Should Detroit trade Greg Monroe now?

US PRESSWIRE

Since the signing of Josh Smith, it's popular to speculate that Detroit should trade Greg Monroe. Let's look at the reasons why this move has been suggested and see if they make sense.

Besides watching the actual games, a favorite occupation of many NBA fans is speculating about possible trades. If this weren’t so, then ESPN wouldn’t have invented one of our favorite toys – The Trade Machine. For Pistons fans, the prime subject of trade speculation of late has been Greg Monroe. The main reason why this talk has heated up is because Detroit signed Josh Smith to a reported 4 year/$54M contract this summer. The stated plan (and preseason approach) is to start Smith at small forward, only playing him at power forward when Monroe plays center or goes to the bench.

But despite what he says (“With a little work and a little practice, I'm a really good jump shooter and I can space the floor really well”), Smith lacks the ideal shooting range for a small forward. And since he’s played power forward for most of his career, many people speculate that it’s only a matter of time before he supplants Monroe as the starter at that spot.

A second reason for this speculation is due to the fact that Monroe’s rookie contract will expire next summer, making him a restricted free agent. Detroit could sign him to an extension by Oct. 31, but his agent has said he prefers to let the free agency process play out. While neither side is openly discussing this matter, the assumption of many observers is that Monroe wants a max contract, but the Pistons don’t think he deserves it. This assumption further fuels the speculation that Monroe will be traded.

For example, David Aldridge of NBA.com posted the following comment back on Sept. 30:

Detroit’s Greg Monroe would also look to be in line for an extension, having established himself as one of the good young big men in the East. He was top 10 last season in double-doubles (37) and was one of the few bright spots for the Pistons the last two seasons.

But league sources indicate an extension for Monroe is highly unlikely. The Pistons are not going to give him anywhere near the max, based on their current roster. Plus, Monroe’s agent, David Falk, has little interest in signing an extension for less than that. While discussions are friendly, it’s likely the two sides will revisit next summer -- if Monroe is still on the roster.

With Andre Drummond looking like the Pistons’ center of the future, and with $56 million invested in Josh Smith -- much more effective as a four -- how much will Detroit put forth for Monroe?

None of us are privy to any of the actual discussions that have been held to date between Falk and Pistons’ President Joe Dumars. It does make sense that if Dumars had already made a max contract offer, then Monroe would have readily accepted it. After all, no other team will be able to offer him more money next summer. Nevertheless, since Monroe and his agent appear content to wait until 2014, there’s no reason for Detroit to rush the process. Since he’ll almost certainly sign for more than his cap hold of $10.2M, waiting until next summer to ink a deal provides the Pistons with more flexibility in the free agent market. Under the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, Dumars can sign another free agent first, and then go over the cap to keep Monroe.

How much is Monroe worth?

An important consideration in all of this discussion is assessing Monroe’s contract worth. According to Aldridge, “The Pistons are not going to give him anywhere near the max, based on their current roster.” I’m not sure what Detroit’s current roster has to do with this issue. The contracts of Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva (a combined $17.1M) will expire this season, so sufficient money to offer Monroe a max contract will be available. Next summer the only Pistons making over $3M a year will be Smith ($13.5M), Brandon Jennings ($8M) and Jonas Jerebko ($4.5M).

Does Monroe deserve a max contract of approximately 4 years/$60M? While fans can debate whether he is truly “max worthy,” it’s the market for his services that sets an NBA player’s value. Of the big men also taken in the 2010 draft, two picked prior to Monroe have already signed extensions. The Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins inked a 4-year deal for $62M in September. Recently, Derrick Favors of Utah signed a 4-year/$49M contract. Cousins has been productive over the past three years (16.3 points per game, 9.8 rebounds), but hasn’t shot efficiently (44.8 percent). Favors has been less productive (8.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg., 49.8% percent), only grabbing a starting role now that Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have left. In comparison, Monroe’s career averages are 13.5 ppg on 51.2 percent shooting, with 8.9 rpg. He’s also been a “model citizen” – something that certainly can’t be said for Cousins.

Favors’ $12M+ per year deal is the floor for Monroe’s market value. But I think it’s highly likely that he will be offered a max contract. Teams that probably will be able to afford to bid for his services next summer include Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Utah and Washington. While some of these teams are unlikely to court him, some surely will. Several (e.g. Lakers, 76ers, Suns) are primed to be so far under the salary cap that there is no reason why they would not make a max offer to one of the few productive young big men who will be free agents. Given this scenario, I will be shocked if Monroe does not end up with a $60M deal in 2014.

Should Detroit keep Monroe?

