Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the most under-appreciated big man in the Eastern Conference. If you've been listening to the national media and casual fans, you've heard all of the negatives. You've heard that the rise of Andre Drummond makes Greg Monroe obsolete. You've heard that Detroit should trade Monroe and slide Smith to his natural position at power forward. You've heard that Greg Monroe is a bad defender. You've even heard, and this is one of my favorites, that Greg Monroe has peaked. All of this is an exercise in absurdity, and it's likely to only get worse in 2013-14.
Let's look at a few of the positives. Greg Monroe has been the most productive scoring big man drafted by Detroit since Bob Lanier in 1970. Depending on whether you consider Lebron James a small forward or a power forward, Monroe is a candidate to lead all Eastern Conference power forwards in points, rebounds and assists this season. If he does, he'd be the youngest power forward to do so in decades. During his young career, no Eastern Conference big man has been more durable. He's only missed one game since his NBA debut in 2010, making him as close to an 82-game lock as it gets.
Monroe has been a pretty rare gift to Detroit, and he plays an incredibly important role. A skilled, prolific post-oriented offense is a key ingredient in the championship recipe. It's what Gasol brought to Los Angeles, Garnett brought to Boston, Rasheed brought to Detroit and Duncan brought to San Antonio. Even amongst the second-round teams, there's a group of post-friendly offensive forwards that are far more valuable than they are celebrated-- Boozer in Chicago, West in Indiana, Lee in Golden State, Randolph in Memphis. It's something that the winners have and the lottery teams don't, and something only the foolish give away.
Despite the rarity of his skill set, despite his durability and unique promise for the Pistons, the writing is on the wall in the eyes of many. Greg should go, they say. And the calls for Greg to be traded are likely to get worse after the arrival of Josh Smith-- and it will still be an exercise in absurdity.
2012-13 Year in Review
From an aerial view, it was evident that 2012-13 was a down year for Greg Monroe. Moose got his number called a bit more frequently last season, and his efficiency and ball handling took a hit. After shooting 52% in 2011-12, Greg sank to 49% in 2012-13. He turned over the ball nearly 3 times per game, which is not unusual for a passing big of his ilk. His final line of the season showed 16 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, a steal and a block in 33 minutes. Even in a down year, Greg's line was admirable, as his contributions off-the-ball (rebounds, steals, etc) maintain his value on the court.
Beyond the aerial view, there was a lot more nuance to Greg's performance in 2012-13. It was expected to be a transitional year from the start, as Greg would make a gradual adjustment to the role of a power forward. However, the reality was a lot more volatile. The planned transition to power forward started smoothly during Andre Drummond's ascent, but stopped abruptly when Dre went down with an injury. For a season and a half, Monroe had shared ball handling duties with Tayshaun Prince and Brandon Knight, but in late January, Prince was gone and Knight was demoted after Jose Calderon arrived. This all came to a head in March, when Greg was alone up front without Drummond to his left and Prince to his right, carrying the scoring load and having a rough time in the process:
March 2013: 15.0 points on 43.6% shooting, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.7 turnovers.
Rest of 2013: 17.3 points on 51.8% shooting, 10.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.8 turnovers.
In total, Greg's third year in the NBA wasn't as "down" as some have made it to be, and much of Greg's struggles related directly to changes in the team's core, from the rise of Andre Drummond to the trade of Tayshaun Prince and more. While the sample size is tiny, it was at least encouraging to see how Greg Monroe fared next to Andre Drummond for the 10 games the pair started together:
17.8 points on 52.2% shooting, 9.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.3 steals, .7 blocks.
It would have been nice to see a marked improvement in range from Greg Monroe in 2012-13. This would have put a lot of the concerns about his fit with Drummond to bed. There was a time when these concerns were ill-conceived and overblown. Unfortunately, this changed the moment the Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith.
2013-14 Projected Production
The new environment in Detroit, one that involves Josh Smith starting at small forward, is likely to have an unfortunate impact on Greg Monroe's future. One concern with starting Josh Smith at small forward is that he'll be forced to rely on his greatest weakness-- shooting from range. The less this works, the more pressure the team will feel to move Smith away from the perimeter and into the post. In Smith's absence on the perimeter, the small forward position is likely to be Detroit's most pronounced weakness. The remaining playing time there will be split between a 25-year-old Italian rookie (who is promising, of course) and Kyle Singler.
There are ways to manage the frontcourt rotation to provide playing time for Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, but the result is an imbalanced roster that remains in dire need of a two-way small forward despite Detroit's $54,000,000 investment in that position.
