If you haven't been paying close attention to the Dallas Mavericks this year, you may not have noticed that Monta Ellis, the guy who has spent most of his career acting as the poster boy for inefficiency in the NBA, is having the best season of his career. His PER and true shooting percentage are currently higher than they have ever been, and his effective field goal percentage is the best it's been since his breakout 2007-08 season. So, it's worth asking: Just what the hell is going on here?
It would be very easy to look at Ellis's performance this year and conclude that he's simply on a hot streak that will eventually end, that he'll soon revert to the guy whose name is synonymous with a clanked mid-range jumper. But a closer look reveals that Ellis owes his success, at least in part, to the fact that he's playing a much different style than he has in recent years.
In short: Ellis is running more pick and rolls than he has in a long time, and he's been an absolute monster while doing so. According to Synergy Sports, 44 percent of Ellis's plays this year have come in pick and roll situations. That's up 12 percent from last season, 14 percent from 2011-12, and 18 percent from 2010-11 and 2009-10. This is great news for Ellis and the Mavericks, because so far this year he's scoring 0.98 points per possession on pick and roll plays, good for the fifth-best mark in the league. That would have been good for sixth-best last year, and this year it puts him right in front of Steph Curry, who is scoring 0.96 points per possession out of the pick and roll.
With a dozen games' worth of hindsight to work with, it's obvious why Monta's been so deadly efficient on pick and roll plays for Dallas. For starters, he fits into this Mavericks roster much better than he did with the supporting casts he had in Golden State and Milwaukee. Dirk Nowitzki's ability to make shots from all over the court—and more importantly, keep defenders home on him, away from the rim—make him an ideal pick and roll partner for Monta. It's a big step up from Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. Ellis also doesn't have to compete for shots and possessions with his partner in the back court; unlike Brandon Jennings and Steph Curry, Jose Calderon isn't a point guard who has to have the ball in his hands at all times in order to be effective. He's perfectly suited to play off the ball and let others create shots for him. This year, he's shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc and is scoring 1.35 points per possession on spot-up plays, according to Synergy Sports.
And then there's what Ellis brings to the table. His greatest strengths as a player have always been his water-bug quickness and his ability to use his spectacular body control to carve out space for himself at the rim. Now, he's combined those skills with creativity and solid decision making to become a great pick and roll player.
Here, we have three plays in which Ellis uses the pick and roll to get quality shots at the rim:
More impressive than the quickness Ellis displays here is his creative, instantaneous decision making. On the first play, he waits for his screener to arrive for what would have likely been a standard pick and roll with Dirk Nowitzki. But as soon as Ellis sees Chris Bosh overplaying him on the left side, he makes a split decision and bursts right through the opening that's created between Bosh and LeBron James, leaving both of them flat-footed and helpless as he sails into the paint.
On the second play, Ellis gets a solid pick from Shawn Marion and gets a defensive mismatch with Nene, whom he rocks to sleep with a beautiful hesitation dribble before rocketing right by him. This play is also a great demonstration of how dangerous Ellis can be in semi-transition, a situation in which all he needs is a decent screen and a quick burst of speed to get to the rim before the defense can really set itself.
Ellis deploys a similar tactic on the third play. As his screener arrives, Ellis makes an ever-so-subtle move to his left—just enough to get his defender leaning in that direction, anticipating the pick—before spinning back to his right and zipping into the lane.
What's impressive is just how quickly and confidently Ellis is making these plays. When a player with that much speed is playing with that much confidence in the pick and roll, it's damn near impossible to keep him from driving to the rim. Unsurprisingly, Ellis is second in the league with nearly 11 drives per game, and leads the league in points per game on drives with 7.9, according to SportVU.
And with that comes efficiency: Monta is also averaging a career high 7.1 free throw attempts, after his FTA numbers had taken a nosedive during his years with the Bucks. Those drives in turn open up his midrange pull-up game—always a strength in his best seasons with Golden State—and now he's firing those off of the pick and roll. He's taking 6.2 pull-up shots a game, at 46.8 percent—one of the best rates of the top 20 in pull up attempts (and a far cry better than old backcourt mate Jennings, who's hitting 36 percent on nearly 10 shots a game).
Ellis's trigger is quick as ever, but he's doing a great job of letting his screeners create some open space before firing. The third play in that sequence above is especially impressive, as Ellis is patient enough to keep his dribble and wait for a second space-clearing screen before taking his shot. These are the kind of mid-range shots that you see good point guards, like Chris Paul, take all the time, and they are the kind of shots that will yield a shot chart that looks like this instead of one that looks like this.
And while Ellis has been terrorizing defenses out of the pick and roll, he's also cut way down on his isolation plays. According to Synergy, he's only taken 18 shots on isolation plays (and made eight of them) so far this year, accounting for just nine percent of his total offensive plays. Compare that to the 2011-12 version of Ellis, who took 20 percent of his plays in isolation, scoring on only 32 percent of them.
Ellis isn't just shooting, either. He's averaging nearly six assists per game, but even that impressive number belies how much of a distributor he's tried to be. According to SportVU, Ellis is averaging 12.3 assist opportunities (those are passes Ellis makes that directly lead to a shot). This doesn't exactly put him in Chris Paul territory (Paul averages 22 per game), but it puts him with the likes of LeBron James (11.8), Kyrie Irving (12.3), and Russell Westbrook (11.1).
The Mavericks have given Ellis the reins to the offense, and he's rewarded them by becoming more of a playmaker than a volume shooter. Instead of isolating, trying to shake his defender with a series of crossovers, and then launching a contested step-back jumper, he's getting his shots—whether they be at the rim or from mid-range—within the flow of the offense. He's not a completely different player, but he's starting to look like the best possible version of himself: a pure scorer who's taken a few evolutionary steps toward efficiency.