While the enchanting “Splash Brothers” charmed the NBA with their stupefying shooting touch last season, the Milwaukee Bucks’ backcourt was on the opposite side of the spectrum. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings — let’s call them the “Brick Brothers” — formed a lamentable duo of inefficient volume shooters, who simply took turns to brick jumper after jumper.
When the Dallas Mavericks signed Ellis to a three-year deal worth over $25 million last summer, many Mavs fans cringed. After missing out on Dwight Howard, the team ended up with Monta as their second-best player. To say that Ellis surpassed all expectations would be a huge understatement, as Mark Cuban and Co. surprisingly ran into a player that has been the perfect fit next to an aging Dirk Nowitzki.
Ellis is seventh in the league in scoring at 23.5 points per game. Not only has he been scoring his points in an efficient way, but he has made players around him, especially Nowitzki, better. Let’s explore exactly what Ellis has brought to the Mavs.
The pick-and-roll genius
Ellis has been absolutely phenomenal running the show for Dallas and that is certainly reflected in the stats.
Jose Calderon is more than willing to give up the ball to his electrifying backcourt partner and retreating to the corner to space the floor, something that Jennings wasn’t really a big fan of. Last season with the Bucks, Ellis scored 0.75 Points Per Play (PPP) as the pick-and-roll ball handler, while shooting 40.1% from the field, a figure which had him ranked 101st in the league (per mySynergySports). Almost a third of all offensive plays that Ellis was involved in were pick-and-rolls.
Fast-forward to this season, and nearly half of Ellis’ offensive plays end with him as the pick-and-roll ball handler. He is scoring 0.98 PPP, shooting 54.3% from the field and ranks fourth (!!) in the league in this type of plays.
Rick Carlisle has integrated the team’s new signing into his offense extremely well, which is why the Mavs boast the fifth most efficient scoring offense in the league right now at 106.8 points per 100 possessions. Let’s take a look at some film then, shall we?
As you can see in the montage, Ellis finds different ways to create pick-and-roll action for himself. Sometimes he brings the ball up and uses a pick to burst past the defense in transition. Other times, his teammates simply hand him the ball after a play breaks down, expecting him to create a look for himself or the team. What makes Ellis such a dynamic threat in the pick-and-roll is his excellent mid-range game. Generally, he will try to use his athleticism and quick first step to get to the basket, but he is more than comfortable pulling up if the defense switches and closes down the lane.
The fourth clip is an excellent example of a play that falls apart and is salvaged by an Ellis pick-and-roll. In the play, the Mavs struggle to find a good look. Ellis brings the ball up and gets a double screen on the right wing, but Derrick Favors hedges the screen, forcing Ellis back out to the perimeter. Monta then swings the ball to Shawn Marion, who can’t get past his defender and passes the ball to Sam Dalembert, who instantly dishes it out to Ellis and runs over to set the pick. This is what the Mavs end up with.
After giving up the ball, Marion retreats to the weakside corner to space the floor. Both Vince Carter and Jose Calderon remain on the left wing, also spacing the floor. Dalembert sets a good screen on Gordon Hayward, which give Ellis a little head start. As you can see in the screen shot above, the play is executed to perfection. Dalembert rolls to the basket, leaving Favors backpedaling, trying to close the lane while also denying the pass. Ellis bursts past Favors and has an easy layup at the basket.
Now, a mid-range pull-up jumper might not be the most efficient way to score, but Monta is currently shooting almost as well from mid-range as he is finishing at the basket. Here are his shot and shot distribution charts this season:
As you can see, Ellis is shooting over 50% from mid-range, which is excellent. We still have a relatively small sample size at our disposal, so it’s unlikely that Ellis can sustain this, but it’s a fact that opponents have to respect his ability to pull-up and knock it down.
