With all of the last-minute trade activity from Detroit, it’s easy to overlook a frequently discussed trade that did not happen. Ever since he signed the Qualifying Offer last year, there was speculation that the Pistons might try to move Greg Monroe in order to get some return, rather than lose him this summer. By inking the QO, he positioned himself to become an Unrestricted Free Agent, able to agree to any offer he receives without Detroit being able to retain him with a matching deal.
This decision also meant that the Pistons would not be able to trade Monroe unless he agreed to the proposed swap. And because his Bird Rights would not travel with him to that new destination, Monroe had a powerful financial incentive to decline any trade.
Yet it certainly was a possibility that a playoff bound team needing frontcourt help might make a play for him. The fact that Oklahoma City chose to shore up its frontcourt by bringing in Utah’s Enes Kanter is an indication that they might have also considered Monroe. But Stan Van Gundy squashed any late rumors prior to the All-Star Break with this statement:
I'm not gonna walk in that locker room and give up a piece like that and then tell the guys we're trying to make the playoffs. They deserve the chance to ride this out. You never say never to anything, but I can tell you about 99.9 percent, Greg Monroe's not going anywhere.
Whether or not any serious trade offers for him were ever entertained by Detroit, that window of opportunity is now closed. Monroe will remain a Piston until the end of the 2014-15 season. While there are still another 26 games to play, and perhaps some playoff contests, too, it’s time to explore what the future holds for the "Moose." So what are the possibilities?
Option 1: Monroe signs with another team
Unrestricted Free Agents frequently sign with a new team. Players who signed the QO the previous year so they could have this unfettered freedom are even more likely to sign with a new team. The only NBA player to ever re-sign with his existing team after previously signing the QO is Spencer Hawes. It would be naïve to assume that Monroe will be the second one to make this choice, even though this possibility cannot be ruled out.
With any team other than Detroit, Monroe will be eligible to sign a four-year "max contract," which will probably be worth about $66.5 million (assuming this amount is the salary cap set by the NBA this coming July). Teams that will probably have the cap space to make that kind of offer outright include the Los Angeles Lakers, New York and Philadelphia.
Teams such as Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Orlando, Portland, or San Antonio could renounce one or more of their own free agents in order to make Monroe a max offer. For instance, chiefly by renouncing UFA center Omer Asik, the Pelicans could probably free up enough room to make Monroe a max offer.
Even teams that have insufficient cap space available could seek to negotiate a sign-and-trade with Detroit in order to land Monroe. (Teams with the requisite cap space might also pursue a sign-and-trade, but the fact that there is no difference in the contract Monroe can sign under those circumstances reduces the incentive for such a swap.) Of course, any such deal would depend on Van Gundy being interested in what was being offered in exchange.
Monroe’s options are further complicated by the fact that he will not be the only UFA available and in demand. LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap will attract interest from teams looking for an immediate upgrade. While their present teams may be willing to pay whatever it takes to retain them, it’s possible that they will first field other offers for their services.
Also, some teams may prefer to pursue one of the big men on the open market who will command less money than Monroe, such as Asik, Robin Lopez (Portland), and Kosta Koufos (Memphis). Restricted Free Agents who may generate strong interest include Draymond Green (Golden State), Tobias Harris (Orlando), Kanter (Oklahoma City), Kyle O’Quinn (Orlando) and Tristan Thompson (Cleveland).
But with 29 other teams as possibilities, it’s very likely that at least one of them will make Monroe a very handsome offer. If he wants a change of scenery after five years in Motown, there will surely be a rewarding new destination available to him.
Option 2: Monroe re-signs with Detroit
After he signed the QO, many people quickly concluded that it was self-evident that Monroe did not want to return to the Pistons. Losing seasons, a head coaching merry-go-round, and concerns about how he fit in a crowded frontcourt were the main reasons given for this assessment. While these factors certainly justified his decision to become an UFA this summer, they did not preclude him from keeping an open mind regarding his future.
When the season began with Monroe coming off the bench, the chances that he would want to stay in Detroit appeared to dim even more. The team’s 5-23 start gave no encouraging signs that there was any reason for him to look forward to remaining with the franchise. Then, on Dec. 22, everything changed.
By waiving Josh Smith, Van Gundy suddenly made it possible for Monroe to play a more prominent role on the team, and the results to date have been promising. Through the season’s first 28 games (26 appearances), he averaged 14.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in 29.0 minutes per game. In the 28 games since then, Monroe has averaged 16.2 ppg and 11.9 rpg in 31.8 mpg. He recorded eight double-doubles in his first 26 games; in the last 28 he has posted 17. Simply put, Monroe is enjoying his most productive play yet as a professional.
Concerns about how Monroe fits upfront with teammate Andre Drummond have lessened lately as well. Since Smith’s release, Drummond has become slightly more productive. He averaged 12.4 ppg and 12.6 rpg in 29.9 mpg in the first 28 contests. Since then his averages are 13.2 ppg and 13.5 rpg in 29.6 mpg. While the two big men are always on the floor together at the beginning of each half, Van Gundy has adjusted his playing rotations so that each one is frequently paired at other times with a three-point threat (usually Anthony Tolliver) at power forward. Center Joel Anthony has seen the floor in 20 of the last 28 games (compared to nine of the previous 28), but his minute totals remain small. The backup center responsibility still primarily belongs to Monroe.
