Yesterday marked the 24th anniversary of Dale Ellis becoming the first player in NBA history to reach 1000 career three-pointers made.
Then, a starting shooting guard for San Antonio Spurs Ellis achieved the historic feat by pairing two triples in the 107-100 Spurs win over visiting Sacramento Kings on March 19th, 1994.
Coming into the NBA from the University of Tennessee, Ellis was no more than just another small forward player who would help Dallas Mavericks to back-up their franchise player and the leading star at the time – Mark Aguirre.
According to Ellis, what essentially changed the course of his complete NBA career was the advice he received from Mavericks’ head coach Dick Motta. One of the ten most winningest coaches in NBA history told him that each time he’s close to the three-point line he should step behind the line and shoot it.
Although he listened to Motta’s advice and developed his outside game, alongside with another Mavericks’ super-sub Detlef Schempf, Ellis didn’t receive the real opportunity in Texas – in three seasons with the Mavs’ he started the total of SEVEN NBA regular-season games while averaging 8.2 points in 16.4 minutes per contest.
It was Seattle Supersonics who recognized the diamond in the rough and brought the sharp-shooting Mav into their rejuvenated squad, to start in the backcourt with young point guard Nate McMillan.
In his very first Sonics’ season (1986-87) Ellis would immediately blossom in coach Bickestaff’s system which promoted him as one of the primary offensive options. That season he would start 76 games for the Sonics while averaging 24.9 points and 5.5 boards per contest in 37.5 minutes per game.
The highlight of this breakthrough season for Ellis, who was voted 1987 NBA’s Most Improved Player, was the first-round match-up with his ex-team – Dallas Mavericks. It was Ellis who became the X-factor and puzzled the Mavericks defense throughout the entire series thus providing the ‘spark plug’ for the Sonics’ elimination of Mavericks.
But Dallas was not the last station on the 1987 Sonics’ play-off road schedule – before they lost the Western Conference final to the eventual NBA champions L.A. Lakers the took down the 1986 NBA finalists – Houston Rockets which featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson!
Accompanied by skillful and dynamic forwards Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers, Ellis would form one of the most formidable scoring NBA trios of the 1980s, which during the course of the following 1987-88 regular season combined for 67.6 of Sonics’ points per game.
After Chambers’s departure to the Phoenix Suns for the 1988-89 season, Ellis would enjoy the finest season of his entire NBA career. He would score career-high 27.5 points in career-high 38.9 minutes per outing while converting 47.8% of his three-point tries and thus completely transforming the perception of the NBA’s shooting guard.
The ultimate highlight of his career would come in the 1989 All-Star weekend in Houston. First, he became the first player to win the NBA All-Star NBA shooting contest after a three-year-long rule of Larry Bird. On Sunday, he started the All-Star game for the winning Western Conference All-Stars and led all players with a game-high 28 points.
Ellis would continue his streak of great shooting performances during the 1989-90 NBA season. In one of the most remarkable games of that season and his entire career, Ellis would score career-high 53 POINTS while playing league record 69 MINUTES in the 154-155 5OT loss to Milwaukee Bucks on November 9th, 1989.
Nevertheless, Sonics would focus on the reconstruction of the team for the 1990s and after selecting Derrick McKey (1987), Shawn Kemp (1989) and Gary Payton (1990) during the first half of the 1990-91 season they traded both Xavier McDaniel (to Phoenix Suns) and Dale Ellis (to Milwaukee Bucks).
Interestingly enough, at the turn of the decades, Ellis was the NBA shooting guard who’s game and on-court solutions provided solid guidelines for the future Nets’ star, Drazen Petrovic, in his own effort to revive his NBA career after coming to New Jersey from Portland. It is safe to say, the person who guided the two was their individual offensive coach Tom Newell, son of the legendary Naismith Hall of fame coach Pete Newell.
Back in 2014., when he was interviewed about the legendary Drazen Petrovic for the book ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’ Ellis shared the deep thought about Drazen, but which also helps define Ellis’ game and reflects his role in the reconstruction of the shooting guard position in the NBA history:
Shooting is a dying art and his shot was an art form.
In Milwaukee, he would never find ‘his place under the sun’ entering the game for almost exclusively from the bench to provide the offensive spark for Milwaukee Bucks’ 2nd unit.
That would change in the summer of 1992 when Ellis became a member of the San Antonio Spurs squad which was very aware of his lethal potential in converting the threes after the double teams on their star center David Robinson. Ellis, who would start games regularly for Spurs, returned the favor by hitting 39.7% of his three-point shots during his two-year stay with a title contender.
From San Antonio, Ellis would move on to Denver to play three more productive seasons, while providing veteran leadership and spark for the young Nuggets’, before his strip back north to Seattle for 1997-98 and 1998-99 campaigns. In the State of Washington, he would reunite his backcourt forces with, by then experienced, Sonics’ star Gary Payton.
In 1999-2000, the closing season of his 17-year long NBA journey Ellis would combine for 42 games for Charlotte and Milwaukee. Again in Bucks’ uniform, he would provide vital pieces of advice to a player he considers one of the last pure shooters in NBA history – Ray Allen.
Murray A. is BN contributor and the author of the book about legendary NBA guard Drazen Petrovic ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’ which can be found here.