When Smith's shots aren't falling at the 3, Detroit's frontcourt will be easy to defend. One of the most likely results is that Greg Monroe will in turn need to rely more on his primary weakness-- shooting from range. If Andre Drummond can't, and Josh Smith shouldn't, Greg Monroe will have to. When sharing the court, at least one of these players is going to have to be able to knock down a shot from outside the paint. Since Detroit's new small forward is at his worst in this capacity, don't be surprised if his presence pushes Greg Monroe out of the paint, onto the bench* or onto the trade market to make the investment work. Because if Smith's shots aren't falling and Monroe's aren't either, don't expect the casual fans or press I alluded to atop this article to give the benefit of the doubt to Moose.
Here's a follow-up question: where are Greg's shots going to come from this year? In Monroe's rookie season, his offense was largely based on cleanup baskets around the hoop. That's Dre's job in 2013-14. Over the last two years, we've wanted to see the ball fed to Monroe to facilitate the offense, and we bemoaned how often the ball ended up in the hands of ball-dominant Tayshaun Prince instead. This summer, the Pistons added a guy who has averaged 15 shots per game across three seasons. In all likelihood, there could be less opportunities for Monroe next to Smith than there were next to Prince.
There are two important takeaways here for how we as fans face the next season. First, this isn't Josh Smith's fault. He's not the boogie man here, and I don't see him willfully coming to Detroit and causing problems. He has a very specific skill set that can be very effective in the right situation. This just isn't the right situation, and his nature as a player poses serious risks to the opportunity for Greg Monroe to succeed in 2013-14. Second, this isn't Greg Monroe's fault either. But if his shots aren't falling, he's likely to bear the blame for the whole frontcourt, 3-5.
Now, before we get into the numbers, let's tackle the talking points from the top of this article with canned responses we can copy/paste as needed this season:
"The rise of Andre Drummond makes Greg Monroe obsolete."
Canned Response: No, it does not. Greg was at his best when starting next to Andre last season, and both players have very different and very important roles that all championship contenders have. Take Greg Monroe away, and Detroit's frontcourt no longer has a two-way game. Ben Wallace couldn't do it without Rasheed, and Rasheed was at his best when he was scoring from the post just like Greg.
"Detroit should trade Monroe and slide Smith to his natural position at power forward."
Canned Response: A player's peak range is usually between ages 25 and 30. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond will share three full seasons in the same peak age range. Andre Drummond and Josh Smith will share none. By the time Andre Drummond reaches his earliest peak year, Smith will be approaching age 33. Also, Drummond needs an offense producer to his right, and Monroe is far superior to Smith in this role. In his first three years, Monroe has produced a total of 12 offensive win shares. In nine years, Smith has only produced 12.5. If you're not familiar with win shares, DBB is here to explain.
"Greg Monroe is a bad defender."
Canned Response: Much of Monroe's reputation is based on his pre-draft analysis, and few analysts have dared to review and update their impressions of him. He has improved year-by-year, and has established an average or better skill at defending some very specific play types. He struggles when defending the other team's biggest guy, and he struggles when he's the last resort from a driving wing or a guard off a pick. But he's improved from serviceable to quite capable when defending isolation, spot-up perimeter shooting and rolling big men on pick-and-rolls-- all of which are better suited to a power forward's defense. That's the thing-- Drummond is now guarding the other team's biggest guy, and Greg's defense is now a singular role. But everyone from a casual fan to my buddy Zach Lowe has based their impression of his defense on his performance at center. They've written him off at power forward without exploring how he does on those specific roles. Don't make that same mistake yourself and allow Greg to determine his own reputation in your eyes.
"Greg Monroe has peaked."
Canned Response: Okay, on second thought, there's really nothing you can say to this type of individual. I suggest red pandas.
There's going to be a lot of uncertainty about this Drummond/Monroe/Smith lineup until it has a chance to log a few months of burn. The likelihood is that Monroe cedes some of his touches to Smith and doesn't have cleanup opportunities next to Drummond. I expect a similar amount of attempts as he had in 2012-13, and due to an unfortunate reliance on range next to Smith, a similar or worse shooting percentage. In total, I see Monroe being the one to suffer in this lineup and pay the price in terms of fan reputation. It will be by no fault of his own, and if he is ultimately sacrificed by trade, the team will be worse off in the short term and the long term alike. He's capable of a lot more than the line below, but this is what I expect to see from him next to Josh Smith.
33 minutes per game, 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 48% FG, 70% FT