Monta Ellis as Religious Experience

When inefficiency and transcendence aren’t mutually exclusive.
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Via Flickr

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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Comments

"I just wanted to say I think Monta Ellis was a modern-day god. Oh hell, at least a lord."

The Warriors are controlled by a cadre of clowns whose craven incompetence should be punished by franchise expropriation. I cordially ignore the other two of the three Oakland organizations, but, seriously: what the hell is it in the water here in Oakland that makes these companies so colossally inept? No other city "boasts" such a blend of not-trying and half-assing the occasional stabs at relevance, between the As' inability to rub three dimes together in the same season and the Raiders' continued bone-deep devotion to shaking things up & changing the game, with no eye on any kind of organizational continuity beyond a certain flair for chaos branding. And then there's the Warriors, who even half-ass their occasional PR moves: "We hired Jerry West! And then we forgot to talk to him for four months. We think maybe he watches us on TV sometimes. Uh...we hired another stunt coach? Is that enough to get you to the games?"

It's fucking depressing is what it is. Oh well, at least next year they'll roll out yet another uniform redesign for nobody to give a shit about, and maybe Bogut + Lee + Biedrins will constitute some kind of bad-at-basketball analogue of Parish + McHale + Walton. And we'll always have Curry--until he's traded to make room for yet another replacement mediocrity with adequate numbers and no charisma.

Farewell, Monta Ellis: you were unquestionably special, even if you weren't actually great. You may have deserved the Warriors; they didn't deserve you. Hope you make the playoffs sometime.

Joe Lacob is stripping the team of its Oaklandishness. After the Suns and Kings got less fun, it seemed like GSW were the last team to try and hold out for relevance by sheer scoring will, the West Coast way. And now they are slow and boring and injured. Let's just hope Nate Robinson gets every start from here on out.

On Mark Jackson's watch? Don't see Nate getting heavy run.

Joe Lacob = Chris Cohan. Warriors basketball: brought to you by Hebrews 13:8--"Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever." (Yes, I cribbed that joke from a Reader's Digest I read ~20 years ago. Sue me.)

#FreeLarryEllison