Shot Through The Hoop, And It's Too Late. Riley You Give Up...On Monta?
(originally written 2/5/12)
Five years since a packed-and-roaring Oracle Arena witnessed the likes of Boom Dizzle shaking a leadfooted defender en route to feeding Andris Beidrins for a sweet dunk...since Al Harrington & Headband dropped threes from all over the court...since Stack Jack and Matt Barnes transformed the Dubs from a perennially soft team into one to not be f***ed with...since we all twisted our tongues trying to properly pronounce "Jasikevicius"...since Adonal Foyle angrily sent away one enemy shot after another, furthering the deserved stereotype of dominant African shot-blockers.
But I'm not here to talk about the past.
I'm here to talk about Monta Ellis, Warriors prodigy of then and franchise player of now.
Young Monta (pronounced MONTAY for you hoop novices) debuted the season before We Believe, a late draft pick right out of high school in Mississippi. He got almost no run until the 2nd half of the season. He was raw, but boy was he fast and athletic; basically a blur in a blue jersey. Still ineligible to legally drink and literally wide-eyed, it was impossible to not like this quiet, humble Southern kid—nor to cap just what heights he could reach as a player given proper development.
In the "We Believe" season, Ellis' intriguing bursts of talent gradually forced "new" coach Don Nelson to do what he almost never did of his own volition—give key minutes to an unproven. He couldn't shoot a lick, but he could blow by anybody and was 100% acrobat around the basket. The Warriors felt confident enough in Ellis' ability that they traded the popular, established Richardson away after the season to free up a starting spot (and some salary). I remember Ellis began 2007-08 terribly, shooting something like 30% after two weeks, and the W's lost their first six games.
After that, Ellis "got right" and became a quiet, unsung star. Not the kind of star who would ever grace a video-game cover or who'd be known to many fans outside of Oakland and Mississippi, but exactly the kind of star as his predecessor Richardson was—good enough to keep a team respectable, not good enough to elevate it to contender. Strictly using floor comparisons (they couldn't be any more different people), he was a poor man's Allen Iverson—a 'tween guard not afraid to challenge big men at the hoop, even if it meant regular dates with the cold, hard floor.
And Monta always paid for those dates.
Following that 2007-08 season, another good one for the W's even without Richardson and Foyle, the team (wisely, in retrospect) refused to overpay to keep Baron Davis, who became a very unmotivated, injured, out-of-shape—but wealthy—L.A. Clipper. Just like that, young Monta became the face of what was left of the Warriors' franchise and signed a megadeal to make it official. He thanked them by foolishly wrecking his leg in a moped accident barely after the ink dried on said megadeal. Ellis' shooting was still mediocre at this time; his legs were his whole game and now one of them needed surgery.
For us the fans, it was a total betrayal—a number of us wanted the new contract terminated, whether Monta recovered or not. No longer was he everybody's little brother taking on the world with mostly heart and courage.
He was another stupid, overpaid athlete who only thought of himself, wrecked the 2008-09 season before it even started, and needed to have an example made out of him. GS flirted with the idea of Sprewelling (firing) him, but ultimately didn't. Ellis did eventually return for the final two months, but the season was indeed lost by that time.
Since then, Ellis, to his credit, did develop a jump shot. It isn't a pretty one like, say, Stephen Curry. It is mechanical, almost as if Monta is more concerned with following a blueprint than shooting naturally. But more of them went in than ever before. He gradually developed three-point range, of which he had precious little early on. He had no choice but to develop his outside game—defenders were sagging on him like Mrs. Choksondik's boobs. Furthermore, the arms arcing those jumpers were now noticeably inked up, top to bottom. Coincidence? Doubtful.
If the money and the moped and the ensuing bitterness over management's pay withholding during his recovery and all the new artwork hadn't strained Monta's once-pristine image and relationship with the fans, the addition of Curry threatened to. As mentioned, Ellis is a 'tween guard who primarily plays 2-guard despite being at times comically undersized (BTW, it still amuses me that Ellis, tiny by NBA standards, is taller than I am by over an inch.) Curry, who's almost exactly Monta's size, has all the skillz of a pure 1 with the scoring ability of a 2. Much concern was expressed over what level of success such a slight backcourt tandem could have—even by Ellis himself, which a lot of people viewed as a "him-or-me" trade request.
Those trade rumors have never really quieted. Even after Ellis' infamous "I'm a Warriors. I'm always gonna be a Warriors" attempt at reassurance.
As I write this, Ellis and crew are taking on the juggernaut Oklahoma Thunder. Whether years of punishment at the hands of brutish power forwards are finally taking their toll, or burnout from night after 42-minute night carrying most of the offensive load on a bad team have depleted him, or behind-the-scenes drama surrounding his harassment suit (he is a married father of two, you know) have distracted him, or may it be an undisclosed injury or lockout rust or plain old complacency, Monta Ellis has not been the same player he'd been the past two years. The numbers are close, but they don't tell the whole story.
He's not hitting clutch shots. He's taking increasingly bad ones with regularity. Worse yet, after a year of success beyond the arc (36%), he's fallen too much in love with it in 2012 (24%). He is still hustling, but all too often it's to catch up with a fastbreaking foe following one of his own many turnovers. This game vs. OKC is classic 2012 Ellis—some dynamic passes, more careless turnovers, a very tough made J, some badly missed shots, a layup that challenges physics and brings the house down.
But Curry is fast emerging as the team's go-to-guy when a big basket must be had down the stretch.
The question has to be begged: is it time for Monta Ellis to move on?
My nostalgic side says NEVER! He and the corpse of Biedrins are the only remaining connection to the We Believe season!
My practical side says the Warriors may never enjoy such a year again with this edition of Ellis leading the charge.
I don't blame Monta. He has had to often play entire games as the Warriors only—I don't mean that figuratively—scoring option. Remember the game against San Antonio right around New Years' that Curry left in the 3rd quarter injured? Ellis basically played the rest of that game 1-on-5. I remember Kwame Brown converting an ugly, twisting low bank shot that no former #1 pick should even be capable of, but no other Warrior taking or even wanting to take a shot after Curry left.
But as long as he's in the blue and gold, out-earning all but one of his teammates by a mile, he will be leaned on, heavily. He will be asked to play 42 minutes a night and take a regular pounding. He will have nights where he has to do everything for GS to have a shot at winning. Though he'll probably never admit it publicly, those nights will continue taking their toll until he finally has enough. This is his career, and he will get burnt out far too early much like Iverson was if he has to continue carrying the oft-hapless Warriors on his diminutive shoulders.
Sadly, as much as it hurts to admit it, the team has gone as far as it can go with Monta as the protagonist.
I Believe, all right.
I believe it's time for Larry Riley to get on the phone...