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Pacers Counting on Monta Ellis to Catalyze New Pace-and-Space Style

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

During the Indiana Pacers’ recent run of success, their foundation was built around an elite defense, aided by the great length of guys like Paul George, George Hill and Roy Hibbert. They were very good at this, twice leading the league in defensive efficiency and playing in the conference finals versus the Miami Heat.

In the pace-and-space era of today’s NBA, Indiana’s pound-away strategy sorely stuck out and so did its offense, but for the wrong reasons. It’s putting it more than kindly to say the Pacers struggled to score during their postseason runs, and their half-court sets were often upsetting to watch unfold. While defensive genius was an effective calling card, it was a boring one as well, and just like offense-only teams, ultimately limited their ability to contend.

This summer, Indiana’s brass decided to flip the team’s strategy entirely, opting to move forward with a smaller, faster team that exemplifies the values of the modern NBA. In order to cater to their new strategy, the Pacers ditched slower bigs like Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola and welcomed in offensive talent like Jordan Hill, Myles Turner and Chase Budinger.

The biggest, most notable addition to the Pacers’ new buggy-turned-sportscar style, however, is a guard they’ve been chasing for years, a guy who will be more than happy to take the keys to Indiana’s fast new car and whip it until the tank is dry: the mercurial Monta Ellis.

For most of his career, Ellis and his chuck-happy ways have been maligned and often misunderstood, but during his last two seasons in Dallas, he operated extremely effectively as a go-to scorer and pick-and-roll partner with Dirk Nowitzki. Ellis posted near career-highs in shooting percentages during the last couple seasons and thrived in half-court situations when paired with Nowitzki, who was the perfect complementary big for Ellis’s creativity with the ball in his hands.

Allegedly, that all changed with the arrival of Rajon Rondo last season, and the second half of 2014-15 was not pleasant for Ellis, who struggled to adapt to his new backcourt mate and reportedly allowed his displeasure to become an issue on and off the court.

We now understand that the Rondo troubles in Dallas ran much deeper than anyone publicly realized at the time, and the Pacers are surely hoping that those circumstances are more responsible for Ellis’s second-half decline than anything related to his playing style. Despite his decision to opt out, his time with the Mavericks was extremely productive, ironically the reason why Ellis was able to raise his asking price to a level the Mavs weren’t willing to reach.

The Pacers were willing to pay up, though, and give Ellis a chance to lead their new fast-paced attack as the lead attacker. The match might seem strange to many: one of the league’s most buttoned-up teams inking one of the league’s most unbridled scorers to helm an experimental new style. Yes, it could go terribly, terribly wrong, as the latter days of Lance Stephenson did, but it could also go brilliantly right.

Indiana has needed to kick up its offense for a long time, and following a lost season in which Paul George didn’t play and the rest of its core looked anemic, team president Larry Bird decided to throw everything out and start over with a real focus on offense.

That’s perfect, because if there’s one thing Ellis is focused on, it’s offense.

Ellis could be just the catalyst Indiana needs. The Pacers have sorely lacked an individual offensive force during the last few seasons, the type of player who can create their own shot or quality looks for others, who can shoulder the offense and ensure that their team gets a shot. Ellis gives them that kind of guy.

Indiana will surely score some points will Ellis at the helm, and their new uptempo approach should provide the perfect environment for the shot-happy guard to flourish. He scored 3.1 fast break points per game last season while the Pacers barely ran at all, so he’ll be the most experienced member of the squad in that department.

No doubt, he’ll get his attempts, which will hopefully go a long way toward keeping Ellis happy and keeping their offense humming. Indiana wants him to get attempts for others as well, and they’ve surrounded him with a roster that has far more shooting and positional versatility than Indiana has seen recently. Guys like C.J. Miles, Budinger and even George are comfortable playing off the ball and should get cleaner shot attempts and off-the-bounce opportunities thanks to the attention that Ellis attracts.

The Pacers also plan on playing George significant minutes at power forward, which should give Ellis another formidable, creative partner in the pick-and-roll, although it remains to be seen how effective George can be as a primary screener. The team also brought in Hill and Turner, offensive-minded bigs who should offer versatile alternatives for Ellis to work with.

The problem with Ellis is, as always, will he give you too much?

While Ellis has it all on offense, he knows it to the point that it can become an issue, and he can throw off a team’s entire offensive flow. Sure, Indiana needs a guy who can get shots, but Ellis can go a little crazy with the jumper and sometimes shoot his team right out of games. That’s a problem in the moment, for sure, but it’s also a problem in the larger context of developing George’s offensive game.

The balance to keep on eye on with Ellis will be his shot attempts versus those of George and Hill. The Pacers need George to continue to develop, since he’s the franchise cornerstone, and if Ellis’s shots start to come too often at the expense of George’s, that would be a problem, especially considering that George is a gifted offensive player in his own right. There’s strong potential for the pair, however, given that George has worked as a secondary threat in the past and has the repertoire to be the most dynamic player Ellis has ever played with.

The story is much the same between Hill and Ellis: if Ellis starts to infringe on the shot attempts of Indiana’s trusty combo guard, things could become a problem. The Pacers will need all members of their deep backcourt –– Ellis, Hill and Rodney Stuckey –– to be on the same page as far as shot attempts go and manage their looks accordingly.

Hill has worked well off the ball for much of his career, but too much work off the ball can foster disinterest and compromise his effectiveness on offense. We saw this between Hill and Stephenson during Indiana’s downward spiral in spring 2014, when Hill used just 11 percent of Pacers’ possessions during the final month of the season and completely fell off the map after being relegated to a distant fifth scoring option. This further underscores the importance of reining in Ellis, because Hill is versatile and smart enough to be a very effective secondary threat as long as he isn’t completely marginalized.

We haven’t talked about Ellis’s defense at all, and there’s a reason for that: it pretty much is what it is at this point in his career, as an undersized guard approaching 30 years old. While Indiana no longer has the prodigious personnel on that end of the floor to make up for Ellis’s shortcomings in that area, they’re more than willing to make the defense-for-offense tradeoff. The Ellis move is all about spearheading the Pacers’ new attack.

Whether it works remains to be seen. As with any polarizing player, there are plusses and minuses to having Ellis lead your offense, but Indiana is a small-market team, and signing someone like Ellis is about as good as the team can expect to do in free agency.

In the context of the Pacers’ new direction, it looks like a chance that’s worth taking, and if Ellis can integrate nicely with the team’s other scoring threats, it could prove to be worth it and then some.

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