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Friday, November 22, 2013
Opening Tip: Unlike Mayo, can Ellis keep it up?

By Tim MacMahon

DALLAS -- The shooting guard who slipped through the cracks of free agency and signed a deal with the Mavericks for a lot less money than he hoped looked like a legitimate star for the first few weeks of the season.

Sound familiar?

Or have you forgotten how good O.J. Mayo was at the beginning of last season? As is the case with Monta Ellis now, there was discussion in Dallas as Thanksgiving neared a year ago about Mayo possibly making his first All-Star team and emerging as a competent co-star for Dirk Nowitzki.

Mayo at the 12-game mark: 21.8 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting from the field.

Ellis at the 12-game mark: 23.3 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting from the field.

Monta Ellis
With a better roster of teammates surrounding him, Monta Ellis figures to be able to continue producing for the Mavs the way he has shown so far.
Mayo couldn't sustain his early success, finishing the season with an average of 15.3 points. Ellis, however, is extremely confident he can keep rolling.

"I will. I will," Ellis said after his spectacular 37-point, eight-assist performance in Wednesday's comeback win over the Houston Rockets. "Only thing I've got to do is continue to make the right plays and don't try to force anything."

The statistics are awfully similar in a limited sample size. What makes Ellis different than Mayo? Why do the Mavs believe this shooting guard can keep it going?

Let's look at a few of the biggest factors:

Dirk dynamic: Mayo put up big numbers while Dirk Nowitzki was watching from the bench or his couch while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. As strange as it sounds, Mayo never meshed with the sweetest-shooting 7-footer in NBA history who happens to be as unselfish a superstar as you'll find.

In fairness to Mayo, Nowitzki wasn't himself for the majority of last season. He really didn't resemble a premier power forward until the final 30 games. But a big part of the problem was Mayo's struggles as a pick-and-roll ballhandler.

Ellis relishes that role and ranks among the NBA's most explosive, effective pick-and-roll initiators, especially when he gets the extra space that typically comes when Nowitzki is setting a pick and popping to one of his sweet spots.

Ellis has a sense of timing and feel for spacing, traits Mayo simply doesn't possess. Ellis' ability to facilitate (5.7 assists per game) has impressed the Mavs as much as his ability to finish in the lane.

"Even on nights when he's not scoring that well, his ability to make plays for everyone else is what sets him apart," Nowitzki said. "His decision-making has been great. What I've seen so far, sometimes his shot might not be going so well, but he can give us [penetration] every night."

Style: There was a fluke factor to Mayo's big November numbers. He was shooting 58.2 percent from 3-point range -- and averaging 5.6 attempts from long distance -- after a dozen games in Dallas. Nobody knocks down 3s at that clip over the course of the season.

Ellis' bread-and-butter is attacking the basket. Quickness doesn't have off nights. Neither does relentlessness.

"That energy he has to attack, attack, attack all game long is special," Nowitzki said. "He's one of a kind."

According to NBA.com's shot charts, Ellis is shooting 51.7 percent within eight feet of the basket this season. It's reasonable to expect him to improve that percentage, not just sustain it. He finished at a significantly better percentage around the basket in each of the previous six seasons available in the league's database.

O.J. Mayo
O.J. Mayo is now with the Bucks, but last year with the Mavs he started similarly to how Monta Ellis has in 2013, though he couldn't sustain it.
As long as Ellis ranks among the league leaders in basket attacks -- and the SportVU data ranks him second in the NBA with 10.7 per game -- he should spend a lot of time at the free-throw line. He's averaging a career-best 7.1 free-throw attempts per game so far this season. And, as owner Mark Cuban notes, Ellis' short-range misses are often still keys to successful possessions because of the offensive rebounding opportunities created when big men have to challenge his shots.

The combination of better teammates and coaching has helped him unload a lot of the junk in his game, such as his penchant for taking low-percentage, long, off-the-dribble jumpers during his miserable Milwaukee days. A determination to prove the doubters with analytics ammunition wrong might have something to do with it, too.

Circumstances: The Mavs were a mess last season, when the franchise failed to make the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years. The team was primarily constructed of one-year rentals, including Mayo, as the front office made salary-cap space for the summer a priority. Not surprisingly, team chemistry was an issue.

The Mavs at least made multiyear commitments to the free agents they signed this summer. There's a feeling in the locker room that the players are part of building something, not just serving as place holders.

The mental weight of wanting to earn his first huge NBA contract might have affected Mayo. That's not a concern with Ellis, who made $55 million over the previous five seasons and signed a three-year, $25 million deal to come to Dallas.

It also helps that there isn't a revolving door at point guard this season. The Mavs solved their problem at that position by signing Jose Calderon, whose passing ability and perimeter shooting makes him a good complementary piece next to Ellis and Nowitzki.

Track record: Mayo, whose highest-scoring season was when he averaged 18.5 points for a 24-win Memphis team as a rookie, was trying to learn on the job how to be a go-to guy.

Ellis hasn't enjoyed much team success during his career, but he has several seasons of go-to guy experience. He has averaged at least 19.0 points and as many as 25.5 over the last seven seasons.

"Watching Monta just kind of see where the game lets him go the first three quarters, that's a beautiful thing," Cuban said. "It's really showing you he understands the pace and nuances of the game."

One teammate thought the pressure of playing such a prominent role for a team with playoff expectations might have worn on Mayo over the course of last season. His confidence seemed to crumble in the last quarter of the season, when he averaged only 9.4 points and shot just 39.7 percent from the field.

That's not a concern for Ellis, who feels much less of a burden than he has for most of his career because of the other talent on the roster.

"The great thing about it is I have a great group of guys on this team that make everything so much easier and fun," Ellis said. "I don't really have to force anything. I don't have to carry the load every single night."

But the Mavs have reason to believe that Ellis can continue sharing a large part of the load most nights at least.