For The Love Of Basketball: Former star Monta Ellis pursues NBA comeback

It’s been four years since Monta Ellis stepped on an NBA court.

The Indiana Pacers still owe him $2.25 million this coming season, the last of the stretch provision they applied when they waived him and his $11.2 million salary in 2017.

“I believe I still have a lot in my tank. I can still play five years,” Ellis told Empire Sports Media on a zoom call.

Ellis was under the heat in a soccer field somewhere in Dallas, Texas, the entire zoom call. He was at the sidelines cheering for his kid in a soccer game last weekend.

Not long ago, his weekend schedule is focused on him — either practicing with his team or playing in an NBA city.

These days, it’s no longer about himself. Away from the spotlight and the dizzying NBA lifestyle, Ellis has grown as a man, a husband, a father, and a coach. But deep inside, he still yearns to be in the middle of the action watching how the NBA spacing could cater to his uptempo game.

At his prime, Ellis was a wrecking ball who blitzed his opponents with blazing speed and athleticism. A former McDonald’s All-American, he entered the NBA straight from high school as the 40th pick in 2005. He spent his first six and a half years with the Golden State Warriors improving each year. Soon after, the 2007 Most Improved Player became their franchise player. He was until he got traded to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline in the 2012-13 season to make way for rising shooting star Stephen Curry.

That broke his heart, and he lost himself in the process.

Ellis still led the Bucks to a playoff appearance — his first since 2007 — but got swept in the first round. He went to Dallas, where he found a home and became the first player other than Dirk Nowitzki to lead the team in scoring during his time there. He was instrumental in the Mavericks’ two playoff runs, averaging 26.0 points in a first-round loss to James Harden and the Houston Rockets in 2015. But ultimately, Ellis left the Mavericks for financial security after not picking up his $8.7 million player option.

Larry Bird and Frank Vogel convinced Ellis to sign a four-year, $44 million contract despite Sacramento Kings offering four million more. The Pacers sold him the vision of becoming Paul George’s running mate.

“For him to get one last really big deal, to me, was a no-brainer,” Dirk Nowitzki said when he left. “I would’ve liked to kept him [in Dallas], but you know how it is in this league. Once people hit free agency, it’s tough to call.”

It proved to be Ellis’ undoing as his career started to go downhill. And when the Pacers traded away George and started a rebuild, the writings were on the wall.

Ellis tried to work out a buyout with Pacers. But when they couldn’t agree, the Pacers waived him.

“The 2017 Monta Ellis had a lot of things going on mentally that started to affect me physically. That’s one of the reasons why I walked away from the game. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play the game anymore,” Ellis told Empire Sports Media.

“It’s just felt like that my mental health was way more important. I felt like my family and kids needed me more. There’s a lot of things that affected me off the court. I haven’t had a father in my life and I have to balance fatherhood with my NBA professional life. It was challenging.”

Ellis took care of his battle off the court because he felt that held him back on the court.

“So, my family was the most important to me. I had to get my household, my family in order and get my mind back. So once my mind got back, I started lifting and running and my body started to feel good. I was able to release that mental pressure and really get back and re-focused,” Ellis said.

“So, the 2017 Monta Ellis, he was balancing a lot of things. I didn’t feel like it was healthy for me and for the team as well. If they couldn’t get into the Monta Ellis flow, I had to get away from it. I did that and it was a good decision because I’m in a better mindset. My wife and kids, they were happy to get to see me more, be around more. That was the blessing.”

It was indeed a blessing. But it was also a curse.

When Ellis felt he’s ready for an NBA comeback, the league has moved on from him.

But he’s not yet losing hope. Ellis is determined to find his way back to the NBA as he did with his life.

These days, he keeps himself in shape by working out four days a week, coaching his kids and other kids in his AAU program, Ellis Elite. He still trains with an NBA trainer while waiting for the right opportunity.

“We’ve been training four days a week. We take Fridays off. He works out in Michael Johnson Performance – the top athlete’s performance institution here in Dallas. So he does that two-hour workout every Monday, Wednesday Friday, the whole four years he was out of the league. You could check Michael Johnson’s record,” long-time NBA trainer Djamel Jackson told Empire Sports Media.

Jackson, who has trained Mo Williams, Julius Randle, Draymond Green, Jeremy Lin, Emmanuel Mudiay, Isiah Austin, Rashad Butler, Terrance Ferguson, Malik Newman, saw up close how Ellis had grown a lot as a person during his NBA hiatus.

