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?