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?

Gordon Hayward does not plan to leave bubble for birth of son

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When Boston first went to the NBA restart bubble in Orlando, Gordon Hayward was upfront: He was leaving the bubble for the birth of his fourth child.

Hayward ended up leaving the bubble for another reason — he severely sprained his ankle and was out for more than a month. During his rehab, Hayward left the bubble and spent time at home, returning a couple of weeks ago. Saturday he played his first game back for Boston, helping it to a win against the Heat.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, has yet to have their son, but now Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble for the event, something first reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN during Saturday’s game.

Hayward confirmed this after the game. So did Robyn in a social media post, adding the reports she was in labor already were not true.

I don’t envy the Hayward family having to make this choice. As a parent, I can’t imagine having missed the births of any of my children, but, like everything else in 2020, this is far from a typical decision at a typical time. The Haywards are making the best of it they can. They deserve support no matter what they choose.

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one, “I missed that on purpose.” 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. — he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game on Saturday night.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.