Of course, it’s still legitimate to question whether paying him that much is in the Pistons’ best interest. In the Wed., Oct. 23 edition of Pistons Mailbag, this very question was raised:

Mike (Canton, Mich.): If the Pistons decide not to give Monroe his extension, do you see the Pistons trading Monroe and moving Smith to the four if they aren’t where they want to be by the trade deadline? How about if the Pistons were on the right track? Would extending Monroe put the Pistons in a financial hole considering Drummond’s contract will also be extended more than likely down the line?

Langlois: Drummond’s extension, assuming he agrees to one, would not kick in until after his fourth season, so we’re a long way out from needing to wonder about moves the Pistons must consider or make to accommodate a big pay increase for him. As for the Monroe situation, let’s clarify your question just a little. All indications are that the decision to not pursue an extension has come from Monroe’s agent, David Falk, who has said publicly that his general preference is to take a player into free agency. When you ask what the Pistons will do at the trade deadline, that assumes evidence not yet known. The Pistons will have had more than 50 games at that point to determine what they have and how their pieces fit. They’ll want to see how Monroe adapts to a broader role required by playing both power forward and center, how Andre Drummond handles his increased responsibility and how the three frontcourt players mesh. Underlying any contemplation of the merits of trading away a player of Monroe’s stature – a 23-year-old who’s already displayed a consistency of production and the potential for improvement – is the understanding of how highly Pistons management values him. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t consider trading him, but it’s highly unlikely they would trade him for anything less than an acknowledged star they felt would offer a more complementary fit. And that type of player isn’t often available. It’s nearly certain he’s not available now. What happens by mid-February is anyone’s guess. Until then, I abide by the motto that it’s foolish to make decisions until all the evidence is in and a decision must be made.

While Keith Langlois is not Dumars’ “official voice,” I think we should respect his opinion about “how highly Pistons management values” Monroe. It’s true that they have not yet attached a dollar figure to the level of their esteem for him. This doesn’t mean they won’t do so next summer. Indiana waited until Portland presented Roy Hibbert with a max contract offer before they matched it in 2012. Detroit will probably be in a similar position with Monroe the summer of 2014. While it’s possible Monroe could be traded, “it’s highly unlikely they would trade him for anything less than an acknowledged star.” Young, productive big men are highly valued in the NBA. If the Pistons were to trade him, they would almost certainly want to get back a small forward or shooting guard of near All-Star caliber. And even if his production declines this year, I think it will be widely recognized that this is due to issues with the Pistons lineup rather than with Monroe himself.

But there’s no need to seek a trade now. Detroit has until at least the February trade deadline to see how the Drummond/Monroe/Smith starting frontline will work. Even if this lineup proves not to be an optimal fit, there will be several ways for these three to split all of the PF/C minutes among themselves. At most, we’ll probably see these three on the court together for less than half of a typical game. It’s especially shortsighted to think the answer to any problems that develop with fit is to jettison Monroe. Since it’s almost a certainty the Pistons won’t consider trading Drummond, what reason is there to think that Smith is a better frontcourt partner for him than Monroe? We can expect that coach Mo Cheeks will try out several lineup variations in the coming months, so we shouldn’t prejudge which ones will be the most effective.

Can Detroit afford both Monroe and Drummond?

Besides the concerns about how the “Big 3” will complement each other, the other reason raised for trading Monroe is that Detroit won’t be able to afford to pay both him and Drummond. Signing Smith to a 4-year deal does complicate the team’s salary picture, because they will still be paying Smith $13.5M the year that Drummond’s extension will need to start (2016-17). Assuming that both Drummond and Monroe are signed to max deals, that would mean these three players will be soaking up about $44M of the NBA salary cap (currently $58.7M). Granted, this would only be for one year, since Smith’s deal will expire in 2017. But can Detroit afford to put itself in that situation?

The answer is yes. A look at how some other teams manage their salaries is instructive. Take Houston, for example, where general manager Daryl Morey has done a masterful job of assembling talent. The Rockets made the playoffs last season, and should ascend even higher this year with Dwight Howard onboard. But elite talent doesn’t come cheap. This year, Harden and Howard together will cost over $34.2M. In 2016-17 their joint price tag will rise to over $40M. Houston will also need to extend small forward Chandler Parsons in 2015-16, so my guess is that their top three salaries will easily exceed the cost of the Pistons’ top three in 2016-17.

The bottom line is that Detroit is in an enviable position to have two extremely capable and complementary young big men in both Monroe and Drummond. Most other NBA general managers would probably love to be able to build a team around their talents. Until he gives the organization a good reason to think otherwise, the best path forward is to hold on to Greg Monroe. The Pistons can afford to keep him. Furthermore, unless they are presented with an excellent trade offer, they can’t afford not to.

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