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.”