“I have been working with kids all my life. There’s certain patience that you develop, you become compassionate. Once you get a little older, some of the things that you love or you walked away from, you kinda appreciate a little bit more. He got young kids. He got young sons that are really good basketball players. Being able to watch their pops in the league a couple of more years will help lift them up. He definitely has grown as a friend, as a father, as a player. Once you get a little older, you kinda get to mature,” Jackson said.

Derrius Nelson, a FIBA-certified agent and an NBA scout from Serbia-based DaggerBasket Agency, is now Ellis current business manager. They have spent many nights talking about what-ifs and mapping out a way back to the league. Nelson got Ellis a $2 million offer to play in China, but Ellis turned it down because he wanted to be with his family during the pandemic and stay closer to the NBA.

Ellis acknowledged the mistakes of his youth, and he had made amends. He’s been working hard for that elusive second chance.

“I’ve been trying for a couple of years. I just got nobody take a chance on me, bringing me for the training camp to show what I can still do. The way how I walked away from it kind of hinder that a little bit because they didn’t know the mindset I was in, the things that were going on,” Ellis said. “But it is what it is. If I have an opportunity to do it, it is what it is. If I don’t, I’ll still be a husband and a father and I have an AAU program. I’m good either way. But to come back, to be able challenge myself and do the thing that I haven’t done in a while, that will be a big challenge that I am willing to accept if it comes.”

While the NBA is getting younger, the league’s older guys and Ellis’ contemporaries are still killing it and milking money. Kyle Lowry, 35, just signed a new $90 million deal with the Miami Heat. The Phoenix Suns locked up Chris Paul, 36, to a whopping four-year, $120 million. And then there are minimum veterans like Carmelo Anthony, now set to chase a ring with his old buddy LeBron James.

Ellis wants to come back for the challenge, not the money, at this point in his life. After all, he’s earned more than $100 million throughout his career.

“I don’t play the game of basketball for the money. Like, it’s good to get the money. I wanted to make a better life for my family and the NBA allowed me to do that. My focus is, my thing is just do what I can do, control what I can control and put everything in God’s hands,” Ellis said.

All Ellis wanted is an opportunity to show that he still has it and can help a team win.

“My main thing is, just bring me in and give me a look. Like you could make the decision on me. I just want a shot. I ain’t asking for a contract to get $5 million, $10 million, or even $1 million. All I’m asking is give me a look. That’s all and let my game speak for itself. I just want an opportunity, a workout, and that’s not the end of the world, that’s not gonna hurt anybody,” Ellis said.

Ellis built a reputation as a shotmaker and playmaker. Though he was knocked for his defense, the numbers and some eye tests suggest otherwise.

Ellis knows his days as a go-to guy are over. He’s willing to accept whatever role a team has for him to win.

“That’s a team decision if that was to happen. Whatever role that was. Whatever the coach asks me to do. I can’t control that situation. Being at the age that I am, I haven’t played in a while so being the time I was away from the game, I can’t come in and play the role that I want. It’s all about the team giving me an opportunity and what’s the best fit for them. And I gotta play that role the best way possible,” Ellis said.

Ellis played with pace in the NBA. But there wasn’t so much space during his prime. While his athleticism has started to fade with age, his wisdom grew with experience.

“It’s still basketball. It’s all about defending and putting the ball on the hoop and making plays for others,” Ellis said. “The NBA is very, very young now. So, it’s more athletic, faster, and I have always played a fast game.”

Ellis was just a 31 percent three-point shooter throughout his career, but he will not be jacking up shots as he used to be. His ideal role in a potential NBA return is to break down the second unit’s defenses to score or make plays for his teammates in sporadic minutes. But Jackson revealed how Ellis has worked on his shot not just to prepare for a potential NBA comeback.

“That’s the one that has definitely gotten better. As he aged, he’s gotten better. And he’s working with kids. So, when you’re teaching kids how to shoot, it matters that you learn how to shoot better. It could go around the low 40s, and you know, with the spacing, the new rules, and his knowledge of the game, as you get older, you get better,” Jackson said.

“The NBA tells us, the system tells us that as you get older, you get better and smarter because you know how to beat younger guys.”

Jackson believes playoff teams could use someone like Ellis on their bench to provide leadership and scoring.

“Any team right now — the league is now so young — the (Los Angeles) Lakers or Brooklyn (Nets) but aside from those teams, every team needs some veteran help. Every team I think needs at least 4-5 veterans. The league is just too young right now,” Jackson said.

