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What should Detroit do if Monroe signs the QO?

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With the latest information indicating that Greg Monroe may sign the Pistons’ one-year Qualifying Offer, how should the team respond if this actually happens?

Gregory Shamus

Even before the NBA’s free agency period began on July 1 of this year, the various options for what Greg Monroe could do were clear. These were his choices:

1. Sign a new contract with Detroit

2. Sign an offer sheet with another team and then wait to see if the Pistons match it

3. Negotiate a sign-and-trade that sends him to another team and compensates Detroit

4. Sign the Qualifying Offer paying him $5.48 million for 2014-15 and become an Unrestricted Free Agent next summer

Until now, most observers have thought there was little chance of Monroe signing the QO. Recent reports, however, indicate that this might indeed be his decision. While Monroe himself has remained non-committal, at the very least it is apparent that he is seriously considering choosing that route. Since he has until October 1 to make up his mind, the speculation about his choice may continue for another six weeks. So we actually know little more about Monroe’s future than we did on July 1!

Almost from the day he was hired, Stan Van Gundy has said that Monroe figured prominently in his plans for the team. He later stated that the organization has devised a carefully thought-out strategy for responding to any eventuality in the free agent negotiation process.

Therefore, it seems likely that he and his staff have already discussed the various ramifications of Monroe signing the QO. While we cannot know the details of those conversations, we can project some of the possibilities that will be under consideration. Let’s explore these now:

 

Plan A: Continue trying to retain Monroe

Both Van Gundy and owner Tom Gores have stated that they want Monroe to remain a Piston. So an approach consistent with this desire would be to start him at power forward alongside Andre Drummond in a line-up that will feature and enhance his offensive abilities. The goal would be to make clear to Monroe that his best chance for a productive career is to stay in the Motor City beyond 2015. Van Gundy could even take the additional step of finding a taker for Josh Smith in order to demonstrate a more complete break with the haphazard approach of the past four seasons.

Some observers believe that if Monroe chooses to sign the QO, then he should be given a smaller role going forward. But it’s more likely that the actual quality of his play will make this decision. The goal is to win games. If Monroe contributes toward this goal, then he will play. Playing him less simply because he is a "short-timer" will be self-defeating, hurting the team and sending a message that the organization is petty. And if another team is interested in acquiring Monroe before the trade deadline, that approach will not enhance the return they offer to Detroit. (It must be noted that after Ben Gordon signed the QO from Chicago in the summer of 2008, he went on to have one of his most productive seasons.)

Because signing the QO will make him an UFA in 2015, there is no guarantee that anything the Pistons do can convince Monroe to sign up for a longer term. Even if they make him the best offer, he can still choose to take his talents elsewhere. So it’s still possible that no matter what Detroit does, the only benefits they will derive from his decision are to have a productive player for one year at a very affordable price and greater cap space next summer.

 

Plan B: Attempt to trade Monroe by the February deadline

Once he signs the QO, Monroe cannot be traded without his permission. Also his Bird Rights will not travel with him. While this will make it harder for Van Gundy to work out a deal, that does not mean it will be impossible. Monroe may already have his eye on one or more teams that he wants to play for, and may prefer to accelerate his arrival at a new destination. Alternatively, a playoff-caliber team needing to bolster its frontcourt could envision him as the final piece to take them over the top. Even if Monroe only proved to be a four-month rental, at his modest cost he would be well worth it. Certainly the chance to reach the postseason and show off his abilities on that larger stage should appeal to Monroe. While the circumstances were different, Rasheed Wallace was in the final year of his contract when Detroit traded for him in 2004. Even if they had not re-signed him the following summer, that move proved to be well worth it.

It’s possible that Van Gundy will begin the season with Plan A in mind, and then switch to Plan B if circumstances indicate that this is the best path forward. If it appears inevitable that Monroe will leave, the opportunity to be compensated in some way will become a higher priority. Whether that desire will outweigh the contributions Monroe makes to the team will probably depend upon whether the Pistons are in close contention for a playoff spot.

