It took a while for Dale Ellis to get cooking in the NBA. Drafted ninth overall in 1983, Ellis would spend the first three years of his career buried on the bench of the Dallas Mavericks. In his limited time on court (16.4 minutes per game), Ellis provided the Mavs with instant offense averaging 8.2 points per game. Dallas had no real need for Ellis at the time, though. With Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre occupying the shooting guard and small forward spots, Ellis could never crack the starting lineup or gain significant playing time.
Fortunately for Dale Ellis, a trade in the summer of 1986 sent him from Dallas to Seattle and from the bench to NBA stardom. Ellis averaged 25 PPG that first year with the Super Sonics and had such luminous performances as 32 points on 13 shots in 28 minutes; and 40 points on 19 shots. More of the same flowed from Ellis through the 1989-90 season. During that four-year stretch in Seattle, Dale averaged 25.6 PPG. He peaked in 1988-89 with 27.5 PPG and his lone selections to both, the All-NBA 3rd Team and the All-Star squad.
Curiously, while Ellis was averaging career highs in minutes and points these seasons, he was also averaging career highs in field goal percentage. During this torrid peak in Seattle, he never shot below 49.7% from the field and in 1989 he shot a ridiculous 47.8% from downtown on over 4 attempts per game. No one in the history of the NBA (except Kyle Korver… and JOE JOHNSON!) has taken as many three-pointers a game and shot as high a percentage as Ellis did that season.
Behind Ellis’s hot shooting, Xavier McDaniel’s hot-headed drives, and Tom Chambers’s dynamite dunks, the Super Sonics of the late 1980s proved highly entertaining and somewhat super successful. In their first season as a trio, Ellis, McDaniel, and Chambers caught fire (and some lucky breaks) in the playoffs and made the Western Conference Finals despite 39 regular wins.
And in the 1987 postseason Ellis received a huge measure of revenge in defeating his former team the Dallas Mavericks. In the four-game series, Ellis averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 56% FG, 50% 3PT% and 84% FT. Safe to say Dallas had no answer for the stone-faced Ellis.
The Sonics made the playoffs the two following seasons, but by 1991 that core was broken up and Ellis was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. For the rest of his career, including stops in San Antonio, Denver, Charlotte and return trips to Seattle and Milwaukee, Ellis would largely play the role of key reserve with 14.5 PPG for the rest of his career.
Ellis retired in 2000 with just a touch over 19,000 career points. At the time he was 34th on the all-time points leader board for NBA players. He scored those points in a variety of ways. He was quick and deceptive off the ball gathering easy mid-range jumpers and layups off cuts. He was also capable off the dribble and posting up leading to further easy buckets.
After all, no one scores 19,000 points on just three pointers.
But what made Ellis unique, special, and Hall of Fame worthy was indeed his way of shooting and nailing three-pointers. His expert use of the shot as integral part of his arsenal was truly revolutionary for the NBA.
Let’s just take his aggregates and accuracy step-by-step.
In 1986, Ellis ranked 19th all-time in 3-pointers made (117) despite barely getting off the Mavericks bench. Tellingly he was 3rd in 3PT% at that point with a 37.6% mark.
In 1991 the season he was traded from the Sonics, Ellis in spite of a huge rise in attempts still held firm at 6th in 3PT% (40.0%). And with that huge rise in attempts (and an increase in accuracy) he had vaulted into 2nd all-time in 3-pointers made (625).
By 1996, Ellis had become the first NBA player to make over 1000 threes and had sat atop the all-time 3-point standings for several seasons. In making his 1269 three-pointers to that point Ellis was still raising the bar on his accuracy with a 40.3% clip now.
By the time he retired in 2000, Ellis had been supplanted by Reggie Miller (1867 threes made) atop the leader board, but with his 1719 makes Dale was still in 2nd place and far ahead of the next closest player. And he retired with that 40.3% accuracy in tact.
As the three-point shot has achieved greater prominence, Ellis has fallen further down the board. He’s currently 10th in threes made, but it’s important to note two things:
1) None of the players above him shot the three-ball more accurately than his 40.3% and
2) You gotta go down to #66 on the list (Derek Harper) to find a player who started playing in the NBA mid-1980s like Ellis did.
He was a man of his time, who happened to also point the way to the NBA’s future. Indeed he helped blaze the way for the three-point shooter who could control a game. And if the Hall of Fame is made for anything, it’s certainly made for trail blazers.
Most Improved Player (1987)
All-NBA 3rd Team (1989)
Regular Season (1209 Games):
Playoffs (73 Games):