Monta Ellis may have never been one of the NBA’s best players, but in his prime, he was consistently one of the most thrilling.
During Monta Ellis’ brief tenure as a Milwaukee Buck, he gave an interview in which he claimed that he felt he was on the same level as any guard in the NBA. Despite never making an All-Star team and only having one playoff series victory in his career, Ellis’ confidence was unshakeable. As he put it so memorably, “Monta Ellis have it all.” It wasn’t completely true, and that self-assurance may have seemed misplaced to the casual NBA fan, but it must have been necessary for him to have transformed himself from an undersized second-round pick to the league’s Most Improved Player and a scorer who was able to put up 20 points every night with absolute ease and grace.
When Ellis was at his peak during his final few years in Golden State, he was one of the best and most thrilling scorers in the NBA. No defender seemed able to stay in front of him. His speed and ball-handling made him a perennial threat to drive to the basket where his acrobatic athleticism would help him convert a vast array of finishes near the rim. As Ellis flew towards the rim, reaching the interior after crossing up a helpless defender, he would spin in mid-air, leaving centers defending where he had been rather than where he was. Ellis was both flashy stylistically and laconic personally, never appearing in awe of his triumphs nor frustrated with his failures. The problem was that Ellis was one of those players talented enough to help a team win several games they wouldn’t have otherwise while also needing the ball in his hands so much that it is inherently difficult to build a winning team around him.
As soon as Stephen Curry was drafted, Ellis’ time in Oakland was nearing its end. On Media Day in 2009 he openly stated his doubts about the ability for the two to successfully coexist in the same backcourt. He had reason to be suspicious as both were small players who would be torched defensively night after night and Ellis’ style of ball dominance could also have kept Curry from developing into the player he has since become, though I’m not sure potentially stifling Curry’s growth was his primary concern. His doubt turned out to be well-placed though; after being a sparkplug for the We Believe Warriors of 2007, he would not play in another postseason game for the team after that brief, but magical playoff run.
When the Warriors traded Ellis to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut, it was widely decried by fans and analysts. Bogut had been a fine, if slightly disappointing, player in Milwaukee, a player whose All-NBA nod in 2010 said more about the relative paucity of formidable centers that season than about his own standout play. But he did supply size and defensive — two things Ellis notably lacked.
The reaction of Golden State fans was visceral. Ellis did not provide the team with many wins over the last few seasons, but he had offered excitement, a reason to watch an otherwise desultory team whose chances of victory were never that high. If you can’t find hope, then momentary joy can be a worthwhile substitute and Ellis’ breathtaking drives provided that on a nightly basis. Also, this trade happened in the middle of a season where Curry played only 26 games and Thompson, Ellis’ presumptive replacement, did not yet appear to be much more than a spot-up shooter. While its wisdom has been born out in the form of five Finals appearances and three championships, it’s easy to understand why the Oracle crowd booed Joe Lacob so heartily the night Chris Mullin’s jersey was retired just days after the trade. And even apart from the actual on-court elements, Ellis had been a homegrown star who felt like Oakland’s own even as he hailed from Mississippi. While those feelings of loyalty would soon be transferred onto his successors in the backcourt, at the time, they seemed much more unshakeable.
In Milwaukee, Ellis found himself in the same situation he said wouldn’t work three years prior. Again, he was paired with a young and undersized guard in Brandon Jennings, who a few years removed from his 55 point game and the stellar start to his career was settling into an underwhelming career that never quite delivered on that initial promise. If Curry and Ellis weren’t going to win together, there was no reason to expect Ellis to win alongside a lesser version of Curry. Both Jennings and Ellis needed the ball in their hands to be successful and neither was the most efficient scorer at this point in their careers. The days of Monta being able to shoot 53 percent from the field were long gone.
There was no moment to point to when Monta lost it, no catastrophic injury — though the long-term effects of a 2008 moped accident, along with innumerable drives to the rim and multiple seasons leading the league in minutes per game are not to be discounted. It was just persistent wear and tear combined with a changing NBA that did him in. Also, in Golden State, during that brief period when he was the team’s best player, he was able to play in an environment with few expectations. The team was not built to attain any level of success and he gave fans a reason to watch when few others were available. Part of the reason the We Believe Warriors remain such a mythic team nearly 15 years later isn’t just because they were an electric combination of personalities that played an absurd but wondrous brand of basketball, but because their success was so unexpected. When expectations arose, when Joe Lacob bought the Warriors and was determined to make them into a championship team, when the Bucks hoped Ellis and Jennings could be the East’s best backcourt, when the Mavericks signed him to be Dirk’s sidekick on a few more playoff runs, things never quite worked out. His last stop was with Indiana who decided to waive him halfway through his four-year deal, opting to eat his contract after two decent but underwhelming seasons.
It’s not that Monta lacked some ineffable clutch gene, but that his game was ill-suited for the 3-heavy league that his former teammates helped bring to full bloom. Ellis was reliable from the mid-range, but never could extend his shot out past the 3-point line, shooting just 31 percent from deep over the course of his career. And while he had decent assist numbers throughout his career, that was more a byproduct of his having the ball in his hands so often than it was a sign of his having any sort of transcendent court vision. By the time he left the Warriors, not only were the thousands of minutes he’d played in Oakland catching up to him, but he had spent so much time as the team’s centerpiece that it sometimes felt like he wasn’t quite sure what to do when taking the game over singlehandedly wasn’t what was called for. It can be hard to let go of the spotlight, especially when you’ve worked so hard and done so much to earn it in the first place.
Monta Ellis is unfortunately likely to be forgotten by most NBA fans or, perhaps even worse, remembered not as the electrifying talent he was, but as the player who had to be exiled in order for the Warriors to bloom into a dynasty. But for a few years, there were few NBA players who could score as well as him, and among those who could, even fewer could do it with the panache and casual flair that he embodied nightly. There’s something to be said for being one of the best players to never make an All-Star Game, after all. That may not be the same as having it all, but it’s a lot more than most NBA players ever have.