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?

Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 13 rebounds and the Milwaukee Bucks surged to a 24-point lead in the second quarter in a 133-86 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The 47-point loss was the Thunder’s worst of the season.

Chris Paul scored 18 points for Oklahoma City.

Both teams were without their second-leading scorers. Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton was a late scratch with a sore neck. An ankle injury kept Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari out.

The Bucks had won four in a row and the Thunder had won five straight.

The Bucks built their second-quarter lead behind 14 second-quarter points from Antetokounmpo, seven from Donte DiVincenzo, who started in place of Middleton, and back-to-back 3-pointers from Wesley Matthews.

A key moment occurred late in the second period.

With Milwaukee leading, 54-43, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer got a technical foul after approaching a referee during a timeout with 3:43 left in the quarter. That was moments after Eric Bledsoe was called for a charging foul that irked Budenholzer. After that, the Bucks went on a 17-4 run and led 71-47 at halftime.

Milwaukee outrebounded Oklahoma City, 67-36.

The Bucks made a season-high 21 3-pointers. The Thunder were 6 for 35 on 3-pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shrugs off James Harden dig: ‘I’m just trying to do my job’

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There is some meat to the James Harden/Giannis Antetokounmpo beef.

Harden was pissed Antetokounmpo won Most Valuable Player over him last year and vented about it. When it came to this year’s All-Star Game, captian Antetokounmpo drafted Kemba Walker over Harden while joking he wanted someone who’d pass. After his team lost the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo said his team’s strategy was to get the ball to whomever Harden was guarding and attack.

Harden ramped up the skirmish of words Friday when speaking to Rachel Nichols of ESPN, saying:

“I wish I could just run, run and was 7-feet and run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.”

Antetokounmpo decided to let it die when ESPN asked pregame about what Harden said.

“I’m not the type of guy to take stabs at somebody. … I’m just trying to do my job which is win games and go back home to my family. At the end of the day, if that’s what he believes that’s what he believes. I can’t say anything about it. I’ve just got to keep being focused.”

If you’re circling dates on your calendar, March 25 is what you’re looking for, the day the Bucks host the Rockets.

Harden should believe he is the best player in the game — you don’t get to be where he is without that level of confidence. Antetokounmpo should believe the same thing about himself. We could say the same things about LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and a host of others. It’s part of what makes them great, and not a surprise.

If the MVP thing is eating at Harden he might not like this season’s outcome any better. While I haven’t done a poll, most voters I’ve spoken to have The Beard third behind Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. There’s still more than six weeks of basketball before votes are cast — and the Rockets as a team are surging — but right now, the Greek Freak looks like a repeat winner from what I am hearing.

Rockets protested game despite Tilman Fertitta’s dissent

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta talks big about his devotion to winning.

But when Houston had a chance to turn a loss into a victory by protesting due to an uncounted James Harden dunk, Fertitta balked.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“That’s my basketball people who got mad at ’em. Honestly, I don’t think we should have filed the protest because honestly we blew the 22-point lead. But if something is important to my players and basketball ops people, I give them a lot of leeway.”

I wonder whether Fertitta would have publicly shared his stance if the protest succeeded. I also wonder whether how supported Fertitta’s basketball employees feel considering he’s publicly revealing that he wasn’t on their side.

But this is actually one of the more encouraging stories of Fertitta’s ownership. He allowed room for debate. He listened to the other side. He posted the $10,000 protest fee.

It didn’t pay off this time, but that’s how good owners operate.

As expected, Rockets sign veteran Jeff Green for remainder of season

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Before they committed fully, Houston signed free agent Jeff Green to a 10-day contract. They just wanted to make sure the veteran forward was a fit in their small-ball system.

It turns out, he was a perfect fit.

Through four games, playing a little more than 19 minutes a game, Green averaged 9.8 points a game on a ridiculous 89.6 true shooting percentage. That’s not sustainable (he’s shooting 61.5 percent from three), but it was enough for the Rockets to sign Green for the remainder of the season, something the team announced Friday.

Green, at 6’8″, played on the wing most of his career. However, with the Rockets he backs up P.J. Tucker at center.

Green started the season a member of the Utah Jazz, but the fit there was not as clean. While he averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances, the Jazz ultimately waived him to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker.

This contract only runs through the end of this season, but the Rockets could re-sign Green for next season, if the sides agree this summer. For now, the focus is on the Rockets’ hot streak and building on that as the league moves toward the postseason.