The Lakers have been stacking up on veterans. The Nets could pair him with Patty Mills in their backcourt off the bench. A Mavericks homecoming could also be a perfect marriage with him as another shotmaker and playmaker to come off the bench when Luka Doncic takes a breather. The Portland Trail Blazers, who are at a crossroads with Damian Lillard’s future hanging in the balance, could use Ellis as a scoring punch and a veteran leader off the bench.

“That would be a role that I am willing to accept. I could do a lot within that role to help a playoff team. I still got a lot of gas in my tank. My body is healthy. My mind is focused. I could definitely help a playoff team with the skills and the knowledge of the game I have right now,” Ellis said.

It’s been four years since Ellis last played an NBA game. A lot has happened since. But the most important thing is he found himself again and the joy of playing basketball. He found his way back to his life. Now, he wants to find a way back to the NBA.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant doesn’t dwell on ‘What If’, impressed with Bucks continuity

The NBA Playoffs’ most talked about sliding door moment never entered Kevin Durant’s mind when he watched Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy from his room in Tokyo, Japan.

Durant and his Brooklyn Nets were reduced to being a footnote of the Bucks’ title run this season.

Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle. James Harden played hurt. Durant came a couple of inches away from eliminating the Bucks. But alas, the basketball gods smiled on the Greek Freak.

“I’m not really [thinking about what could have been],” Durant said on Wednesday after Team USA practice. “You don’t play for moral victories. You only want to be the last team standing in the NBA Finals. We understand how good we are and not just go push the Bucks [to seven games].”

“Our goal is to win it. Unfortunately, we didn’t. Congrats to the Bucks, an amazing team who fought through a lot the last two years to get to this point. I have a lot of respect for them.”

The super team in Brooklyn, which was supposed to steamroll its way to the Nets’ first NBA championship, could not be healthy enough to stay together on the floor.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo bucked a hyperextended knee in the playoffs and capped off his dominant NBA Finals run with a 50-piece and five blocks.

Seven years ago, Antetokounmpo promised he would not leave the city without winning a championship. He followed through by signing the supermax extension. The Bucks’ front office repaid his loyalty with boom-or-bust moves, including the botched trade for Bogdan Bognadovic that cost them a second-round pick. The Jrue Holiday trade paled in comparison to the Nets’ all-in move to acquire Harden. But they beat the Nets to the draw in trading for Harden’s former Houston Rockets teammate PJ Tucker.

“It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else,’’ Antetokounmpo said. “I could go — I don’t want to put anybody on the spot — but I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it, and this is the way to do it and we f—–g did it.”

Durant was never asked to react to Antetokounmpo’s postgame remark. But he came away impressed with how the Bucks build their championship team.

“It was good to see Milwaukee forming some sort of a dynasty with that team,” Durant said. “I know it’s the first championship. I know a lot of people will call you a dynasty after a few [titles]. The continuity of that team is something that is impressive. How they continue to keep building and adding and now they’re a champion. So you can appreciate that.”

The Bucks are guaranteed to have Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Holiday, and Brook Lopez together until the 2022-23 season. Durant will have another shot at the Bucks next season, provided Brooklyn’s Big 3 will be healthy.

But in a couple of days, he will have to set aside the rivalry and join forces with Middleton and Holiday at Team USA and welcome Phoenix Suns’ rising star Devin Booker, who could still be reeling from that stinging loss, squandering a 2-0 lead, to the squad.

“We got respect for these guys. That experience doesn’t happen to just anybody. You respect those guys that went through that journey,” Durant said.

“You see a young team like Phoenix, who everybody has been counting out in the last five to six years. And now they made themselves into a contender and hopefully become a contender moving forward in the West,” he added.

Durant has been both on the opposite side of the spectrum. Before becoming a multiple NBA champion with the Warriors, Durant, like Booker, lost a young team in Oklahoma City. So he knows the feeling.

But they need Booker to recover quickly. They need Middleton and Holiday to chill down from the euphoria of winning their first championship. They have a mission in Tokyo. A goal that looked vulnerable at the onset with the missing players due to COVID-19 issues and different circumstances.

“I think there will definitely be adjustments just with the quick turnaround. But those guys know what they’re getting into themselves when they made the commitment a few weeks back,” Durant said. “They had an understanding of what this journey is and they have an extra couple of weeks added on to their postseason now. We’re looking forward to those guys coming in and we understand that it will take a while for them to take their legs back under them, calm down from all the hype of the NBA Finals but we can’t wait to incorporate them.”

