There was a trade in the NBA this weekend. You may have heard.
The Oklahoma City Thunder made an expectation defying deal that will undoubtedly either end up a brilliant reminder of how smart you have to be to succeed in a small market or a sobering lesson on why small market teams can’t thrive in today’s NBA. Or it’ll just be a trade that happened.
Regardless, as is the case whenever a trade happens, I immediately wondered if the Milwaukee Bucks could have participated. Looking at the surface of the deal, the Thunder traded a blossoming two guard with lofty upcoming financial commitments for a still productive guard in the final year of his contract, a prospect and a pick many are pegging to be in the lottery. Is that a package the Bucks could have matched?
In terms of the prospect – probably. Whether John Henson or Tobias Harris, it’s not unreasonable to think either of them could be as alluring a prospect as Jeremy Lamb. At the very least, a combination or Doron Lamb and either Henson or Harris has to equal Jeremy Lamb.
After that, this thing starts to fall apart. What was so impressive about James Harden last season was his incredible efficiency all season long. Per-36 minutes last season, Harden was getting to the line nearly seven times, hitting 39% of his threes and shooting 49% from the field. His True Shooting % (an efficiency measure that takes into account threes and free throws along with field goals) was 66%. To put that in perspective, he was better than every player in the league in TS% outside of Tyson Chandler, who essentially only dunked the ball. Even better, he was that efficient while dishing four assists and grabbing almost five rebounds per game.
Harden did it all last season. And Oklahoma City knew they wouldn’t be able to replace that. So they opted for Kevin Martin. While Martin isn’t a distributor or all that versatile, he does one thing really well: He scores efficiently. It’s like Harden, but without the upside or anything else that isn’t scoring. To put this in a way Bucks fans can relate, the Thunder essentially picked up a late-2000s version of Michael Redd. Threes, free throws, points and that’s it.
On those Bucks teams, that was a problem. On this Thunder team, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it might work out better.
But what’s this got to do with the Bucks?
Well they couldn’t really have made a play here. The Bucks answer to Martin was Monta Ellis. Monta Ellis is not second in TS %. Or fifth. Or thirtieth. He’s down quite a ways, between Alonzo Gee and Spencer Hawes with a below average 51.7% TS %. And I’m not saying this one stat is the measure we should be valuing all players by. But what I am saying is that Ellis shoots a lot, but doesn’t draw so many fouls or make many threes. If you’re a general manager and you essentially had the option of selecting from these two players – knowing they are equally woeful on defense – which would you pick? (The blurry graphic below is obviously a terrible illustration of this point, but if you click it, it’ll become clear. Here’s a link that illustrates it the same way too.)
It’s pretty tough to take Ellis over Martin. And chances are, this is just who Monta Ellis is. He can score, but he’s going to need to take a lot of shots to do so. And, despite being one of the quickest players in the league, he isn’t going to get all that many free throws either. He’s just a guy who shoots a lot of two point shots.
Some players can take a ton of two point shots and be successful – 93% of Dwyane Wade’s shots were 2-pointers last year. Ditto for Rajon Rondo. But Wade got six free throws per game and made almost 50% of his shots. And Rondo led the league in assists while being a terrific defensive player.
What is the thing Ellis does that makes up for his volume of two point shots? We’re still waiting to find that out. And while we wait, we ponder if Ellis is more suited to come off the bench. To fulfill his destiny as another Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford – a leader of a second unit in need of offensive punch. His shots can be more valuable against a worn down starter or a backup guard. It seems so obvious, but Ellis doesn’t seem as excited about the prospect.
For years, NBA types have speculated that Ellis would make a great Sixth Man on a championship contender, a potent offensive weapon as a combo guard off some stacked team’s bench. He’s heard it too, and has zero interest in it.
“Say what now?” Ellis said, unsmiling Thursday when the idea was floated again. “I don’t believe that. People are entitled to their own opinion. You put me on a team with a whole bunch of guys, I guarantee you that I’m going to win that starting position. No matter who it is.
Not that the Bucks have any other options at the two anyway. He’s the best they got, for better or for worse. So the Bucks will ride out this season with Ellis bombing away, occasionally thrilling with a series of difficult makes strung together so simply we’ll wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. But we’ll know that it won’t happen more often.