The improved spacing the four-out lineups provide is further enhanced by Monroe’s ability to find the open man. For instance, in Detroit’s 98-88 defeat of Denver on Feb. 6, on key possessions he found D.J. Augustin and Jonas Jerebko open for baskets late in the fourth quarter to help stem a Nuggets’ comeback surge.
His head coach has been effusive in his praise for Monroe, which counteracts the persistent speculation that he does not "fit" with Van Gundy’s offensive system. Back after he was first hired, he described Monroe and Drummond as "an ideal pairing." Van Gundy added:
If I look at just the film I’ve watched now and looking at the numbers, you would say that Greg and Andre together were great offensively. That was a great combination on the offensive end of the floor, especially when the three guys around them were shooters – more conventional perimeter types.
Monroe is excelling now in an offensive system that usually surrounds him with either three or four shooters. And when the team is misfiring from beyond the arc, Van Gundy has a reliable scorer in the paint in Monroe. In an early February win over Miami, the Heat narrowed the lead to 95-83 with 5:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. Monroe returned to the floor after a timeout, scored on a hook shot and a layup to extend the lead to 16, and Miami never got closer in the 108-91 outcome.
Of course, if the Pistons wish to hold on to Monroe, they will have to put their money where their mouth is. Here the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement gives them one decided edge: Detroit is the only franchise that can offer him a five-year contract. This means that they can top a four-year/$66.5 million deal with one of five-years/$90 million. And because the CBA permits them to give annual raises of 7.5 percent rather than the standard 4.5 percent, that fifth year could pay him in excess of $20 million.
Should the Pistons present that big a package to the "Moose"? Clearly this is not a decision to be made lightly. Factors in its favor from the team’s standpoint include the expected rise in the salary cap due to the new TV deal the NBA is currently negotiating, and the difficulty in replacing a player of Monroe’s skill, versatility and production for comparable money. Instead of making Monroe a priority, Van Gundy could (for example) choose instead to pursue Atlanta’s Millsap, Golden State’s Green, or Orlando’s Harris. But each of those teams will be able to top his best offer, which could leave Detroit without a first-rate starting power forward if Monroe leaves. And since he is arguably the league’s best backup center, Van Gundy will also need to fill that position.
Last summer, almost everyone assumed Detroit was in the driver’s seat regarding Monroe’s future. Then he unexpectedly chose to sign the QO, which means that he is firmly at the controls this time around. No one can say for sure if he made this choice because he is determined to depart town, or because he desired to feel more confident about the franchise’s direction before he made a long-term commitment. We also do not know how an anticipated large jump in the salary cap beginning in 2016 will affect the approach he and agent David Falk take to contract negotiations.
By making Monroe a focal point of his offense (17.1 ppg) since the injury to Brandon Jennings, Van Gundy has shown that he values his contributions on the court. The team’s 18-10 record in the last 28 games demonstrates that the Pistons are a team with playoff potential. As mentioned above, when Van Gundy said prior to the trade deadline that Monroe was almost sure to stay put, the team’s playoff hopes were a major factor in his reasoning.
And with four starters (Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Jackson and Monroe) only age 24 or younger, future improvement can be expected. Losing Monroe this summer could be a serious setback for Detroit – especially if Van Gundy is unable to replace him with equivalent talent. So it’s not surprising that his coach also said:
I don't know where Greg's head will be in the offseason, but we're still hopeful of Greg Monroe for the long term.
I've got great respect for Greg as a player, and he's the kind of person you want in your organization going forward. Greg sees the path we're on and I hope he's gained some faith in that. I know he'll have a lot to consider, but I hope he sees we're trying to do things the right way and he wants to be a part of it.
Owner Tom Gores has also made it clear that he wants Monroe to remain in the Motor City:
We've always wanted Greg. We weren't able to make the deal in the summer, but we always have. He, by the way, has great character. He's a true professional. Even though we weren't able to make the deal, he's been there every day. Given the new culture with Stan, I think we have a great shot with Greg. Of course, it'll be his choice.
Monroe has been steadfast in his refusal to talk about the future beyond this season. But he did make these comments prior to the All-Star break indicating that the team’s turnaround has affected him positively:
It seems like it's not even the same year. It's not the same season. To be in the position where we are right now, it's just a testament to the commitment that guys made. Guys stayed together, guys stuck with everything, they fought through struggles, and we (are) in position right now. We have to continue to move in the right direction.
With subsequent wins over playoff-bound Chicago and Washington, Detroit is looking more and more like its driving down that road. Keeping Monroe beyond this summer could be another move "in the right direction."
Considering how much has changed in Detroit since the current season began, predicting what will happen over the next several months before Monroe becomes a free agent is an exercise in futility. Two months ago it seemed almost inevitable that he would be leaving. With the Pistons playing significantly better as he has been given a larger role, and the team fighting for a postseason berth for the first time in his NBA career, Motown might yet become "Moose-town."