When Monta Ellis signed with the Indiana Pacers last summer, the move raised a few eyebrows. Yes, Ellis gave Indiana the type of lead scoring guard it required for its new spread offense, but the last time Ellis played in a small-market Midwestern city, the results weren’t so good. While Ellis rehabbed his game during a pair of successful years in Dallas, he was still dogged by perceptions that he’s a selfish player, a tendency that some expected to blow up the ho-hum franchise in Indianapolis.
While Ellis’s initial results with the Pacers have been mixed, he’s hardly been the harmful presence that his detractors expected. In fact, with his new teammate Paul George off to a career-best start, Ellis has actually taken a step back in a way that his haters would’ve never expected.
Through his first 10 games with Indiana, Ellis has averaged just 12.6 points, his lowest number since his rookie season in 2005-06. Not surprisingly, his field goal and free throw attempts are at their lowest rate since then as well, and his usage rate is the lowest it’s been since 2007-08, when he shared a backcourt with Baron Davis. Ellis has also started off shooting a career-worse 39.8 percent from the field. It’s early in the season, but those would normally be concerning numbers for a 30-year-old shooting guard signed for his scoring prowess.
In the case of Ellis, however, the Pacers shouldn’t be worried about a slow start. The entire team is trying to navigate a new strategy and implement new personnel, and Ellis absolutely looks like a player who’s trying to suss out his new digs. It’s actually been encouraging the way he’s gone about it so far, passively figuring out his opportunities rather than trying to shoot his way out of it.
In that sense, Ellis’s decrease in opportunities demonstrates his recognition for how well Paul George is playing –– even with the ball in his hands –– as well as how ineffective Ellis himself has been scoring the ball to this point. Although he’s third on the team in drives and second in pick-and-roll opportunities, Ellis hasn’t forced anything on offense, instead using his ball-handling abilities to act as the kind of set-up man this team desperately needs. According to SportVU, Ellis leads the team with 11.8 points per game created by his 4.9 assists, which also lead the team.
Indiana has a great individual scorer in George and a strong supporting cast on the perimeter with George Hill and C.J. Miles as well. However, none of them offer the drive-and-kick possibilities that Ellis does. He’s a more gifted passer than he gets credit for, and his quickness creates issues that he has the vision to take advantage of. That’s the type of catalytic activity the Pacers were hoping for from Ellis when he signed, and although his efficiency is down, he’s still managed to get other guys good scoring opportunities.
There’s a chance that some of Ellis’s struggles so far are a result of this exact behavior: his trying to figure out his teammates before he gets himself right. That’s probably too gracious a way of looking at it, especially since Ellis wasn’t brought here to be Rajon Rondo, but there’s no doubt that he’s feeling the adjustment to his role. After all, George might be the best perimeter teammate Ellis has ever had. (Remember, he played with the younger, often-injured version of Stephen Curry.) It’s been years since Monta played with a productive teammate who handles the ball so much. Now they just have to figure out how to coexist.
Indiana has enjoyed a fine start so far, but ranked 23rd in the league in offensive rating, the team needs Ellis to round into his old scoring form. George is currently the only thing propping this team up on the offensive end of the floor, and the Pacers signed Ellis to be a scorer, the bridge between George’s silky inside-outside game and George Hill’s malleable combo guard skills.
There’s been signs Ellis is getting close –– his 24-point outburst against the Timberwolves last Friday was a good start.
So while the team surely loves his current willingness to give up the rock, it needs him to re-discover the “me-first” side of his game and become a scoring threat again, without losing the productive passivity he’s maintained to this point. The opportunities Ellis has faced so far haven’t been that different from his past roles; he just hasn’t been able to convert them at the same rate. Only time will tell if that’s a passing funk or a long-term problem for Ellis and Indiana.