Greg Monroe, stuck losing with Pistons, trying to stay focused before free agency

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BOSTON – Greg Monroe stood in front of his locker and wearily watched a swarm of reporters approach him.

Asking the first question, a writer prefaced his query by mentioning Monroe scoring 11 straight Pistons points and Detroit overcoming a 12-point deficit. Making a subject feel at ease by starting with a softball question is a common media tactic, and it appeared this reporter was employing it. Then, suddenly, the question’s tone took an about-face.

“Where did you guys lose the game tonight, though?” the reporter asked.

Monroe sighed, vibrating his lips together, and hesitated a few moments before describing yet another loss.

Monroe has lost 210 games in his five-year career, matching Jason Thompson for the most personal defeats since Monroe entered the league.

With Thompson’s Kings surprisingly successful and Monroe’s Pistons on a 10-game losing streak that has dropped them to 3-16, a record better than only the tanking 76ers, it seems like only a matter of time until Monroe claims sole possession of that wretched record.

But relief could be in Monroe’s sights as soon as this summer.

He accepted the Pistons’ qualifying offer – reportedly turning down more than $13.5 million per season, though he denies the reported figures – in order to become an unrestricted free agent. First-round picks rarely take qualifying offers – especially those the caliber of Monroe – and even more rarely re-sign after doing so. It seems unlikely Monroe will become one of the exceptions.

Why would Monroe want the ability to flee Detroit as quickly as possibly?

It’s been a long five years.

Monroe received DNP-CDs the first two games of his career, immediately inciting local banter that he was a bust. Turns out, he was actually the Pistons’ best player as a rookie. Later that season, Monroe was one of only six Pistons to attend a shootaround boycotted by several players in protest of coach John Kuester. The Pistons finished 30-52, the most wins they’d post with Monroe.

In his second season, Monroe appeared to be on an All-Star track. He was probably the best player in his draft class at that point, ahead of Paul George and John Wall. But the Pistons still went 25-41, which has been their best winning percentage with Monroe.

Monroe asked the Pistons to scout a promising center from Connecticut named Andre Drummond, and they drafted Drummond No. 9 overall. But Lawrence Frank stubbornly refused to start Drummond, who’d passed Monroe as the team’s top player, so the talented big men rarely played together. Detroit sunk to 29-53 in Monroe’s third year.

The Pistons fired Frank and hired Maurice Cheeks, but before the new coach could pair Monroe and Drummond, Detroit signed Josh Smith. For nearly the entire season, the Pistons jammed all three bigs into the starting lineup – a decision so disastrous I wondered whether it was a hidden form of tanking to keep a protected first-round draft pick. Monroe said the team lacked chemistry in the locker room and admitted trade speculation weighed on him. Again, the Pistons went 29-54 – and they lost the pick by one slot.

Stan Van Gundy’s hire last offseason brought big promise, but he declined to trade Smith, leaving Monroe in limbo. After serving a two-game suspension for pleading guilty to drunk driving, Monroe has been in and out of the starting lineup. His production has been uneven and regressed overall. The Pistons are 3-16.

“The things I’ve seen earlier to some more recent things, it’s shaped me,” Monroe said. “I would be lying if I said it didn’t. So, that’s why I just try to get on the court and just give it my all and focus on being the best player I can be.”

Monroe has developed a reputation for his steady approach amid chaos. As free agency looms, he’s determined to maintain it.

He permitted me just a few inquires about his contract status before politely shutting down the line of questioning.

“At this point, I’d rather not talk about it,” Monroe said.

Fair enough, but the speculation around him will not stop. There are a lot of teams that could use a talented, young big man.

Take Boston, where Monroe just scored 29 points while singlehandedly keeping the Pistons in the game late. Or the Trail Blazers, who reportedly pursued a sign-and-trade for Monroe last summer and have neither of their starting bigs – Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge – under contract beyond this season. Or the Hawks, another team linked to Monroe last offseason and who might want to shift Al Horford to power forward and/or need a replacement for free agent-to-be Paul Millsap.

All three teams could have max-level cap space – not that it’s necessarily required to nab Monroe.

