Monta Ellis as Religious Experience

When inefficiency and transcendence aren’t mutually exclusive.
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Last night, the Golden State Warriors finalized a trade to send Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. In Ellis, the Warriors gave up their leading scorer in the last three seasons. But most fans are not upset that the Warriors traded him. While the merit of the deal itself can be debated, Ellis wasn't a particularly beloved player. He never seemed especially proud to wear the uniform in the way former Warrior Jason Richardson was, and he caused enough PR nightmares—the moped injury's secrets and lies, the still-unresolved sexual harassment suit—that no one figured him to be a solid locker room presence.

Ellis was the team’s obvious late-game option, but failed to convince anyone that he was essential to the Warriors’ future. As soon as the new ownership group threw its weight behind Stephen Curry, it was clear that Ellis would be dealt. Those of us who cared came to terms with his departure long ago.

And yet the experience of watching Monta has always transcended his status as an expendable star. Warriors fans have become well-acquainted with Ellis’s capacity for momentary greatness—a crossover to get an open jumper, an athletic lay-up in traffic, a quick burst to jump a passing lane and start a fast break. There are few players in the league that combine ingenuity and athleticism as well as Ellis. It’s no surprise that he’s become a favorite among League Pass devotees—watching him do something amazing in a meaningless January game is like discovering an underground sensation, or uncovering a great movie that critics have dismissed.

That’s not to say that Monta was miscast in Oakland, or that a fresh start will renew his career. NBA observers know that Ellis is a flawed player, a pass-third guard who needs to handle the ball as much as possible, struggles to move laterally on defense, and tends to take poor shots in crunch time. His usefulness is as yet undetermined: he’s a very talented player, but not effective enough for a team to organize itself around his flaws. He seems like the kind of player destined to play on mediocre teams for his entire career, a scorer just good enough to become part of All-Star discussion without ever being selected for the team itself.

Ellis is compelling because he momentarily renders those very legitimate concerns insignificant in the moment. He has been my favorite player since 2006, yet even I don’t make excuses for his inefficient production or seeming inability to alter his game to suit the needs of the team. He’s special not because of a particular skill, but for his ability to do something so unexpected that basketball logic seems like an insignificant arbiter of his value. He will dunk on Leandro Barbosa during what seems like a standard 3-on-1 break, or finish a 360 lay-up between two defenders when seeking out a foul would have been the safer bet.

The context of his career doesn’t give meaning to his talent—it obscures it. Unlike Allen Iverson, there’s no sense that his peak performance proves something about his toughness and will to win. Fans marvel at his body control, but praising it as a basketball skill is like calling someone the MVP of yoga. Ellis is a perfect fit for the Twitter era, a pure scorer whose stardom is defined by instantaneous reaction to his highlights rather than what he does to help a team win. At his best, he does so many amazing things in such quick succession that the only acceptable reactions are to squeal and laugh.

Unfortunately, that means it’s only possible to appreciate Ellis by watching him as much as possible. In contrast to other cult favorites like DeMarcus Cousins and J.R. Smith, Ellis lacks a personality that can keep fans interested through middling performances or after a month of not watching his games. He impresses most in volume, when fans are exposed to him as often as possible. The minute he stops playing, or does poorly, all the questions about his usefulness become real issues worthy of statistical analysis and extended trade-machine fiddling. Watch a highlight clip, like the one embedded above of his 46-point outburst against the Rockets last season, and those worries about his game seem beside the point. Why criticize something so incandescently beautiful?

No player was a better fit for late-stage Nellieball, alternately changing the face of basketball and teetering on the verge of falling apart entirely. Yet, just as certain fans can appreciate what that style of play represents even while noting its numerous flaws, Monta devotees can simultaneously identify what makes him special and know that his presence isn’t necessarily conducive to winning a championship.

My sadness over this trade is largely unrelated to the Warriors’ long-term ability to contend — in truth, they’ve been bad for so long that I expect very little. Instead, I’m disappointed that a player best experienced immediately has been placed at a remove. He’ll still be on League Pass, but catching a game here and there isn’t the same. In this case, supply is directly related to demand: watching Ellis less frequently makes him less exciting.

Bucks fans have obvious reasons to lament this deal. They’ve opened up cap space for the future at the expense of the best defensive player on a team that defines itself at that end of the floor, and the pairing of Ellis and Brandon Jennings figures to be even more of a mismatch than that of Ellis and Curry. However, unless Scott Skiles makes Monta play in ankle weights, all of Wisconsin will now be exposed to a basketball talent who expands conceptions of what the sport can be. That Monta is so flawed and inconsistent makes those moments of transcendence no less valid. As long as fans can appreciate qualities other than efficiency, he’s a welcome presence on any team.


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