It’s worth noting that the mid-range shot in general is the least efficient on the court and while it’s his mid-range game that has made him so lethal this year, it’s also what has driven his critics crazy in past years. For instance, last year Ellis knocked down just 36.2% of his mid-range shots, in what was one of the least efficient seasons of his career. What we’re seeing now is most likely an incredible hot streak, but most of Ellis’ mid-range shots are no longer coming through forced isolation plays. A lot of these looks are created through pick-and-roll action and Monta is mostly in rhythm and open when pulling up from mid-range, which naturally helps his shooting percentage.
The two-man game
As mentioned, Monta has also been a great playmaker and he has developed an outstanding two-man game with Nowitzki. Here is some video of the two players hooking up on a couple of different plays.
When Steve Nash was still a Maverick, he and Nowitzki formed one of the most feared pick-and-pop duos in the league. While the Ellis-Nowitzki combination might not be quite as potent, the two certainly drive defenses crazy.
In the first play, Ellis plays the entry pass to Dirk in the post and gets the ball back on a hand-off. Nowitzki then sets a pin-down screen to force the switch, which provides Ellis with tons of space to work with.
Harden can’t afford to leave Nowitzki, while Dirk’s defender chooses to close down the paint. Patrick Beverley is cheating off Jose Calderon a little bit, but he can’t fully commit and leave a 46.9% three-point shooter open. A simple pin-down screen has all of a sudden forced the Rockets to collapse in the paint and Ellis can either pull-up for a shot he is comfortable with or find open teammates.
In the second clip, Ellis is aware that the Heat love to blitz, which is why Chris Bosh doesn’t chase after Nowitzki and LeBron doesn’t switch. Before the two Heat players can trap him, Ellis splits the defense and gets to the rim.
Remember that quick first step we were talking about? Look no further than the third clip for a perfect example.
In this play, Dirk and Monta run a high pick-and-roll and Ellis uses a quick crossover to fake out his defender and blow right past him. Thanks to a quick first step, Ellis has completely compromised the Timberwolves’ defense, as they leave Nowitzki open. And when you leave Nowitzki open…well, bad things happen. This is illustrated in the remaining clips, in which the opposition is trying to prevent Ellis from getting a good shot or getting to the rim and leave Nowitzki open in his sweet spots.
Stats also confirm that Nowitzki is significantly more efficient when Ellis is on the floor. Here are a couple of stats (via nbawowy):
Nowitzki with Ellis OFF the floor:
- 75.4% of field goal attempts jumpers, carrying a value of 0.88 points per shot
- 42.1 FG%
- 1.08 PPP (Points Per Play)
Nowitzki with Ellis ON the floor:
-80.5% of field goal attempts jumpers, carrying a value of 1.06 points per shot
- 48.8 FG%
- 1.25 PPP
Another interesting stat is Dirk’s efficiency as the P&R Roll Man. According to mySynergySports, Nowitzki ranked 76th in the league last season in PPP as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, while putting up 1.06 PPP and ranking 17th this season (although it is worth noting that Nowitzki wasn’t really healthy for the majority of last season).
When Ellis is on the floor, good looks are a lot easier to come by for Dirk, whether he is involved in the pick-and-roll or is simply spotting up behind the arc. Ellis’ excellent dribble penetration forces defenses to adjust and choose who to leave open.
There is no doubt that Ellis will continue to be the catalyst for this Dallas offense. The question that remains is whether he can continue shooting as well as he has, or if he’s merely on fire and will eventually cool down.
Ellis is currently shooting 35.9% from beyond the arc this season, and that number will likely go down a little bit eventually. However, he is taking fewer threes than he did last year which points, at least to some extent, at a better shot selection.
2007-08 was Ellis’ most efficient season, in which he shot 53.1% from the field. In that season, Ellis only took 0.6 threes per game and the majority of his looks were in the paint. He shot 43.8% from mid-range, but converted at an incredible 65.1% clip in the restricted area. Ellis is shooting the mid-range jumper at a super efficient rate right now which he is unlikely to sustain, but he is also capable of converting at a better rate in the restricted area.
To conclude, we can probably expect Ellis to keep up a similar offensive production for the majority of the year. In his new offensive role, he is getting quality looks on a regular basis, as opposed to the isolation fadeaways we have grown to associate with Ellis’ game.
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