I think the 6-foot-11 24-year-old with a career PER of 19.2 will command a max offer, but it’s hardly a given. He’s limited athletically, and his consistent level of play since entering the league suggests he’s relatively close to his ceiling. Though he defends well enough one-on-one and has improved on that end of the court, his defensive rotations have often been slow, and he’ll never become a traditional rim protector.

Monroe lists stability and winning as his top priorities, but money will obviously play a part in his decision – one that could come sooner than later.

After seeing so much turmoil under the Joe Dumars regime, Monroe said he didn’t want to commit long-term to a team run by people he didn’t know. The early returns under Van Gundy have been negative, potentially cementing a path laid down this summer.

By taking accepting the qualifying offer, whether or not he intended to, Monroe sent the Pistons a clear signal he wants out. But, if they received the message and look to trade him, Monroe has veto power over any deal. The catch: If traded, Monroe loses his bird rights – the ability to re-sign for higher raises and more years.

Van Gundy calls Monroe a “very good player,” and it’d be foolish to give him away. But taking modest returns, especially if the Pistons remain so far from the playoff picture, would beat losing Monroe for nothing this summer. At some point, Van Gundy will have to discuss trade options with Monroe.

That conversation is another opportunity for Monroe’s focus to be disrupted, but he’s not worried about it or any other distraction.

“At the end of the day, to me, in this business, what you do on the court matters the most,” Monroe said. “For me, that’s pretty easy to do. When I’m just asked to play the game I love and to make a great living off of it, it’s easy for me to focus on that game just be the best player that I can be.”

After more than four seasons of difficulty surrounding him, what’s another few months?

Report: Lakers feel they got played in Kawhi Leonard pursuit

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The Raptors reportedly felt Kawhi Leonard‘s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, made unreasonable requests of them before Leonard signed with the Clippers.

The Lakers, the other team that waited for and missed out on Leonard, also apparently has misgivings about the process.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

I’ve heard complaints in the days after the signing. I heard complaints from the Lakers that they got played. I heard complaints from the Raptors that Kawhi came in and asked for the sun, the moon, the stars then left them at the altar.

The implication: Leonard knew all along wasn’t signing with the Lakers, waited a week into free agency so other top free agents would commit elsewhere then announced his decision just to sabotage the Lakers.

I don’t think Leonard did that. That’d be so calculating and sinister.

But I don’t know. We really don’t have much insight into how the famously secretive Leonard operates. I can’t rule it out.

Also, if Leonard did execute a devious plan to spite the Lakers, it’d look a lot like his actual free agency went.

Of course, nobody forced the Lakers to wait a week for Leonard. There had been longstanding reports Leonard didn’t want to play with LeBron James. The Lakers could have followed the Knicks model of dropping the Leonard pursuit to sign other players.

This is the calculus small-market teams must do frequently. They often bow out of star races, lacking confidence about succeeding.

The Lakers (often incorrectly) believe they can get anyone.

In this case, they were correct to chase Leonard until the end. He’s that big of a prize. Leonard is arguably the NBA’s best player. He can transform any franchise. The Lakers could also offer Leonard his desired Southern California locale and an opportunity to inform an incredible top trio with LeBron and Anthony Davis. For better or worse, that differentiated the Lakers from the Clippers.

The plan just didn’t work. Getting to the Clippers was clearly Leonard’s priority. He convinced George to join him, even moving a meeting with the Lakers so he could meet nearby with George unseen. That probably adds to the Lakers’ suspicion.

I don’t mind the Lakers venting. It must have been frustrating to miss out on Leonard.

Most importantly, they took care of business in the aftermath. The Lakers signed some good role players, chiefly Danny Green.

Their roster would likely look better now if they never pursued Leonard. But that opportunity cost was absolutely worth the potential upside of landing Leonard.

Report: Celtics complained about 76ers tampering with Al Horford

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Kyrie Irving was thinking about leaving the Celtics in December, according to Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Rumors of Irving leaving Boston had gotten so intense by February, he practically admitted he was open to leaving. Even Celtics president Danny Ainge said he got the impression by March or April that Irving could leave. By early June, it was apparent Irving wouldn’t re-sign. By mid June, it was clear he’d sign with Brooklyn. Irving announced July 1, the second day of free agency, he chose the Nets.

