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Previewing the 2014-15 Pistons: Greg Monroe

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A year has passed, and the uncertainty about Greg Monroe's future remains. He's still a year away from potentially leaving for nothing. His role still has a lot to do with Josh Smith. It's anyone's guess how that plays out in 2014-15.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A year later, and nothing has changed. In previewing Greg Monroe's season for 2014-15, I could just copy and paste my lead paragraph from last summer's preview. You know what? I'm going to go ahead and do just that:

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.

The situation didn't just get worse, it went nuclear. After the disaster of the Josh Smith signing, my greatest fear was realized -- Greg Monroe opted to take the qualifying offer instead of accepting a new contract. No matter how you feel about Greg Monroe the player, this is bad news for all Pistons fans. Detroit now faces the prospect of losing Monroe for nothing. Nada. Zilch. Absolutely nothing.

2013-14 Year in Review

The Offense

Upon the arrival of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe was immediately marginalized. Smith spent two years leading the Atlanta Hawks in shot attempts, then inked the largest contract in Pistons franchise history. As expected, Smith would have the green light to do as he pleased in Detroit, and the shots he acquired would come at the cost of Greg Monroe's usage rate. Monroe saw a dramatic decrease in his offensive involvement, to the tune of a 14% drop in usage rate from 2012-13. More from my preview last summer:

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 ... 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 ... 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.

Since three of Detroit's starters shared a sweet spot in the paint, we saw the above happen. It wasn't as pronounced as I had expected, however. Monroe increased the amount of shots he attempted between 3 and 16 feet by 27%. He did so by taking fewer shots right under the hoop and fewer shots from 17-feet out. Despite adjusting his game to attempt more shots from the mid-to-high post, his overall shooting efficiency went up vs. 2012-13. He didn't only shoot better from right at the hoop, he improved from 33% to 37% out to 10-feet and from 31% to 41% on the handful of shots he attempted out to 16-feet.

Studying the release location of these shots doesn't tell the whole story, however. So many of Monroe's close shots started as cuts to the basket or post moves that originated in the high post. In 2013-14, fans also saw Monroe do a lot more isolation, spins and cuts. They were incredibly effective and a challenge for his defender(s) to handle. These shots started with Monroe receiving a pass at the key, the elbow or near the outside baseline. With his defender faced up and away from the hoop, he was a step, a spin and a fake away from the basket. The shot would release from his hands at 2-feet, but it would begin with he and his defender around 10-feet out. It's an area where the stats belie his ability to space the floor.

Despite an improvement in production away from the basket, Monroe was still blindly criticized. No range. No spacing. No bueno.

My prediction for Greg before 2013-14:

33 minutes per game, 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 48% FG, 70% FT

Actual numbers from 2013-14:

33 minutes per game, 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 turnovers, 50% FG, 66% FT

The Defense

When compared to his final year at center, Greg Monroe's first year at power forward saw a strange reversal of defensive ability. At center, Monroe struggled against the other team's biggest guy, and was not suited to be the last line of defense against penetrating perimeter players. He excelled in one-on-one D, spotting up the perimeter and guarding the rolling man. At power forward, he saw the opposite. He excelled in post-up defense, besting even Josh Smith and Andre Drummond in PPP allowed, but struggled at defending pick-and-rolls and spot-up plays along the wing.

Greg Monroe's ability on these types of plays at center didn't happen overnight. It took three years until he was even above average at defending spot-up, pick and roll and iso attempts from opposing centers. It was a work in progress, and year-to-year progress was evident. Monroe showed a knack for recognizing and adjusting to these types of plays over time. It was the heady, IQ-driven game that he was able to adjust to. He struggled with the size and muscle from 7-foot centers in the post.

At power forward though? He was instantly written off. "He can't defend fours." It's over with. Done. Some fans saw enough to speak declaratively about Monroe's future at the position. In their eyes, Monroe is just too slow-footed. Not enough lateral quickness to defend mobile power forwards.

Judging Monroe's defense at the four with any finality is illogical. It's also illogical to base this judgement on lateral quickness.

Pick and rolls are team plays that can be recognized and adjusted to before the rolling man moves away from the pick. It's about recognition and adjustment -- then moving a fraction of the distance that the rolling man covers toward the basket. Spot-up shooting is the same. It's about recognition and adjustment -- watching the man instead of the ball, and communicating with teammates when the 4 is rotating open. It's not so much about the space you need to traverse when these plays are executed, it's about how much space you leave in the first place.

These plays that Greg struggled with are team plays at the very heart of it. Recognition is a three part endeavor. First, coaches need to prepare their players to be aware of plays early in their execution. Second, teammates need to communicate when a set play is executing so that the 5-man squad can lock into it. Third, the defender himself needs to recognize the play and position himself accordingly. This kind of thing just didn't appear to happen under Mo Cheeks or John Loyer. And when it came to this stuff, Greg Monroe was far from the worst offender on the team. It's arguable that Monroe was more effective in these situations than Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. Team defense was a huge failure in 2013-14, and nearly everyone -- including Monroe -- should be held accountable. But improvements in these areas is central to dramatically improving Monroe's production on the defensive end.

Not athleticism, not lateral quickness, not foot speed. Coaching, communication and recognition.

There's another perspective to consider. In recent league history, many of the best power forward defenders are far from peak lateral speed. Raise your hand if you watched a 38-year-old power forward this summer showing that foot speed and lateral quickness are not necessary for elite PNR defense. It isn't foot speed or lateral quickness that made Tim Duncan a defensive superstar far into his 30s.

Nearly everyone can agree that Monroe submitted a poor season on defense in 2013-14. He did, however, show promise in some areas. And the areas where he struggled the most will improve greatly in a rigid defensive scheme shared by the coach and the players. In the meantime, judging Monroe's defense with any level of finality is somewhere between illogical and absurd.

2014-15 Projected Production

There is so much uncertainty surrounding Greg Monroe this season that making an accurate prediction is a lost cause. I know what I'd like to see -- a commitment to team defense under Stan Van Gundy and an increased role in offensive playmaking. Will we see that, though? It's hard to say.

Here's what we do know. Greg Monroe will serve a two-game suspension to start the season, making the starting power forward job Josh Smith's to lose by game three. Second, we also know that Greg is an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015, meaning he has full control of his destiny from there on. The rest, however, is speculation.

My guess is that if Josh Smith is still a Piston in June, Greg Monroe will sign with another team in July. If Josh Smith is gone, and the team's record improves under Van Gundy, no other team can offer Greg the same amount of money nor the same role next to Andre Drummond. If he has suitors in San Antonio or New Orleans, Detroit may be on the outside looking in. If those teams have other plans, a return of the Moose could be in the cards.

For this season, however, how much playing time and how many shot attempts might Monroe see? This is an essential question. In the preseason, at least, Monroe proved how necessary and productive he can be. Smith and Drummond are just too similar to be effective in tandem, and neither have the offensive skill of Greg Monroe.

I am hoping that Stan Van Gundy finds Greg Monroe's versatile offense, rebounding and ability to get to the line too important to under-employ. His kind of production warrants the highest usage and shot attempts in Detroit's frontcourt, and that's what I'm hoping to see this season for two reasons. First, it will be the most effective use of a shot after an oop or putback from Andre, and second, it will show Greg his opportunity in Detroit under Stan Van Gundy should he stay. Feeding Drummond the ball is looking to be too premature, and Josh Smith has spent two-plus years showing that he has no business being a scorer. My hope is that cooler heads prevail and Van Gundy sees the importance of his most scalable offensive weapon up front.

Prediction:

32 minutes per game, 17 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 turnovers, 51% FG, 68% FT