Monta Ellis is often mentioned among the best scorers in the NBA, but is he really an offensive star?
Folded in with coverage of the Finals, the impending lockout, cold and flu viruses, and LeBron James' magical disappearing act, there have been a few trade rumors flying around the NBA. Notable among them are the rumors surrounding 76ers wing Andre Iguodala and Warriors shooting guard Monta Ellis. Big name players both, with well-documented strengths, but they come with expensive price tags.
The Bucks haven't shown much interest in testing the trade market so far this summer, aside from the occasional Brandon Jennings "trade rumor". With the new CBA likely to reduce both player salaries and team caps, it's difficult to predict how any prospective trade would affect the financial outlook of the team. We can, however, consider what the addition of either of these guys would mean for the Bucks in real basketball terms. It's partly an exercise in futility, since it is highly unlikely that the Bucks have either interest in, nor the means of acquiring, either player.
Still, it's a departure from draft talk and a fun thought experiment. Today we'll focus on Monta Ellis.
Per-game: 24.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 3.2 turnovers, 45.1 FG%, 36.1 3P%, 78.9 FT%
Advanced: 53.6 TS%, 8.5 DRR, 23.4 AST%, 28.1 USG, 18.6 PER
Monta Ellis' reputation has taken a bigger beating at the hands of efficiency-based metrics than maybe any player in the NBA. Despite his ability to rack up points like a superstar, he is frequently lambasted for his high volume of shots and ball-dominating play. To a certain extent, the latter point is exaggerated: he coexisted better with Stephen Curry than many people expected, and his 21.9 AR is considerably above average among shooting guards. His TS% isn't terrible either, being just slightly below average, although it definitely falls fall below the numbers of many other acclaimed "superstars," both in production and paycheck size. Still, among the 25 players who averaged at least 20 points per 36 minutes last season, he ranked 22nd in TS%. Incidentally, at number 19 on that list sits Lou Williams, who might just be Ellis' clone.
So maybe Ellis isn't exactly who we thought he was. But does it make him a bad player? Hardly. He's an excellent foul shooter, although he doesn't get to the line at an elite level (his 0.27 FTR ties him with John Salmons). His three-point shooting is almost exactly average among shooting guards.
Milwaukee was starved for offensive efficiency last season. Thanks to a team-wide shooting slump and an offense dangerously dependent on jump shots, Milwaukee plodded its way through the season sometimes looking utterly clueless with the ball. According to 82games.com, shooting guard was the least productive position for the Bucks, with a negative 2.1 net PER over the course of the season. There's reason to hope that John Salmons' poor 2010/11 season was partly just bad luck and that he'll rebound somewhat next year. Still, he can't match Ellis' quickness or finishing ability: Ellis made 69% of his shots at the rim last year, compared to Salmons' 54%. That's an important difference, considering Milwaukee's atrocious 57.9% shooting at the rim last season.
Pairing Ellis in the backcourt with Brandon Jennings has its advantages and its disadvantages, predictably. What such a combination would lack in size it would certainly make up for in speed, and both Ellis and Jennings are solid passers. Without a serious three-point threat alongside them, however, floor spacing could be an issue.
We've also discussed the benefits Milwaukee might reap if they picked up their tempo a bit. Ellis is no stranger to run-and-gun basketball, but would his presence boost Milwaukee's ability to score in transition? I would have given good odds to an unequivocal "yes" answer, but such might not actually be the case. According to Synergy Sports, Ellis scored 1.22 points per play on 276 transition opportunities last year; Salmons scored 1.44 PPP on 84 attempts. I promise, I didn't mix those numbers up. Amazingly, Synergy ranked Salmons as the 13th most efficient player in the NBA in transition last year. He benefited greatly from a 56.3 3P% in transtion, but he also excelled at using his size and strength to draw fouls, getting to the line on 17.9% of his transition plays. It's likely that, given additional chances, Salmons' numbers would dip, but it appears we need to dispel the myth that Ellis is a transcendent scorer in transition.
What Ellis could do, however, is increase the number of those transition opportunities. Ellis is a capable ball hawk, finishing 3rd in the NBA in steals per game last year. He looks to attack the defense on the break better than anybody on Milwaukee's roster, excluding perhaps Corey Maggette. However, Ellis doesn't carry the reputation of being a strong defensive player beyond his steals. Salmons, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a very capable perimeter defender, although his numbers probably benefited from playing in front of Andrew Bogut and within an excellent defensive system. Ellis certainly doesn't have Salmons' size, but there's a good chance any of his defensive shortcomings could be covered up by Bogut, allowing him to take more risks on the perimeter in a manner similar to what the Orlando Magic do with Dwight Howard.
John Salmons was acquired, and then extended, with the intention of filling the role of Milwaukee's go-to scorer. He struggled (to put it lightly), shooting only 36.2% in isolation plays and turning the ball over in 10.6% of those opportunities. But Ellis hardly fared better, recording only a 0.83 PPP in isolation compared to Salmons' 0.81. Ellis was stellar in the pick & roll though, ranking 9th in the NBA with a 0.96 PPP, although he did turn the ball over 14.9% of the time in that role.
There's no question that the Bucks' backcourt needs to improve in the coming season for Milwaukee to return to the playoffs. Similarly, there is little doubt that over the next few years, Ellis will be the more valuable player than John Salmons, if only due to Salmons' age. However, it seems unlikely that adding a player like Monta Ellis would yield significant improvement in a short period. Inserting Ellis into a Milwaukee offense that was largely facilitated by Brandon Jennings would be a dramatic shift, as Ellis owns one of the highest usage rates in the NBA. It is certainly possible that doing so would lessen the pressure on the rest of Milwaukee's lineup and could improve the offense across the board. However, Ellis' inability to efficiently turn possessions into points could just as easily relegate him yet another piece in a flawed offensive puzzle for the Bucks.