responded ever so briefly.
Per usual, Ellis was a man of few words. But nothing more could really be said after how things ended in Dallas, the place he admits helped him rekindle his love for the game. Even before the high-motor guard declined his player option, rumors were mounting that the Mavericks planned to trade him should he opt-in. According to him, no contract numbers were ever discussed. Ellis moved on with the Pacers. And so did the Mavericks, in the form of Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews.
With no words befitting the situation. Ellis could let his game do the talking on Wednesday. But it's speaking a slightly different dialect with the Pacers than it did during his tenure with the Mavericks.
Here are some visual aids which reflect how he's evolved.
He isn't driving the Pacers (yet):
As a Maverick, "attack mode" was Monta Ellis' default. Spacing out opponents with his relentless penetration, the perennial All-Star snub led the league in player points scored off drives (7.5) during his first season in Dallas. Through his first 23 games with the Pacers, the 30-year-old has been more selective putting the pedal to metal, averaging just slightly over half the number of drives per game he recorded two seasons ago.
So, why has Ellis seemingly taken his foot off the gas?
Having offseason knee surgery probably doesn't help. Shooting his lowest field-goal percentage from 10-16 feet (37.5%) in five seasons, it is possible that opponents are purposefully conceding open jumpers to Ellis in an effort to prevent him from getting to the rim. Another impetus may be that he's still trying to find his fit in Indiana's new offense, recording his lowest usage percentage (20.7%) since his rookie year.
But the simpler explanation may just be that he's sharing the court with the reigning Player of the Month.
During the month of November, Paul George used 32.5 percent of Indiana's possessions. He averaged 29.5 points on 47.7 percent shooting. With George firing on all cylinders, no Pacer posted a higher pass frequency (25.8%) to the two-time All-Star over that same span of time than Monta Ellis.
Now that George's field-goal percentage has dropped below 40 percent over the last four games, Ellis' scoring average (15.5) and drives per game (6.0) have gradually started to increase.
These tailored adjustments are evidence that he has come a long way from the player who once couldn't wrap his mind around sharing the court with Stephen Curry, via Tim Kawakami's Talking Points:
-Q: Can you see yourself playing with Curry in the backcourt?
-ELLIS: I can't answer that. Us together? No.
-Q: Why not?
-ELLIS: Can't. We just can't.
-Q: Too small? Too similar?
-ELLIS: Just can't.
He's making his teammates better:
Averaging the lowest field goal attempts per game (11.6) since his rookie season, Ellis has been a far cry from the high-volume scorer who voluntarily left $11 million on the table in Milwaukee to pursue a fresh start in Dallas. In fact, having only taken 25 shots on isolation plays so far with the Pacers, the lightning quick guard has bordered on being pass-first as opposed to a ball-stopping shooter.
Ranking just 23rd in the league in assists per game, the Pacers (20.3) do not enjoy the same sized pie as the league-leading Golden State Warriors (28.6), but Monta Ellis accounts for the largest piece.
"I don't think so," Monta Ellis responded at Media Day when asked if he had grown as a distributor in Dallas. "Because, even when I was at Golden State, I always averaged close to five or six assists throughout my career. It just was never talked about because (they needed me) more offensively, like scoring the basketball. I just went to a situation where it can be noticeable."
"When I was at Golden State we (weren't) winning and (weren't) on TV; but, when I went to Dallas, we were on TV more, so people got to see me more."
Only appearing on ESPN, TNT or ABC seven times this season, Monta's passing ability won't be "noticeable" because of national exposure. It's apparent because he's enhancing one teammate's offensive game that was otherwise forgotten.
Mahinmi's emergence can, of course, be attributed to a number of factors. He's playing more minutes. He's worked on his hands. The spread offense reduces the amount of traffic in the lane, making for easier catches. But Monta's impact shouldn't be undersold. When opponents choose to cut off his driving lane as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and follow Paul George and C.J. Miles out beyond the 3-point line, the embodiment of drive-and-dish is making the correct, split second decision: Drop the ball to the open roll-man. With that duo outscoring opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, no two-man unit is more efficient for the Pacers this season than Monta Ellis and Ian Mahinmi.
Even with two ideal rollers by his side (Tyson Chandler, Brandan Wright) and a future Hall of Famer spacing the floor, Ellis is creating more points off assists in Indiana (11.3) than he did last season in Dallas (10.2).
Ellis may not be driving the show like he did with the Mavericks, but he isn't stuck in the carpool lane like he was at times at his two prior stops, either. Thus far in Indiana, he's been a willing and capable passer.
He's leading by example:
"He's a vocal leader," head coach Frank Vogel said of Ellis. "He's always picking guys up. He's been talking to Ian about his free throws. He's really just bringing a great deal of his own personal experiences to this team. When you've been in as many battles as he has over the course of his career, he has a lot to share. He's vocal about sharing that stuff, and he's giving us a big lift in that way."
I've seen a some of this, Monta Ellis, sitting in Frank Vogel's chair...getting his point across pic.twitter.com/pFkZMugNDI— Jeremiah Johnson (@JJFSINDIANA) December 6, 2015
Whether building up Ian Mahinmi's confidence at the free throw line or trying to get Paul George to temper his emotions, Monta Ellis has made his refusal to celebrate an overtime win with his teammates late last season seem like an aberration from the new normal.
* * *
After leading the Big-D in scoring a year ago, he's only scored 20 or more points three times this season. He's attempting the fewest field goals per game of any season since his rookie year, and his driving game has taken a step back.
"It's coming along," Ellis said after recording 18 points enroute to a victory over the Toronto Raptors. "The thing is, I just gotta be consistent with it. My main focus is trying to bring that same (level of) play every night."
Even as he's searched for consistency, Ellis has learned how to make his game fit next to a young star in his prime. He's finding his way in a new system. He's making his two-man game with Ian Mahinmi a thing. And, at least from appearances, he's embraced being a veteran voice for Indiana's young roster. And over the last three games, he's averaging 17.7 points on a team-high 48.8 percent shooting (minimum 8 field goal attempts per game).
"I'm getting the feel," the first-year Pacer explained. "I'm getting my legs up under me. My body's feeling a lot better. And hopefully, (I) can make a turn."
Thus far, Indiana's Monta Ellis hasn't been the same player he was in Dallas. And for the most part, that's just fine.