Associated Press

Greg Monroe swinging fortunes for Bucks, Pistons and himself

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy is unequivocal in his praise of Greg Monroe.

“He’s certainly worth the max,” Van Gundy said. “There’s not a question with that.”

But that wasn’t the only question, because Detroit wasn’t among the teams – Bucks, Knicks, Lakers and Trail Blazers – Monroe’s agent said offered a max contract in free agency last summer.

Monroe signed a three-year max deal with Milwaukee, switching sides in the Eastern Conference’s saddest race. The Pistons (seven years) and Bucks (five years) have gone longest in the conference without a winning record. As both teams try to transition from cellar dweller to upstart, a few questions about Monroe highlight the roads to redemption in Milwaukee and Detroit – and the NBA’s changing financial landscape:

How much is he worth to the Bucks?

How much would he have been worth to the Pistons?

And how much will he be worth in two or three years?

Monroe’s value in Milwaukee

Milwaukee appeared on the verge of breakthrough last season, going a shocking 41-41 and winning two of its final three playoff games against the Bulls.

The Bucks signed Monroe to add interior scoring and help on the glass, and he’s doing that. His 15.8 points on 51.2% shooting and 9.9 rebounds per game are in line with his career averages.

But Milwaukee’s defense has slipped from 2nd to 26th.

That’s certainly not all Monroe’s fault. The Bucks have allowed fewer points per possession with Monroe on the court. Still, they don’t defend well when he plays. The slow-footed center has struggled in their aggressive trapping scheme. He just can’t cover that much ground quickly enough.

The problem is wider than Monroe, though. Milwaukee is struggling to integrate all its newcomers – including Greivis Vasquez, Chris Copeland and Damien Inglis (who missed all of last season due to injury). Here are the Bucks’ defensive ratings, per NBAwowy!:

  • Last season: 102.8
  • This season: 108.0
  • This season with only returning players on court: 99.1

Milwaukee has sacrificed too much defense for a little more offensive punch. Maybe without Vasquez and Copeland, Monroe’s defense would be more tolerable. But Vasquez and Copeland space the floor with outside shooting, a key issue for the Bucks.

They need better defense and 3-point shooting, and Monroe provides too little of the former and none of the latter. At this point, his inside scoring seems like a luxury.

Milwaukee has defended better lately, including with Monroe on the court. But the effects have been multiplied with John Henson playing instead.

Until power forward Jabari Parker adds more 3 and D to his game, both of which should come, Jason Kidd faces a challenge maximizing Monroe’s value. At least it’s headed in the right direction.

That wasn’t necessarily the case with the Pistons.

Monroe’s value in Detroit

Monroe once asked the Pistons to scout Andre Drummond, then a promising freshman at Connecticut.

That might have eventually contributed to Monroe’s exit from Detroit.

When the Pistons drafted Drummond just three years ago, power forwards and centers were mostly interchangeable. It seemed the more-polished Monroe and more-athletic Drummond would complement each other well. Bigger, Drummond was clearly a center. Monroe could play power forward.

But the NBA has gone smaller, and Drummond developed more quickly than nearly anyone projected. Next summer, the Pistons will certainly offer him a max contract.

That created a problem with Monroe.

“His best position is at center. He knew that. We knew that,” Van Gundy said. “So, what of your resources are you going to tie up at basically one position? Or were you willing to play with two centers in a league that’s going the other way?”

Kidd was similarly direct in declaring Monroe’s position.

“Greg is one of the top centers in the game,” Kidd said.

Van Gundy credited Monroe with making the most of a difficult situation, playing with Drummond (not to mention the times Josh Smith, a power forward, shared the court with the two). Monroe, steady as always, shrugged off any concern.

“We all did the best we could,” Monroe said.

That’s much easier for the Pistons now.

They traded for Ersan Ilyasova – a stretch four – by absorbing his salary into space vacated by Monroe. Now, Reggie Jackson (19.3 points and 6.3 assists per game) and Drummond (18.0 points and 16.7 rebounds per game) have plenty of room to run pick-and-rolls, and Drummond can even post up a bit more. Plus, the Pistons are less likely to compete with each other for rebounds, allowing non-Drummond players to handle other responsibilities.

There are diminishing returns with pairing two centers. Drummond is no longer feeling them.

But the Pistons’ scoring is down. While their offense may look smoother, it’s less effective. This floor-spreading style has a higher ceiling, but Drummond and Monroe crashing the paint and offensive glass – while more brutal on the eyes – worked a little better.