Al Horford‘s exit from Boston came more suddenly.

He declined a $30,123,015 player option that had to be exercised by June 18. The Celtics were on board with that, hoping to re-sign him to a long-term deal, presumably with a cheaper starting salary but more overall compensation. But the same day, a report emerged he’d leave Boston. Horford reportedly believed a four-year, $100 million contract awaited him in free agency. On the first day of free agency, he agreed to a four-year deal with the 76ers that guarantees $97 million and could be worth $109 million.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The Celtics were, from what I am told, one of the teams that kind of stomped their feet about what they felt was tampering. Not with Kyrie, although that looked like it was lined up pretty far in advance. But with Horford. What happened with Horford – again, from what I am told – really upset the Celtics, that they were thinking they were going to be able to negotiate with him, talk to him about a new contract, and all of a sudden, it was like he already knew what his market was and was out of there.

The Celtics are hypocrites.

By June 26, Boston had become clear favorite to sign Kemba Walker. By June 29, he had reportedly told the Hornets he’d sign with the Celtics.

Again, free agency began June 30.

How does that happen without Boston tampering?

This is the game. Teams are generally clear to talk to players after the season, even though that’s technically against the rules. The Celtics cut the same corners as nearly everyone else. It’s ludicrous for Boston to complain about Horford’s departure, as if Walker didn’t arrive the same way.

The NBA hasn’t announced any fine for Philadelphia. But the league doesn’t announce all tampering violations.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is correct: This system is broken. The league’s tampering rules are vague and arbitrarily enforced. The NBA should set realistic rules then enforce them fully.

Rumor: Marcus Morris left agent Rich Paul over backing out of Spurs deal to join Knicks

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Thes are the facts on the ground: Powerful agent Rich Paul negotiated a two-year, $20 million contract for Marcus Morris with the Spurs, and he verbally agreed to it. The Spurs made a series of moves to clear out the cap space to honor that agreement. However, by the time the moratorium ended and players could sign deals, Morris had started to move on and soon reached a new, one-year, $15 million contract with the Knicks. A few days later, Morris and Paul parted ways.

Now the rumors are starting to come in around how that went down.

The buzz at Summer League was Morris was disappointed with the market for his services, which he thought would be more robust. He took the Spurs offer that Paul set up, but when the Knicks came with $5 million more per year on a one-year deal — which makes Morris a free agent again in a much weaker class next summer — he wanted it. Paul, however, was not part of those talks and urged him to stick with the original Spurs deal, according to Marc Berman of New York Post.

Morris’ super-agent, Rich Paul, was not involved directly in Morris breaking his verbal agreement with the Spurs, according to a source, and the Knicks and Morris worked on a new deal together. The source reports Paul preferred Morris stick to his original agreement and the two are headed toward a breakup over the incident.

Morris’ move did not sit well with teams executives I spoke to at Summer League. Not because he backed out of a deal, that does happen (it’s not common, but it’s not unheard of), but because in this case the Spurs moved on from Davis Bertans and made roster moves to clear the cap space for Morris they would not otherwise have made.

Morris has made a bet on himself that there is a bigger, better contract for him next summer after he puts up numbers in New York (plus he gets $5 million more this season). We’ll see how that plays out.

Reports: Tristan Thompson will not play for Canada at World Cup; Rui Hachimura will play for Japan

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With national teams getting close to heading to training camp for the FIBA World Cup (which starts at the end of August), rosters are starting to shake out. For example, we know Anthony Davis will not play for Team USA, and Ben Simmons is out for Australia.

Now comes some more updates.

First, big man Tristan Thompson will not suit up for Canada, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Canada will still field a team made up almost entirely of NBA players. They should have a deep run in the World Cup.

Meanwhile, Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura will suit up for Japan, according to the Wizards official website.

Now, his attention turns to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, where Hachimura will lead the Japanese national team ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The FIBA World Cup tips off August 31 in China, and is not only the world championship but this time around also the primary qualifier for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Close to home, USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.