As a Warriors fan, I am accustomed to saying goodbye to my team's best player.
It's really not that hard to do at this point. Over the years, I've seen tons of great players grimly put on Warriors uniforms, saddled with the impossible task of turning this joke of a franchise around. I immediately appreciate their talent (most of the time), and quickly begin to feel sorry for them, because, well, they're on the Warriors now. I know, as they do, that their efforts will be for naught, since we're the Warriors, and nothing they can do will change this franchise. So while I enjoy their moments of brilliance -- back-to-back 50-point games, signature dunks, undeserved loyalty -- they are always bittersweet for me, due to their fleeting, impermanent nature. And, eventually the moment comes, and I say goodbye. For some, like Baron Davis, Jason Richardson and even Chris Mullin, that goodbye is a bit difficult. For others, such as Stephen Jackson, Latrell Sprewell, and Antawn Jamison, that goodbye is an easier pill to swallow. But for a very select few players who, at some time, could have been considered the Warriors best player, it is a more complicated matter.
This week I said goodbye to Monta Ellis, who was certainly our best player for the past three seasons. My feelings on the matter are decidedly mixed. Ellis had toiled for us since 2005; a straight out of high school second round pick who ascended to stardom, or the closest thing to stardom a Warriors player can really achieve. This season has been up and down for him -- he's boasting averages of 22 points, 6 assists and 2 steals per game, but on only 40% shooting. His style of play embodied Warriors basketball -- a fearless and dynamic offensive force but an unsteady and disappointing defensive anchor. His skills could help a team make up a lot of points in a short amount of time, but never win games consistently. And most importantly -- and much like our other former best players -- he was someone who seemed reluctant to embrace a true leadership role on the Warriors, and never fit seamlessly on a perpetually rebuilding team.
If you asked for his opinion, Monta would undoubtedly assert that it took two to tango; that the Warriors did as much to destroy the relationship between franchise player and organization as he did. Indeed, Monta's marriage to both the Warriors organization and its shamelessly loyal fan base had as many peaks as it did valleys. But regardless of Monta's feelings on the matter, a series of legitimate events did lead to the unstable relationship. We got off on the wrong foot with "Mopedgate," when Monta lied about the nature of an offseason ankle injury that caused him to miss over half the season, and was subsequently suspended for thirty games without pay. That incident permanently destroyed Monta's relationship with the Warriors front office, and discredited him amongst a fan base that was ready to see him as the franchise's featured player. Things didn't improve when Monta pointedly declared that he and 2009 lottery pick Steph Curry -- the player most Warriors fans wanted in the draft, and whose selection was widely celebrated -- "couldn't work" as a backcourt before they even played a game together. And though they two did eventually take the court together,Monta's pride was frequently on display. His shot selection and handle were always suspect, and his demeanor on and off the court were somewhat off-putting. In other words, it never really seemed like he wanted to be here. So when idle trade discussions would come up -- both between fans, and between front offices -- Monta's name was always included, almost as an afterthought. And, when this went down, he acknowledged that he knew that his services were mostly used to showcase his value to other teams.
"I knew they would do this," he said to the San Jose Mercury News, a statement that speaks volumes. If he was insecure about being our franchise player, we were equally insecure about awarding him that role. It just wasn't a good fit.
Monta Ellis presented a contradiction: basketball logic versus basketball love. From a purely statistical perspective, it made absolute sense to build around Monta Ellis. In 2008, when Cohan and company awarded him with a 6-year, $66 million dollar contract to become our best player (alongside Andris Biedrins, who deserves a missive of his own very soon), Monta was the youngest, most talented player on the roster. Yet, if given the choice, most Warriors fans would've built the team around different guys from the 2007 team. We longed for the return of Jason Richardson, who was our best player for many years, and the emotional leader of the We Believe team. We were still reeling from the loss of Baron Davis, whose leadership -- and thunderous dunk -- made that improbable run to the second round of the playoffs even more meaningful. But at the same time, Monta was clearly the player on the rise. And frankly, he still is. He probably should've been an All Star this year. Last year, too. The same can't be said for J-Rich, who is settling into the twilight of his career, and Baron, who seemingly already has the proverbial fork stuck into him. This will effect our team in very real ways on the court.
But this is a trade that is far more symbolically important than anything else. Certainly, this is the transaction that begins Lacob's stewardship of the organization, and in turn, a new era of Golden State Warriors basketball. Trading away Monta meant trading away the last cornerstone of the Cohan empire. It was the old regime that chose him to carry the team to great heights, not the new one. In many ways, this move needed to happen in order to fully purge any last influences from our deeply dysfunctional former owner. At the same time, trading away Monta marked an end to the We Believe experience, which as I've said many times, was the best seven weeks of my life. With the exception of Biedrins, every single guy from that magical team is gone. With each passing day, We Believe becomes more like a mirage -- a false oasis shimmering the desert heat, causing more harm than help. I am still thirsty for meaningful basketball -- not even contention, just a playoff club. And as good as he was, Monta wasn't going to get us there. He wasn't even going to get us that close.
So now, for the umpteenth time, we have a new team. Captain Jack (briefly a Warrior again, though that, too, felt like a mirage) is on his way to San Antonio in return for Richard Jefferson and a second rounder. Bogut, if healthy, will make our frontline formidable, and Klay Thompson already seems like an exceptional player (though the Anthony Randolph experiment has made me forever wary rookie flashes of stardom). And in the end, troublingly damaged point guard Steph Curry stands as the victor in the "Who Do You Trade?" debate that existed between him and Monta Ellis starting on Day One. However, a bevy of new draft picks, a bona-fide tank-a-thon to hold onto our Top 7 protected pick in this highly hyped draft, and a roster that actually features players who can play their natural positions presents me with something I'm not sure I've ever seen in my Warriors fanhood: a real plan for the future.
And Monta? I don't know what his future holds. Brandon Jennings is all of zero inches taller than Steph Curry, and demands the ball about as much. He's joining yet another small backcourt, and all the drama such a parternship entails. Scott Skiles' taskmaster attitude might not jive with Monta, who has had softies such as Mike Montgomery, Don Nelson, Keith Smart and Mark Jackson as his professional coaches. Yet, the Bucks are a fringe playoff team, and any fringe playoff team could use a guy that can give them 22, 6 and 2 over the course of a stretch run. It's going to be up to him to make the most of Milwaukee. And I think that he will.
So when #8 (now #11) returns to the court tonight, wearing a Bucks uniform in a reunion that's happening far too soon, I won't be critical. Not one bit. That can wait. Instead, I will join other Warriors fans who will rise to their feet and cheer on a man who gave us everything that he could give in an effort to make us, and him, a winner. It's the least he deserves.
And after that, I will say goodbye, as I have done many times before.