Some of these fancy schmancy stat dudes who have basically been burning effigies of Monta Ellis for years may have actually watched him play a basketball game and duly reacted with great shock upon realizing this guy can flat out ball. A disclaimer: my allegiance such as it is to a franchise is squarely in the corner of the Golden State Warriors and I think the best thing they’ve done in decades is trade Monta Ellis to make room for the emergence of Steph Curry. Steph has superstar potential and Monta was never going to let someone else be the alpha male on the Warriors. These things happen and it has worked out for both parties. Monta is currently laying waste to pre-conceived notions on the Dallas Mavericks and it is my sincere hope his mini-Renaissance lasts the entire season and that we get more and more “I was so wrong” articles from the supposed intellectuals of the hoops blogosphere.
So yes, embarrassed as I am to admit it to certain folks: I AM TEAM MONTA AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN.
Don’t know much about Monta? Let me break it down for you.
Monta is all kinds of fighter; in fact he is too much of a fighter. It is in his Blue Angel twists and turns in enemy skies, his complete disregard for the order of the cosmos, the hubris of declaring himself the second best player in the league (!) and it is drilled deep in his bright but weary eyes. Certain NBA players bend the game to their will while others with nearly identical size, skill sets and attributes remain content to float along the millionaire river, shoot baskets and get paid.
Monta does not know how to float. His resume includes disobeying a key clause in his contract with the end result of a crashed moped, a shattered ankle and ruined season, throwing his teammate Stephen Curry (and co-face of the Franchise) under the bus, a “sexting” based sexual harassment suit, multiple All-Star snubs, and many more losses than wins. Monta bends the game to his will, but not in the way any coach would draw up.
In a league full of characters whimsical, vulgar, and in certain cases completely insane, Monta stands out for his tabula rasa personality. Kobe Bryant lives by mandates and pretexts, and his code is written in blood, busted bones, and the weary hoisting of trophies. It’s not in Kobe to feel more than momentary buzzer beater joy. Monta is, if anything, even more humorless. The Black Mamba is of course capable of a certain robotic charm in between scowls and smirks, and carries himself like a man. Monta never quite seems like a man. Certainly not a boy, certainly not someone whose primary attribute is youth. There is no youth in him aside from the occasional sideline giggle during long determined routs. He is an old man in his mid twenties.
Monta is just an old fashioned Southern boy, and an old soul at that. His face is patched with acne scars and peach fuzz. His eyes bulge and droop, his words tumble out of his mouth with all the ferocity of morning drool. A high pitched man of few words, fishing aficionado, this is a dude who put his head down and played a game the same day his brother was shot in the back-twice! To reiterate, Monta isn’t some punk. He’s merely complicated.
He became the starting shooting guard only out of necessity; Jason Richardson had been ignominiously exiled to Charlotte, Developmental League beefcake Kelenna Azubuike was injured, and Marco Bellineli of the languid fadeaway remained Marco Bellineli. Monta stepped in as the Warriors permanent off-guard and never looked back. In a season highlighted by Baron’s fussy tempers and the tundra or magma of Stephen Jackson’s three-point shot, Monta was the unlikely stabilizing force on a team that won forty-eight games. The Most Improved Player his second year in the league, he followed that with an incendiary third year, which included a month in which he shot over 60% for the field, a feat all but impossible for a high usage shooting guard. It was this year that earned him his contract, and put him on the path to the pantheon. No one expected that of this tiny small-town boy from Mississippi. Maybe no one expected this for a good reason. His path to the Hall of Fame is all but broken, but he seems to have no idea.
The first act in the first complete season of the Reign of Monta Ellis was to declare to a shocked Bay Area Press Corps that he and recently drafted sharpshooter Stephen Curry were incompatible, completely unable to co-exist. Curry was a good enough player perhaps, but Golden State needed its second-round pick turned knight-errant (Monta of course!) to take them back to the post-season. Curry was destined to play in the NBA, grew up well off and surrounded by the giants of the day, taught everything by one of the best shooters in league history, groomed for success. Monta scraped and clawed and kicked and screamed his way to the top.
Along the way there were the mini-scandals, the myopia induced foot in the mouth avowals. He thought he was the second best player in the NBA (behind Kobe, but ahead of LeBron!!!). He claimed the difference between him and Dwyane Wade came down to championships. He claimed “Monta have it all” which is simply not true! And on the court he was hardly perfect. He took bad shots. He killed the flow of the offense. He pouted. People started to laugh. Analysts in the burgeoning sabermetric corners found a suitable scapegoat. Many of these analytics acoylytes probably did not even bother to watch him play. When Monta was amazing their reaction was SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. His current tear is SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. This is the guy who may legitimately have people Googling “Can you win Most Improved Player twice?” and might just give Dirk one last chance to claim some legacy playoff performances.
But we know why he’s despised right? The undersized shooting guard is the most common and reviled of all positional archetypes. He will win no support with proponents of PER or +/- stats. Monta is a gut feeling and a leap of faith. Are PER and +/- meaningless? No, but neither however is Monta’s contribution to the game’s lore. There was a time not too long ago when he had begun to look unstoppable. Reckless impossible drives, an automatic pull-up jumper, a cool head under pressure. Both Baron and Nellie had no choice but to entrust him with the kingdom when it mattered most. But that’s not the narrative. The narrative is that Monta is selfish and deserves your scorn as a blight upon basketball.
Once again, when possible, dismantle the narrative. The narrative is the enemy. It obscures the court. So many have given up on him, but I never could manage to see this game ruining tyrant. Repeatedly put into positions where success is improbable, if not downright impossible, it never occurred to me that Monta Ellis could give up. Fighters don’t stop fighting, even when they are betrayed, even when they are forced to play on the same team as over the mountain scrubs like Devean George and Vlad Radmonovic, and Mikki Moore or D-League call-ups who will never see another ten day contract. Stripped of romantic notions of chivalry and moral imperative, fighters will fight with their teeth and fists until they are broken. Just because Monta’s heroics did not translate into wins takes nothing away from them. Nothing. It only aligns him with all of us. He is the Patron Saint of Not Knowing When To Surrender. And that is a damn saint worth praying to.