The Warriors will visit the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday, and in the process will see old friend Monta Ellis. Although “old friend” probably isn’t what Stephen Curry would call him. Then again, Curry just might; he’s that freakin’ good of a guy.
If there’s one guy Curry would have every right to be more than a little rankled at still, it would be Monta Ellis. Nobody did Curry fewer favors in the NBA than Ellis.
As teammates for more than two seasons, Curry and Ellis may embrace before the Warriors-Pacers game, share some pleasantries, make quick talk about their wives and children. After all, it’s been a minute since they played together. Though a cynic might suggest that, yes, they were teammates but they never really did “play together.”
Make no mistake, from the day Curry started his career as a Warrior in 2009 until the day Ellis was traded to Milwaukee in March 2012, Ellis hindered rather than helped Curry.
Within the relentless joy that has become the Warriors over the past season-plus, it’s easy to forget the absolute mess of a situation Curry came into when Golden State drafted him in the summer of 2009.
Remember media day of Curry’s rookie season, in September of that year? That was the day Ellis, the team’s star guard, announced he couldn’t play alongside Curry, whom the Warriors drafted seventh. Also, the team’s starting small forward, Stephen Jackson, reiterated that he wanted to get the hell out of Oakland, sooner rather than later.
Welcome to the Bay, Steph!
“Can’t,” responded Ellis, when asked about playing alongside Curry. “We just can’t … Just can’t. They (general manager Larry Riley and coach Don Nelson) say you can, but you can’t.”
Ellis didn’t like one bit the idea the Warriors drafted another “combo” type guard, and the organization took that disappointment seriously enough that Riley and Nelson went to visit Ellis that offseason after the draft. Riley and Nelson told Ellis there was room for the both of them in the backcourt, but Ellis wasn’t having it.
Who knew exactly why Ellis didn’t want Curry around – maybe it was because the Warriors needed a big man more than small man or that he was worried about his touches or that he’d now have to guard bigger two guards once in a while. It was probably a combination of those and plenty more. Whatever, it all added up to the opposite of chemistry.
And it put Curry in an awful spot as he was starting his NBA career. Totally uncool, Monta.
For the first two-and-a-half seasons of his pro career, not only was Curry battling ankle issues that were preventing him from being at his best, but his backcourt mate didn’t have the game or mentality to give him any help. Ellis was unable to see the big picture and never put his heart into making it work with Curry.
Oh, the numbers will say both Ellis and Curry got theirs when they were playing together, but anyone who watched those Warriors teams consistently knew that Ellis and Curry weren’t exactly bringing out the best in each other. Those teams didn’t win.
How strained were things between Ellis and Curry? I still remember the newspaper article with Ellis’ wife, the one where she said she was embarrassed enough to tell Ellis to apologize to Curry for saying what he’d said on that first day of training camp.
For all Ellis’ individual raw talent, quickness and ability – assets that are actually far more considerable than those of Curry – he could never use those attributes to help make his teammates better. Worse, he never seemed to show the inclination to want to. Ellis was a scorer, first and foremost, and passed mostly as Priority No. 2.
During Curry’s first two seasons in the league, Ellis averaged 25.5 points per game and 24.1 points per game. Those are big numbers and nothing Ellis should be ashamed of. Still, so many of those numbers were borne out of Ellis’ innate ability to get off a shot and his wondrous first step, his given gifts, and little more.
Ellis’ defense was never his strength and yet he found a way to cloak Curry early in Curry’s career. It’s interesting – and telling – that Curry turned out to be a better scorer than Ellis ever was – and significantly more efficient – but it was Curry who tried to become more of a point guard than Ellis ever did.
When Ellis was traded, in March 2012, it finally allowed Curry to come to the fore, both as a basketball player and person, within the organization. And the change from Ellis to Curry was dramatic.
Ellis is now 30 years old, and no doubt more mature than when he was a Warrior. It stands to reason that Ellis wasn’t at his most socially seasoned between the ages of 19 and 25. But back then Ellis could be moody – quiet one day and lighthearted the next. He tended to be exclusive, even with his teammates, and it could be difficult to integrate with him.
He was still young and not much of a leader by the time Curry came. What Ellis had learned early in his career, he learned from Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes, etc., as part of the “We Believe “ Team.” Nobody is here to impugn the character of that team, and I, for one, loved covering it.
But that group played with an edge and had an edge off the court, too. We all knew that then and know it now, and it was a big part – along with Nelson’s renegade/rebel type aura as coach – of why the Bay Area Warriors’ fans embraced it. But it probably wasn’t the best atmosphere for Ellis to grow up in as a young NBA player.
Ellis wasn’t the easiest guy to play with, either, a ball-dominant, reluctant passer. At least he was back then.
There were also character issues with Ellis, involving his moped accident, inappropriate texts/photos to a Warriors employee and his constant run-ins with Nelson. Let’s leave those there.
As we know now, Curry is very different. A natural leader, Curry is inclusive and therefore teammates tend to gravitate toward him. Curry is accommodating to the media, the fans and members of his own organization, something Ellis was always hit or miss on. Ellis had a way of keeping everyone on eggshells a little bit, at least back then.
The point is, when Curry was allowed to emerge from Ellis’ shadow, after the trade, it began getting lighter in Golden State – more fun and less sullen. More positive and less negative. Nobody ever knew it would all turn out like this – with Curry eventually winning the MVP and the Warriors winning a title – but things started changing after Ellis left. For the better.
After a six-and-half-year relationship, the Warriors had grown tired of trying to get Ellis’ square peg to fit with anyone else’s round peg, rectangular peg, octagon peg or any other type peg: Golden State traded Ellis to the Bucks in a deal for Andrew Bogut.
At the time of the trade, Warriors owner Joe Lacob called Bogut a “transcendent” player, and intimated Bogut could be the type of player who could turn around an organization. No doubt, Bogut has been terrific for the Warriors and an integral part of their recent success.
If only Lacob had said: “We acquired a transcendent player by trading Monta Ellis to Milwaukee: His name is Stephen Curry.”
That would have been perfect.
Because that trade – the one where the Warriors finally said good-bye to Monta Ellis – was the one that allowed Curry to start becoming the historical player he’s become and for the Warriors to start becoming the historical team they’ve become.
***Steinmetz talks more about Ellis and Curry and all things Bay Area sports on Episode 48 of the Sal and Steiny Podcast. Download here.
***Here’s where you can download all of those Sal and Steiny Podcasts.