"I would have to say my last time feeling like this was 2007, when we made the playoffs," Ellis said Monday, referring to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, who upset the top-seeded Mavs in the first round. "This happy? 2007."
Ellis, who rarely reveals much to the media, was in a reflective mood as the Mavs prepared for a trip that begins Tuesday at Golden State.
Ellis, who feels rejuvenated from playing for a successful franchise that is fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the Western Conference, recalled struggling with the pressure of being the face of young Golden State teams that weren't good enough to compete for playoff berths. The Warriors made the playoffs only once during Ellis' 6½-season tenure with the team.
"I cherish my great years that I had at Golden State," said Ellis, who is averaging 18.9 points and 5.8 assists for the 38-26 Mavs. "The bad ones that I had, it took me so far in a deep hole that at some point basketball wasn't even basketball to me. It was more of a business. Being away and coming here really brought joy back to me, to want to enjoy the game and love to be in the gym and work and want to get better.
"In this league, you go through your ups and your downs, your sunny days and your dark days. It's just that I was young and really was stubborn to get help, because I always did things on [my] own. Even for me to get in the gym and work hard and get where I am now, I did it on my own. Nobody had to push me. Nobody had to beg me. Nobody had to do anything. I did it on my own. When I was going through that stress, I wanted to get through it on my own."
The Warriors, choosing to rebuild around Stephen Curry, opted to trade Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks in a March 2012 deal that brought center Andrew Bogut to Golden State. Ellis acknowledges the trade was in the best interests of the Warriors, who returned to the playoffs and won a series last season for the first time since 2007.
Meanwhile, Ellis spent a miserable season-and-a-half in Milwaukee, which made the playoffs with a 38-44 record but was swept by the Miami Heat in the first round last season. His field goal percentage plummeted to a career-low 41.6 in 2012-13, causing alarm in the NBA analytics community and resulting in Ellis being labeled a selfish, one-dimensional scorer.
However, Ellis desperately wanted to win, so much so that he cost himself a lot of money by leaving Milwaukee this summer. He turned down a three-year, $36 million offer from the Bucks and signed a three-year, $25.1 million deal with Dallas.
"It's not even about the money," Ellis said. "One thing about me: If I wasn't getting paid to play basketball, I'd still be playing basketball. So I don't do it for the money. I do it for the love, the joy and the win.
"Milwaukee, I didn't know what they wanted to do. This season [with the Bucks having the NBA's worst record] tells it all, that I made the right decision to leave that money on the table, to come over here and be with a winning organization and be happy."
Ellis, 28, a nine-year veteran, has emerged as a capable sidekick for Dirk Nowitzki, who calls Ellis the most dynamic penetrator he's ever played alongside. Ellis is shooting 45.5 percent this season, his best field goal percentage since 2007-08.
"We love him," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He's been a godsend for us. He fits what we're doing, he fits with Dirk. He's been extremely coachable. He's our leading minutes guy, so in many ways you could say he's as important as any guy we've got on this team.
"And it says a lot that he says, 'Look, it's not all about money. It's about getting to a situation that's best for me, where I can be a part of a team growing and winning.' You've got to respect those things."
Ellis said he wishes Golden State well and appreciates the warm welcome Warriors fans give him when he returns, but he said he no longer feels any extra emotion when he plays his former team.
"Those days are behind me," Ellis said. "I'm feeling good. I'm glad I'm in a happy place."