Durant has already moved on from a lost NBA season. His eyes are set on a different prize.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Ex-Knick Bobby Portis relishes first NBA Finals with Bucks after enduring losing seasons

knicks, bobby portis

Ex-New York Knicks forward Bobby Portis is in his first NBA Finals, and that feeling had only sunk in when the Milwaukee Bucks arrived in Phoenix for the first two games of the series.

“I think yesterday is when it finally hit me,” Portis said following their Tuesday morning shootaround. “After the game on Saturday, I was just so pumped up and so thrilled still that we got the victory and that the series is over, and that we’re moving on to the Finals, I didn’t get a chance to just decompress and just sit down and just think about it. When I got on the plane yesterday and got to the hotel room and I was actually by myself for a change, that’s when it hit me. Yeah, like we’re the Finals now, and it was a big accomplishment.”

“It’s a first for me — first time in the playoffs in four years too — so being able to get a chance to go about each round and compete in every series and get to this point with this amazing group of guys is great.

After the Knicks did not pick up his $15.75-milllion team option last year, Portis took a significant discount for a chance to have a deep run in the playoffs. He signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal to join the Bucks, saying he resisted larger offers from other teams.

That decision paid him huge dividends on the court.

In the last two Milwaukee wins to wrap up the series against Atlanta Hawks, Portis had a pair of big games starting with a playoff career-high 22 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals in Game 5. He almost had a double-double in the series-clinching Game 6 win (12 points, 9 rebounds).

After his epic Game 5 performance, Portis revealed that the turning point for him was when his one-year stint with the Knicks hit rock bottom.

“The pandemic really drove me to find out about myself,” Portis said.

Portis averaged 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds as one of the ‘too many power forwards’ on a poorly constructed Knicks roster that ended up winning only 21 games.

He said he was hurt not being in the playoffs, watching the Orlando Bubble on TV at home. But he used that as a motivation. He spent the next nine months with his mother while he worked on his game with his eyes set on playing for a contender.

“I finally found peace, man,” Portis said after the Bucks led 3-2 in the series. “I’m at peace with myself and at peace in my life and at peace with everything going on around. I was just always trying to find it again, and really couldn’t find it. But having great teammates and great coaches. And the pandemic, like I said, really helped me find out more about myself more than anything.”

That prepared Portis for the highs and lows of this COVID-19 condensed season. From having DNP in the final three games against the Brooklyn Nets in the second round to emerge as the Bucks’ X-Factor in the Eastern Conference Finals, Portis stayed locked-in for this chance. 

“This moment is special,” Portis said on Tuesday. “Growing up as a kid watching KG [Kevin Garnett] versus Kobe in the Finals, LeBron all those years and things like that, so being able to be a kid from Little Rock, Arkansas, being able to represent myself, my team, this organization, my family, and my state on the biggest stage in basketball is remarkable, man! All the hard work I put in, being able to be in the NBA Finals is a dream come true, and it’s a special moment.”

Portis won’t hear chants of “Bobby! Bobby!” as he had in Milwaukee with the first two games on the road. His starting gig isn’t even guaranteed with Antetokounmpo a game-time decision. But those are the least of his worries.

Portis is ready to bring his high-octane energy that fueled the Bucks, whether he was coming off the bench or starting in place of their franchise player.

“Just stay together knowing that every possession matters, being together, staying in the moment, just trying to burn the motor out. Ain’t no tomorrow. We’ve got seven games to win four, and I’m just trying to blow the motor out and go as hard as I can and get them all,” said Portis of his mindset heading into the Finals.

If he returns to the bench, Portis believes he can still impact the game. As superstars usually cancel out each other on the big stage, role players like him on the bench will be critical.

‘It’s big, man. Obviously, me, Bryn, Jeff and Pat, we’re the catalysts of the second unit. We have to come in and be ourselves and come in and bring some energy to the game, some scoring and things like that. So, I think it’s going to be very vital to help out the starting lineups and things like that,” Portis said.

“[The Suns] do a good job on their end too with Cameron Payne and Saric and those guys. Cam Johnson, as well, coming off the bench and scoring the basketball and bringing some energy to the game.”

Portis’ swing skill isn’t just his shooting that can stretch the floor or his rebounding. It’s his ball of energy that can shift the momentum to the Bucks’ side.

