While few predicted Greg Monroe to land in Milwaukee this summer, his long-anticipated departure from Detroit was hardly a surprise. Despite an impressive (but not quite great) resume in Detroit, Monroe opted to sign a one-year qualifying offer that allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, in the process turning down reported long-term deals from both the Pistons and other teams (which Detroit could have matched). At that point it was obvious that Monroe had every intention of leaving this summer, and with a no-trade clause and no ability to transfer his Bird rights in a trade, he was also extremely difficult to trade for anything resembling fair value. It's a doomsday scenario for teams that's often discussed in theory -- a high profile, productive young player risks tens of millions to gain his unrestricted free agent freedom -- but one that has almost never happened since the inception of the league's current rookie contract structure.
Pistons Coach and President Stan Van Gundy spoke at length about Monroe's departure on Zach Lowe's most recent podcast, and our friends at Detroit Bad Boys wrote at length about it this week. At a high level, Monroe's departure could best be described as a mutual parting of ways, predicated largely on the difficulty of finding enough center minutes for Monroe and Andre Drummond to coexist. Still, Van Gundy seemed genuinely torn on the principle of the matter; while no team wants to lose a highly productive young big man for "nothing," neither Monroe nor the Pistons would have been best served by extending his stay in the Motor City. Here's Van Gundy commenting on the floor spacing issues Monroe and Drummond caused when playing together, as well as the broader challenge of keeping both long-term. Via Jason Brunskowski at DBB:
I think coaches, myself included, have to take some of the blame. But Greg never really developed a consistency either. And quite honestly, as much as he's comfortable, I think, taking that shot, Greg's a pretty smart guy and knows what his best game is. And if you ask Greg what he is, Greg will tell you he's a low-post scorer and a rebounder. And so, that's where he wants to get. So, basically, what we were trying to do is play with two centers. And if you're going to max Greg out, which he's certainly worth the max, there's not a question with that, then you're going to try to do it with two centers. And as much as it was a little bit tough on the offensive end, the real problem was at the defensive end. I mean it just -- really tough. You know, we put Greg in some tough situations, and he did a good job, as good a job as he could. And you're asking him to guard stretch fours like Kevin Love and things like that. You can't sign him to a max, you can't sign Drummond to a big contract eventually, and then just say they're going to share the center spot. That doesn't make any sense. And so, that's where I went back and forth with it on Greg, and I still do. I mean, part of me is wondering if we made the right move, quite honestly, letting him go. Because he's a talented guy. But the other part of me says we were just never going to have the fit that we needed to move forward. And I think from Greg's point of view, I don't think there was much doubt, certainly we didn't feel there was much doubt, that Greg was gonna leave. And I think for probably a couple of different reasons, but the main one was that, I think, Greg wants to be a center. I mean, that's where his best game is. And I think he wants to put himself in a situation where he can thrive. So a lot of my misgivings are sort of mitigated by the fact that I think even if we had gone out and offered Greg a max we would not have gotten him back.
Brunskowski's piece notes that the Pistons were excellent with Reggie Jackson and Drummond on the court and Monroe on the bench after the trade deadline, and in general it's not surprising that the Pistons would choose to build around the younger and more physically gifted Drummond. As one of the league's preeminent garbagemen, he's an excellent complement to a trigger-happy point guard like Jackson, who likewise makes less sense next to a higher usage center such as Monroe.
That said, it's worth noting that Monroe was also much better at center without Drummond clogging the lane next to him, a situation that also underscored just how dominant a rebounder Monroe can be. Using NBAWowy's play-by-play stats, here are Monroe's numbers overall compared to his performance without Drummond and Josh Smith:
To be clear, Monroe's overall per-minute numbers last year were plenty impressive -- only four guys in the league averaged better than 18 points, 11 rebounds and two assists per 36 minutes (DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Vucevic and Pau Gasol). But as good as his overall numbers were, Monroe was even more beastly when playing at center without Drummond or Smith to clog up the court. Both his raw and efficiency stats surged in those lineups, as he piled up 21.5 points and a whopping 14.1 rebounds per 36 minutes while registering a superb 59.3% true shooting mark. In those lineups Monroe hauled in 30.4% of all defensive rebound opportunities in those situations; no Buck even cracked a 20% defensive rebound rate last year.
I'm not sure if Monroe will be able to match all of those numbers as the Bucks' starting center -- Milwaukee's lack of floor-spacers will likely be a hindrance offensively -- but anything close would be a huge boost to a Bucks team that lacked low post scoring and defensive rebounding last season. Consider that Monroe nearly outscored the Bucks' entire team in the post last year (415 vs. 426 points), and his passing ability from the high post should also help the Bucks do even more with the "Corner" and "Push" sets they frequently ran with Zaza Pachulia. While everyone agrees that the Bucks need to shoot (and make) more threes, that becomes easier when opponents have to account for an interior threat of Monroe's caliber. So it's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation; yes, it'd be great if Monroe was a knock-down shooter himself, but the danger he presents as a face-up and back-to-the-basket scorer also figure to create more open shots for everyone else.
Defensively the concerns over integrating Monroe are more understandable, though the Bucks' lineups with Pachulia a year ago suggest that paint obstruction can be just as effective as rim protection. The Bucks' overloading tactics are a big part of the story, and fortunately they still have plenty of toolsy defenders even with Pachulia and Jared Dudley joining the ranks of Milwaukee's dearly departed. Moreover, the Pistons were hardly a trainwreck with Monroe manning the middle a year ago, especially once the space-killing Josh Smith was out of the picture. Note: the "off" columns below represent the opposite of the "on" scenario; ie the Pistons scored 109.3 pts/100 with Monroe on the bench and Andre Drummond in the game:
Monroe's +2.28 defensive RPM also ranked him 15th out of 66 qualifying centers -- notably better than Drummond's +0.81 and John Henson's +1.32 -- suggesting that his lack of shot-blocking shouldn't doom him to be a drain on the Bucks' defensively.
Put it all together and you can understand why Van Gundy isn't thrilled about losing Monroe -- put him in the middle, and the guy is really, really good. But that was easier said than done in Detroit, where Drummond's youth and superior two-way upside made him the obvious choice once the Pistons were effectively forced to choose. It's easy to then say the Pistons should have simply traded Monroe two years ago when Drummond was beginning to show his potential as a rookie...but then again everything is easy in hindsight. That was two coaches ago, and it's natural that the Pistons would have hoped to make the two work. Even now we don't know if Drummond will ever be quite the Dwight Howard-type star that Van Gundy hopes he can build around, and it wasn't any more obvious when he was a rookie.
That didn't make things easy for Van Gundy or Monroe last season, but give both credit for not letting an awkward situation turn ugly. It's obvious that Van Gundy maintains a great amount of respect for Monroe on and off the court, and likewise Monroe seems to harbor no ill will about his long-anticipated departure. Both made the best of things last year, and both figure to be primed for bigger and better things this fall.