Instant (and Not So Instant) Trade Analysis: Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to the Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks get: PG Jose Calderon (four years, $29 million) and G Monta Ellis (three years, $25 million)
In a move that says “why play defense when you can just not play defense”, the Dallas Mavericks capped off a very disappointing two summer run trying to get another free agent to add to 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki.
The Mavs doled out their first multi-year deals in two offseasons by adding what amounts to a starting guard rotation. Calderon and Ellis look like the starters at the moment, simply judging by their annual salaries, over rookie PG Shane Larkin (who broke his ankle last night in Summer League and looks to be out until October, at least).
On the surface, this is a series of somewhat puzzling moves for the Mavericks, who seem to be spending money just because they have it. It might seem that way because it’s not terribly far from the truth. In the past two years, the Mavericks have swung and missed at free agents like Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala and Deron Williams. To make matters worse, in order to do so they almost completely dismantled their 2011 title team, allowing C Tyson Chandler, G JJ Barea and G DeShawn Stevenson to all walk. Though that team was unlikely to repeat, they were essentially given no chance, as the pitiful 2011-2012 Mavericks were swept aside in the first round by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Looking at a team with just seven players under contract, Dallas had to fill out their roster, including replenishing an entirely barren back court with O.J Mayo, Rodrigue Beaubois and Darren Collison all leaving North Texas. The longest of the deals was puzzlingly given to the oldest player in the 31 year-old Calderon, who definitely fits the mold as a stereotypical Euroleague-bred Spanish point guard. Jose is a crafty ball handler, imaginative passer and an excellent spot up shooter (46% on threes last year) who seems to have no problem taking the last shot of the game. He’s a true veteran competitor, worthy of the starting role he’s been given on the Spanish National team the past several years, though his big game savvy has been largely wasted in Toronto. Calderon has played in just 11 playoff games ever over two trips to the postseason.

The downside to the Spaniard is as obvious as his unibrow: he doesn’t play defense. Calderon tries, but simply lacks the speed and quickness to adequately cover opposing players. This wouldn’t be so much of a concern if he had a defensive swingman by his side to make up for those missteps or a center to erase his mistakes in the lane. His new back court-mate Monta Ellis certainly doesn’t fit either of those qualifications.

Let’s get this straight: Ellis is a solid basketball player. Despite his size (6’2”), Monta is a very slick penetrator and finisher, hearkening to smallish tough guys like Allen Iverson and Tony Parker, who seem to excel in the paint even as shorter guards. His most effective touches are at the rim, where he’s been able to generate just about 4.6 FTA per game for the past four seasons.  He’s a much better passer than he’s given credit for, though his gaudy assist averages (over 5 since 2009) probably stem from the ball being in his hands so much (at least a 26.3% usage rate since 2009). Ellis is a volume scorer with a tendency to put up points in hot streaks, but overall is a low efficiency shooter whose three-point acumen has been slowly leaving him (29% last year on an astounding 4 shots per game for Milwaukee). Like Calderon, he’s a poor defender who racks up steals (2nd in the league the last two years) at the price of gambling often on possessions. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if his accompanying guard or swingman were able to cover his mistakes, but this duo couldn’t shut down Tony Parker, Anthony Parker or Candice Parker.

Don’t get me wrong: this team is going to be a juggernaut offensively. They might make the Steve Nash/Michael Finley/Nowitzki years look like a YMCA youth tournament. Calderon is an excellent playmaker and a deadly shooter, which along with Dirk should only help free up a readily crashing Shawn Marion and Ellis. Looking at Ellis’ declining stroke from long, it appears as though Calderon will playing off ball many times to capitalize on his superb shooting, though coach Rick Carlisle might get more creative than this humble blogger.

If nearly $60 million on a duo of offensively solid but defensively putrid guards seems like a far cry from investing that same money on superstars Iguodala or Chandler or slightly more on Williams or Howard…it’s because it is. It’s not that either player is worth the money being paid to them–it’s that those contracts are only good deals if given another complementary guard. Unfortunately for Ellis and Calderon, they seem like they’ll have an extremely symbiotic relationship offensively, but defensively they’ll only make each other worse. A little over $8 million for Ellis? Is he your offensive bench spark plug? Is he a change of pace reserve playing 30 minutes a game? Then yes, sign him up. Anything more than that simply is overpaying. Which the Mavs are.

However, these two investments don’t absolutely cripple the Mavericks going into next offseason. Dallas has nearly $35 million coming off the books in 12 months time, even with the addition of a $20 million dollar cap hit from the Calderellis signings. If Dirk takes a Garnett or Duncan-like discount to the tune of three years and $36 million, the team will have max salary room to offer players like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James or Chris Bosh, should they want to step into the Shark Tank.

In many ways, the Mavericks are spending because they have money to spend, especially seeing as their guards only seem to complement each other on one side of the court. But Dallas has done so without hindering their free agent spending (once again) next year, when hopefully they won’t strike out a third time.


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