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: Knicks, Lakers, Clippers will pursue Kevin Durant in free agency

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The Warriors are reportedly bracing for Kevin Durant to leave in free agency next summer.

Just because of the New York rumors? Maybe. They’re spreading like wildfire.

But the Knicks won’t be the only team chasing Durant.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will take a run at the back-to-back Finals MVP, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, every team wants Durant. But not every team will actually pursue him. Many teams believe they have no chance of signing him and won;t waste their time.

It’s probably not coincidental this early list of suitors includes only the very biggest markets. Durant already plays for the best team in a desirable location. How do you differentiate yourself from Golden State? Maybe by being in an even bigger market.

The Clippers are reportedly the frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard. Could they get Durant, too? That’d be intriguing.

The Lakers are definitely looking to get LeBron James a star teammate, and Durant’s name has at least come up. But Durant is already dogged by the perception he’s just riding the Warriors’ coattails. He wouldn’t change the narrative by joining LeBron.

The Knicks don’t even project to have max cap space, though they’d rush to move Courtney Lee or someone else to get Durant. But this is already the worst team on the list. New York is going to further deplete its assets while remaining appealing to Durant? Hey, it could happen.

Or maybe Durant will look at these teams and see has it pretty good in Golden State.

It could also go the other way. If Durant gives even the slightest indication he’s interested teams not yet planning to pursue him, they’d jump to get into the race. So, don’t assume Warriors, Knicks, Lakers and Clippers is anything more than the preliminary pool of vying teams.

Report: Jimmy Butler trade talks ‘mostly dormant’

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly raised his asking price for Jimmy Butler after the star’s explosive return to practice.

Unsurprisingly, potential trade partners – who already weren’t offering enough to satisfy Minnesota – didn’t rush to meet Thibodeau’s new demands. Not even close, apparently.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

For now, Minnesota’s talks with teams around the NBA are mostly dormant, league sources told The Athletic.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Butler reached an agreement: Minnesota would continue to try to trade Butler, and Butler would be a good teammate and play hard.

But how long will this détente last if the Timberwolves aren’t making progress on a trade?

Watch Kelly Olynyk’s game-winning putback with 0.2 seconds left for Miami

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All game long Miami owned the glass — the Heat grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots on Thursday night. That led to 16 more shot attempts and nine more free throws by the Heat than the Wizards on the night.

And it led to this, the game-winning putback from Kelly Olynyk with 0.2 seconds left.

 

Wizards fans need to admit it — they missed Dwight Howard inside (he is out with a butt injury, yes seriously). Without his presence (he’s still a quality rebounder), the Heat just outworked the Wizards on the glass and that ended up being the difference.

Three Things to Know: Will Lakers’ lack of shooting spoil more than LeBron’s debut?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers’ shooting clanks off rim, ruins LeBron James’ Laker debut. Will it ruin more? Since the day LeBron took his talents to South Beach the formula has been the same: Surround LeBron with shooters, including bigs so teams can go four out around him, space the floor and let LeBron carve up defenses and find those shooters. The result was eight straight trips to the Finals.

Magic Johnson sold LeBron on a different philosophy if he came to Los Angeles — fill the roster with other playmakers. “It takes the pressure off of him. He doesn’t have to make every play. That’s what wears him out, what wears him down,.. We’ve got guys that can make plays on their own so he can relax on offense some. And also, we’re a fast-breaking team, so we’re not just going to be throwing it down to him. We’re going to be out and running.”

In the Lakers’ first game, the lack of shooting was critical to their 128-119 loss. The Lakers were 7-of-30 from three in the game (23.3 percent) and 0-of-7 on corner threes. Brandon Ingram missed a couple wide-open corner threes early and was 0-of-4 from deep. Kyle Kuzma was 1-of-7, Lance Stephenson 0-of-3, Lonzo Ball 1-of-4. Throw in that the Lakers were 17-of-44 (38.6 percent) as a team on uncontested shots overall for the night (stat via Cleaning the Glass), and you have the portrait of a team that can’t knock down shots.

That lack of shooting proved to be an issue later when Rondo and Stephenson tried to initiate the offense but struggled to find passing lanes to cutters because defenders sagged off and dared them to shoot.

There were plenty of positives for the Lakers. That started with LeBron himself, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds on the night.

Also, the Lakers played fast and things worked when they did — 24.2 percent of Laker possessions started in transition and they scored a ridiculous 1.71 points per possession on those. Plus, they were just fun to watch at that pace.

But it was in the halfcourt that the offense bogged down (0.89 points per play). It wasn’t just the shooting that was a problem, the Lakers struggled on the glass (especially when they went small) and Portland grabbed the offensive rebound on 37.5 percent of their missed shots. The Lakers’ lack of continuity showed as well, particularly on defense.

Portland was rusty, too, but the Blazers shot 13-of-37 from three, 35.1 percent, which is not fantastic, but they made six more threes than the Lakers and that goes a long way to a nine-point win.

Magic compared this roster he and Pelinka built to Showtime and all the playmakers they had — and I’ll give him this, the roster the Lakers have now is fun. It’s entertaining. When they play fast you want to tune in, and they scored 70 points in the paint.

But the game has evolved since the ‘80s. Shooting matters. A lot. (And those Lakers had shooters, from Jamal Wilkes in the corner through Byron Scott, but we digress.) The Lakers are going to have better shooting nights than they did in Portland, but this trend of not shooting well enough likely is not going away and is going to cost them more in a deep West loaded with teams who like to bomb-away from three. The Lakers’ shooting is going to be an ongoing issue.

Next up for Los Angeles? Houston. The three-point disparity may be even worse… but that is going to be an entertaining game to watch.

2) Watch Miami’s Kelly Olynyk’s game-winning putback with 0.2 seconds left on the clock. Dare we say it: The Washington Wizards missed Dwight Howard in this one. A scrappy Miami team grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots on Thursday night and that was the difference in the game — including the game-winner from Kelly Olynyk.

Olynyk saves some of his best games for Washington. Remember Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when then-Celtic Olynyk went off for 26 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, to get Boston the win? Wizards fans do.

3) Markelle Fultz hit an in-rhythm pull-up three, and at that point the skies parted, a rainbow appeared, and angels sang. All game long Thursday, Sixers fans were imploring Markelle Fultz to shoot and to trust himself. Take the open shot.

Then this happened — Fultz’s first three as a Sixer.

That earned pretty much a standing ovation from the Philly crowd.

Fultz was 5-of-15 shooting on the night and was just 2-of-9 outside the paint — there is still work to do. A lot of it. But the fact that Fultz kept pulling the trigger and led the Sixers in shot attempts at 15 can be taken as a good sign.

There was one other interesting reclamation project in that game — Zach LaVine, coming off that torn ACL, dropped 30 points in a losing effort.