Essentially, the Pistons exchanged talent for fit and flexibility.

“There was never a time that we didn’t think that Greg was worth the money based on his performance,” Van Gundy said. “…The issue that wouldn’t go away is, in the long run – Greg’s an outstanding player, and he’s a great person – the issue in the long run for our organization is, were were going to pay huge money for two centers?”

Van Gundy said the Pistons considered trying to re-sign Monroe in part as a trade asset. But after studying similar situations, Van Gundy determined that route was too unlikely to pay off. Instead of flipping a player for a quality asset, Van Gundy found teams typically sold low in those situations.

He specifically cited Dwight Howard and Omer Asik. The Rockets kept Asik, their incumbent starting center, for a season after signing Howard.

But that case is an outlier. In limited minutes, Howard and Asik were dreadful together, producing offensive/defensive/net ratings of 88.6/104.9/-16.3. Monroe and Drummond had already proven themselves a better fit together. Plus, Houston eventually traded Asik to the Pelicans for a protected first-round pick that became Sam Dekker, not an insignificant return.

All the Pistons got for losing Monroe was the cap space to acquire Ilyasova and the knowledge they won’t be hamstrung with two highly paid centers if one – almost certainly Monroe – couldn’t be traded.

In many ways, it was the safe route.

Monroe took all the risk.

Monroe’s value in two or three years

Thirteen players – LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Monroe – signed a max contract or extension last summer. Additionally, seven other players – Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Tristan Thompson, Draymond Green, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight and Iman Shumpert – signed their second NBA contract (typically the first opportunity to earn major money) with a starting salary of at least $8 million.

Only LeBron and Monroe can re-enter free-agency before 2018.

For all the talk of players seeking shorter contracts in anticipation of a rapidly rising salary cap, few took advantage.

Monroe got that opportunity by accepting the qualifying offer – a one-year, $5,479,934 contract – rather than taking a much bigger long-term deal with Detroit. That allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent last summer, which made signing his max deal with Milwaukee feasible.

Now, he’s again banking on less guaranteed money. Instead of securing a four-year contract, he took just a three-year deal with a player option.

When did Monroe become such a risk taker?

“I can understand why you say it’s a risk,” Monroe said. “But to me, I put in the work every day. I’m showing up. So, I believe in myself and I understand what I can do and my capabilities. So, to me, it’s not taking a risk. It’s just a business decision.”

It’s certainly one that could pay off.

Monroe will make$33,553,338 the next two seasons, and he’ll have a $17,884,176 player option for 2016-17. If he opts out and signs a new max deal in 2017, it could start at more than $30 million and pay about $175 million over five years.

Monroe might not be a max player in 2017 as a larger cap increases variance in player salary, and the NBA and union are discussing changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that could alter any present-day projections. But whatever the exact machinations, a ton of national TV money is flowing into the system.

As long he continues to produce like he has – defensive questions included – he’s going to get paid.

But Monroe didn’t accept the qualifying offer just for a big salary. It also allowed him to leave Detroit, where he spent a lot of time losing.

Yet, his Bucks (9-14) are looking up at the Pistons (12-11) in the standings.

Milwaukee is feeling the loss of dependable veterans like Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley and Ilyasova. A Monroe-led younger core could carry the Bucks to great heights, but they’ve first taken a step back.

Detroit is feeling itself out, still transitioning to Van Gundy’s system. Additional spacing hasn’t immediately created higher scoring.

And Monroe is feeling growing pains on a new team. Kidd isn’t bending his defense just for Monroe.

But, it seems with Monroe on the Bucks, everyone is in the right spot.

“He’s a perfect fit for them, absolutely,” Van Gundy said. “And he would be for most people.

“I don’t think there’s been any doubt about that, that it’s been good for him.

“And we hope in the long run, it’s going to be good for us.”

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.

Magic reveal orange uniforms

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It’s already difficult enough to flip on an NBA game and quickly determine which team is which. The home team could be wearing any color, so the same is true of road teams. Each team has had so many alternate jerseys in recent years. It’s disorienting.

Now, the Magic – whose primary colors have always been and remain blue, black, white and gray – might be wearing orange?

At least Orlando, because of the fruit (and, I guess, if you want to stretch it, sunshine), has a real connection to orange. That’s why these are the “orange uniforms,” even though they’re mostly gray.

I just beg of the powers that be: Please don’t have the Magic wear these against the Suns. I’ll never figure out which team is which.