 

Plan C: Use the cap space losing Monroe creates to sign a key free agent in 2015

For 2015-16, Detroit currently has about $43 million in salary commitments to eight players (D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, Tony Mitchell and Josh Smith). Probable commitments to Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Gray and Cartier Martin will raise the total to about $46 million, which is still about $20 million below the projected cap for that season. Also, the second year of Butler’s deal ($4.5 million) is unguaranteed, as is the $950,000 due to Mitchell. Will Bynum and Jonas Jerebko will become free agents, and decisions will need to be made about extending Luigi Datome and Kyle Singler. Presumably, room on the roster will need to be made for a first round draft pick.

This cap situation will give Van Gundy the opportunity to swing for the fences with a high profile free agent. For example, if he wants to pair Drummond with a high scoring partner at power forward, Van Gundy can target Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Given that the Pistons will probably have to offer him $18 million or more per year, and even then the Trailblazers can probably top that amount, this may not be the wisest plan.

If Detroit is content to rely on Smith at power forward, another possible approach is to focus on improving the backcourt. Boston’s Rajon Rondo will be available, and his status as one of the league’s top point guards could elevate the team to a new level. He will make $12.9 million this year, so it’s conceivable he can be signed without totally depleting the available cash. This may leave sufficient funds to extend Singler, for instance.

One more option is to aim a little lower and pursue Paul Millsap of Atlanta to play power forward. Efficient and effective, he is slated to make only $9 million this season. The Pistons could offer him a substantial raise in 2015 and still have funds left over to keep Singler and also bolster their bench. Without Monroe, Detroit will need a dependable center behind Drummond. Kosta Koufos of Memphis will be a free agent, and he makes only $3 million now as Marc Gasol’s backup.

There are other players who will be available, too, and their play in 2014-15 might make them even more worthy of consideration. But it will be just as important that Van Gundy look ahead to who might be free agents the following season before he settles on his plan.

 

Plan D: Hoard cap space in order to make a bigger splash in 2016

Looking ahead to two summers from now, it’s not hard to guess what Van Gundy’s highest priority will be: keeping Andre Drummond. Ideally, this decision will have already been made the previous fall. Unless there is an unexpected halt to his improvement, we can anticipate that Detroit will endeavor to sign Drummond to a long-term maximum contract. While it’s too early to know all the other obligations that will be on the books for 2016-17, we do know that the deals for Jennings and Augustin are due to expire, saving $11.3 million. Currently the only other commitments are to Caldwell-Pope, Meeks and Smith for $23.7 million. So if the team chooses to be frugal in 2015, even after extending Drummond there will be more money to spend on the 2016 free agent crop.

There will be plenty of options in 2016. Big men slated to come on the market who could be acceptably paired with Drummond will include Ryan Anderson, Al Horford and Terrence Jones. Among the small forwards to choose from there are Nicolas Batum, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Mike Conley and Goran Dragic are some of the point guards who may be available.

Saving up cap space for a big shopping spree is a risky endeavor. By postponing any significant spending in 2015, Detroit could forfeit building a winning culture, thereby causing the franchise cornerstone to become disenchanted by the team’s direction. But given the caliber of some of the prospective 2016 free agents, finding a way to free up more cap space for that summer is worth pursuing. Specifically, if Millsap was signed to play power forward in 2015, it would certainly behoove the team to part ways with Smith before 2016. For example, if Van Gundy could field a starting line-up of Drummond, Millsap, Batum, Caldwell-Pope and Dragic, they would form a formidable foe for the NBA’s best teams.

 

Conclusions

Long-time Pistons’ fans can recall the despair they felt when Grant Hill left Motown for Disney World in 2000. Yet this loss of their best player led to the building of a team that went to the Eastern Conference finals six straight times and became the 2004 NBA champions. At that time no one could have predicted that Ben Wallace would become a more impactful player than Hill. But we should also remember that Detroit’s starting line-up for 2000-01 consisted of Wallace, Joe Smith, Michael Curry, Jerry Stackhouse and Chucky Atkins. So even with "Big Ben" in place, the roster had to be largely retooled over the next few seasons to assemble a contender.

If Monroe does leave, Drummond will still be in place as the core piece for Van Gundy to build around. With the proper combination of wise choices and good fortune, the "Bad Boys" may once again compete with the NBA’s "Big Boys."

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