Monta Ellis wasn't the high-volume scorer he used to be in his first season with the Indiana Pacers. In fact, far from it. The once derogatorily pegged "chucker" used the lowest percentage of his team's possessions and attempted his fewest field goals per game since his rookie season.
Instead, there were occasions where the 30-year-old actually bordered on being "pass first". Take for instance Indiana's March meeting with the Brooklyn Nets, wherein he forewent taking a shot until almost seven minutes into the third period so he could prioritize setting the table for his teammates. His dip in individual productivity along with reduced involvement can, in part, be attributed to time spent finding his way in a new system as he dealt with the lingering aftereffects of offseason knee surgery; however, his effort to do what was necessary to maximize the pieces around him also may have played a role.
With George Hill connecting on better than 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers and Ellis more comfortable driving into the teeth of opposing defenses and dishing to open shooters, handing point guard duties over to the latter was a move that should have been made sooner.
How did Monta Ellis impress:
George Hill was not the only player weaponized by Monta's assisting this season. Ian Mahinmi's emergence as the roll-man was spurred by his offseason improvement, but it was made more apparent as he played alongside an aggressive pick-and-roll ball-handler capable of drawing the attention of help defenders in the paint.
"Monta's a great decision-maker, and Ian's a forceful roller," Vogel explained following Indiana's January win over the New Orleans Pelicans. "He sprints to the basket after the screen and there's great speed to his rolls, so he becomes a threat that way."
Take this play against the Detroit Pistons for instance, Andre Drummond sags back with the intent to prevent Ellis from penetrating the lane. Meanwhile, Marcus Morris is glued to Paul George on the weak side out beyond the three-point line. With all of the attention zeroed in on Indiana's two top scorers, Mahinmi is the benefactor.
Mahinmi shot a team-high 87.5 percent from the field when assisted by Ellis this season, per NBA.com. More impressively, Ellis created more points off assists in Indiana (11.4) this season than he did last season in Dallas (10.2), where he had two ideal rollers by his side (Tyson Chandler, Brandan Wright) as well as Dirk Nowitzki spacing the floor.
An added benefit of using the embodiment of drive-and-dish to facilitate the team's offense was that it also allowed him to establish the team's pace.
"That position is so important when you're talking about playing fast," 1070 the Fan's Conrad Brunner reports Nate McMillan said on The Ride with JMV Tuesday. "That guy has to establish your tempo and if he is a guy that can't establish your tempo then you're not going to play that style of basketball. We moved Monta Ellis to the point this year because we felt the tempo would increase with him handling the ball a lot more. George Hill was shooting lights-out from the 3-point line so we wanted to get him down the floor and get him to the 3-point line and spread that offense out. The biggest key with playing fast is your point guard must establish that tempo and that's something we're going to look to address this year."
With his change of speed and willingness to put more steady pressure on the defense, Ellis brought a necessary degree of impulsiveness where Hill was sometimes detrimentally prudent. Take for instance this play from Indiana's final meeting with the Cavaliers, wherein Ellis quickly pushes the ball up court before perfectly delivering the ball to a trailing Solomon Hill for a wide open three-pointer.
How did Monta Ellis disappoint:
Of course, with aggressiveness can sometimes come recklessness. As was the case here, when Ellis got himself into trouble going 1-on-3 to the rim against the Toronto Raptors. Without a trailer in his sights, the 30-year-old would have been better off cooling his jets than committing a costly live-ball turnover.
Unfortunately, Monta's risky behavior wasn't always limited to the offensive end of the floor. Though the team continued to rank among the top of the league in terms of defensive efficiency, Ellis was still somewhat of a liability due to his propensity for getting caught ball watching.
During the first round of the playoffs, the Pacers opted to hide Monta's leaky defense on the still recovering DeMarre Carroll in order for Paul George to be able to check DeMar DeRozan. Nonetheless, on this possession, a simple cut to the wing was enough for Ellis to lose his man.
Despite his occasional mental lapses, Indiana still allowed fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during the post-season.
What's next for Monta Ellis?
Indiana's two starting guards almost serve as perfect foils for one another. Ellis is aggressive off the bounce sometimes to the point of foolhardiness while Hill shines off the catch and is tentative almost to a fault. Whether the yin and yang-like relationship which exists between Indiana's backcourt tandem creates more balance or chaos is something management will have to determine over the summer.
With Hill ceding point guard duties to Ellis during the playoffs, the pair basically broke even, outscoring opponents by 0.3 points per 100 possessions.
"We've talked about this for a number of years," Bird said at last Monday's press conference regarding the backcourt. "What we have here is we have a budget and we stay within our budget and if we get an opportunity to get a point guard, we probably will look at it. But to run around and say, 'You should get this guy or that guy,' it's a little harder than you think it is. But obviously I would like to have a real point guard."
But which player would that hypothetical "real point guard" replace? Hill, who is more malleable and in the final year of his now reasonable contract, would likely be easier to trade but keeping Ellis makes adding a new piece a tougher fit. Prioritizing court vision over shooting would not only crowd the backcourt it would incentivize opponents to overload on Paul George, Indiana's most potent scorer.
In a vacuum, Ellis, an aggressive driver and graceful finisher with a knack for getting the ball where it needs to go, may arguably be the more talented of the two. But the Pacers need to proceed with the utmost caution. They cannot settle for any point guard, it has to be the right point guard. Hastily cutting ties with the exact type of player Monta Ellis needs to optimize his game may not actually end up being an upgrade.