“I think whoever has the most energy and plays with the most effort is going to win these games. That’s what it’s really going to come down to. Obviously, it’s July. Guys have been playing since December, and it was a short offseason last year. I think whoever is the most conditioned, the most well-rounded, and the most energetic team is going to obviously come out victorious.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Myles Powell returns to Knicks on a two-way contract

Former Seton Hall star Myles Powell has found his way back to New York.

On Friday, the Knicks announced that they had converted Jared Harper’s two-way contract into a 10-day contract to make a spot for Powell.

The undrafted Powell took Harper’s previous spot as one of the Knicks’ two-way players.

Powell was recently dropped by the Milwaukee Bucks, who signed him to a two-way deal after his solid G League campaign with the Westchester Knicks.

The Trenton, New Jersey native, averaged 17.8 points, 3.8 assists, and 1.8 steals with a 45/45/82 shooting splits in 28.1 minutes in 13 games with the Knicks’ G League affiliate team.

Powell was the 2019-20 Big East Player of the Year and was named to the First Team All-American. But he went undrafted, and the Knicks signed him to an exhibit 10 contract to join their training camp.

Harper is expected to sign a second 10-day contract which will make him part of the Knicks for the rest of the regular season.

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All-Star break hangover or harbinger? Knicks suffer season’s worst loss

new york knicks, julius randle

Fresh from his first NBA All-Star appearance, Julius Randle had a rude awakening.

Randle didn’t handle well his first game back as a bona fide All-Star and No.1 option. He rammed into a wall in Milwaukee as the Bucks shut him down, resulting in the New York Knicks’ worst loss of the season, 134-101, Thursday night at the Fiserv Forum.

It was a frustrating start for the Knicks, who entered the second half of the season with a winning record (19-18) for the first time in seven years. The loss should serve as an early wake-up call for the Knicks, who have the third-toughest schedule after the All-Star break.

The Bucks executed their game plan to perfection, limiting Randle to a season-low seven points on a brutal 3-for-12 shooting. The constant double and triple-team coverage threw off Randle, and the Knicks went down with their main man.

“I think it’s reading the game. The game’s gonna tell you what shots to take. You have to understand when you’re the first option, and somebody commits sending in a secondary defender, as a primary scorer, you have the responsibility to make the right play,” Tom Thibodeau lamented.

The stagnant offense typified by Randle’s struggles sapped the Knicks’ energy on defense.

On the flip side, the Bucks bullied them.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo picking up from where he left off in Atlanta, the Bucks followed his lead. Milwaukee shot 58 percent and hit 18-of-38 from deep in a dominant performance.

Antetokounmpo won the All-Star Game MVP with a perfect 16-for-16 shooting last Sunday. He followed that up with an 8-for-13 performance against the Knicks on his way to notching his fifth triple-double of the season.

Antetokounmpo, also the reigning back-to-back regular-season MVP, had 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists in under 30 minutes to lead the Bucks’ revenge win.

The Knicks, who blasted the Bucks, 130-110, in New York early in the season, was nowhere to be found in Milwaukee on Thursday night. They looked like the Knicks of last year who were running like headless chickens.

A 14-0 run in the first quarter was all the Bucks needed to take the lead, which they never relinquished. Though the Knicks’ second unit closed the gap to five at the end of the first quarter, the Bucks starters came back to restore order.

Milwaukee drew double figures from all its starters while RJ Barrett was the lone Stallion for the Knicks’ starting unit.

Barrett led the Knicks with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, with Alec Burks adding 17 and eight assists off the bench.

The loss added to the Knicks’ woes against teams above .500 as they dropped to 5-11 in those games this season. They will try to lick the wounds of this stinging loss when they continue a tough four-game road trip in Oklahoma City this Saturday.

The Knicks are also hoping to avenge their 101-89 loss at the Thunder’s hands in The Garden back in January.

Randle is eager to bounce back as he insisted Thursday’s night’s loss was just an off night that usually comes after the All-Stat break.

“I’m not too worried, man. As far as I remember, the past couple of years, the first game after the break, I’m always sh*tty,” Randle said.

Randle was right.

Last year, he also had a similar seven-point game on 2-for-9 shooting against the Indiana Pacers after the All-Star break. He responded with 10 straight double-digit performances while leading the Knicks to a 4-6 record during that stretch before COVID-19 shut the league down.

The Knicks could only hope Randle can find his rhythm back as it’s clear that they could only go as far as he takes them.

Not unless a significant help comes before the trade deadline to ease his burden.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo