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Trying to Make a Mondo Backcourt Work in Dallas

Last year, the marriage between Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks worked out better than anyone could have hoped. After practically getting run out of both Golden State and Milwaukee, tapping the mercurial guard to be Dirk Nowitzki’s new running mate seemed like an iffy bet for the Mavs, but it worked out tremendously, as Ellis thrived in Dallas and put up near career-highs across the board.

This season has been a different story for Monta and the Mavericks. Last year, Ellis played a lot of point guard for the Mavs, but this year, with the addition of Rajon Rondo, Ellis has been forced back to playing off the ball at shooting guard, a position he played for 10 years before coming to Dallas. The problem with playing him there, though, is two-fold: his poor defense becomes even more of an issue against bigger 2-guards, and he struggles to get the kind of shots he likes––driving layouts, mid-range jumpers––working off the ball.

Ellis hasn’t so much struggled to adjust to playing shooting guard so much as he has struggled to adjust to playing shooting guard next to Rondo, whose skill-set doesn’t complement that of Ellis particularly well. Both players work best with the ball in their hands, which is just the start of the problem. When Rondo doesn’t have the ball in his hands, because he can’t shoot, he tends to linger around the short corner––not exactly the type of activity that opens up driving lanes, and driving happens to be one of Ellis’s best weapons.

Ellis drives to score, but he also drives to set up his great mid-range jump-shot. Last year, almost 52 percent of his field goal attempts came from the free throw line or closer; this year, that number is down to about 40 percent.

Ellis 2013-14

ellis 13-14

Ellis 2014-15

ellis 14-15

As all the yellow on the shot charts indicate, Ellis’s game is based around volume. Those opportunities have lessened and also exist under new circumstances with Rondo around, which has made it hard to get the kind of volume he enjoyed last season.

Still, even though Ellis hasn’t had the same impact as last season, he wasn’t playing too badly until recently. Since the All-Star break, though, Ellis has been brutal, shooting 22 percent from three and just 40 percent overall while still attempting just as many shots per game.

After losing back-to-back games to Memphis and Phoenix in which Ellis shot a combined 7-of-31, rumors circulated from various outlets that Ellis had become unhappy in Dallas, and on Monday, ESPN’s Marc Stein said on Bill Simmons’s podcast he believed that the Mavericks’ front office was concerned about how Ellis’s attitude had been potentially affecting the team.

Stein’s word shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but he’s well-informed, and it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve heard something like this about Monta. Plus, not everyone has been getting along in Dallas this season anyway.

If Ellis has become a problem for the Mavs, he didn’t show it at all during Wednesday night’s win against the Spurs. Ellis matched his season-high with 38 points and keyed the team down the stretch as they tried to stave off a comeback from their rivals, going to work in the pick-and-roll with great success. Relatedly, Rondo barely played in the fourth quarter.

After the game, everyone seemed to be on board the Monta train, per the postgame quotes at Mavs Moneyball, although perhaps the multiple mentions of how good his energy was might imply that he doesn’t have good energy all the time. It’s difficult and often useless to try reading between the lines in professional sports, though, and the problem for Dallas is ultimately that this team needs Monta Ellis to be the best version of itself.

The Mavericks have a lot of weapons on offense, but Ellis is the one guy who can pretty much do it all with the ball in his hands. Nowitzki can’t carry a team on offense anymore, Rondo’s shooting is too much of a liability and Chandler Parsons is still learning the ins and outs of being a primary playmaker. Ellis gives Dallas that guy who can take the ball down two points in the playoffs and get a basket for himself or someone else, regardless of the situation or the defense. As much as he struggled during the fourth quarter in Phoenix, his magic during the fourth quarter against San Antonio proves him capable.

Unfortunately, that came with Rondo on the bench, which only further underlines the issue the Mavericks are facing going forward. Ellis and Rondo are clearly better when separated, but Dallas needs both of them on the floor, one for offense and the other for defense and intangibles. They need to learn to play better together if Dallas is going to make any kind of postseason run this season.

The long-term situations for both players only further complicate the present. Rondo’s impending free agency is well-known, but Ellis also has an opt-out clause after this season. After the success he has enjoyed in Dallas, many have assumed that Ellis would exercise that option. That could be a dangerous option suddenly, given his recent play and the chance that teams could hoard cap space this offseason in anticipation of the huge cap leap next summer.

However, the team may really want to keep Rondo, especially considering the price they paid for him, so sticking around the Mavericks might not be the best move for Monta anyway.

It’s a very complicated situation, especially since Dallas is operating on a win-immediately schedule given Nowitzki’s age. If Monta proves to be a legit attitude problem, he would be the obvious odd man out, depending on what he does with his contract. There’s no guarantee that Rondo will re-sign, so even that route carries a fair bit of risk. It would just be much easier for everyone if the two players could figure out a way to make it work.

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