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Thursday, August 28, 2008
With Ellis out, what will the Warriors do now?

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Monta Ellis
Ellis' injury leaves Golden State with a lot of questions.

Ever since Baron Davis abandoned the reins to Golden State's offense, we've wondered if Monta Ellis could physically hold up in the role of full-time quarterback. It didn't even take a week of training camp to find out. Apparently a summertime pickup game was enough to knock Ellis out of commission for three months, following surgery Wednesday to repair a severe ankle sprain. The timetable puts his return at least one month into the season -- and it has to put doubt about his readiness to be The Man into the minds of Warriors fans.

Ellis averaged 38 minutes per game last year. That's more than Chris Paul, and in the neighborhood of Kobe Bryant. But he didn't have to initiate the offense all the time, didn't have to carry the load in the half court as often as Davis did. That means a lot of extra bumps, pokes and prods for the 6-foot-3, 177-pound Ellis this season.

Now he'll have to do it all without training camp, then try to get to speed several weeks into the season. By that point it could already be too late.

For the second season in a row, the fate of the Warriors may have been determined by a preseason mishap. At least this time the incident wasn't an entire year before the season. You could make a strong case that the 2007-08 Warriors were done in by Stephen Jackson's Billy the Kid moment in October 2006, when he fired a gunshot into the air during an altercation outside an Indianapolis strip club. The Warriors lost six of the seven games he missed while serving a league-imposed suspension and wound up missing the playoffs by two games.

This year the Western Conference will be so rush-hour-subway-car-tight that no team can afford to miss its key player for a month. And with Davis gone, Ellis is the Warriors' key player. Truth is, he had already stealthily adopted that role by the end of last season, even with Davis around. In the final nine games of the season, when the Warriors were trying to shoot their way into the playoffs -- what, you thought they were going to get there by locking down on D? -- Ellis averaged 22 points per game, while Davis slipped to 19 and Captain Jack dropped all the way down to 14.

Minutes tend to be the ultimate measure of value in the eyes of the coaches, and Ellis played a full 48 in the late-season showdown game with Denver, Golden State's rival for the eighth playoff spot. Ellis went for 29 points that night and made half of his 26 shots, while Jackson and Davis shot a combined 14-for-42.

And when Don Nelson sat Davis for the second half of Golden State's last-gasp game at Phoenix, Ellis was an integral part of an amazing 25-point turnaround by the Warriors.

On those two nights he at least quelled some of the skepticism about his ability to get it done in big games, a legit question after his shaky performance in the 2007 playoffs.

Now we're left with plenty of other things to wonder about this team. Starting with: If the Warriors quickly fall out of the playoff picture, should Nellie get over his aversion to playing young guys and give major minutes to Brandan Wright, Marco Belinelli and rookie Anthony Randolph to get them better prepared for next year?

If that's the case, would it be a waste of both Nelson's time and the $5 million the Warriors will pay him to simply baby-sit youngsters in the final year of his contract?

The Warriors are squeezed, with heightened expectations from the fans and a payroll that's swollen from trying to meet them, yet with a serious ceiling on how high the team can go. The good news for them is they aren't completely trapped. They're still almost $10 million below the luxury tax, so they won't have to start shopping salaries to save money. Of the 15 players on their roster, 12 are age 25 or younger. The oldest player on the roster, Jackson, is only 30.

Yep, sounds like the makings of a team for the future. Because the moment Ellis sprained his ankle, hopes for this present season became a thing of the past.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.