Greg Monroe’s Paradox

He’s young, productive, and without a real position in the modern NBA. Is that why no one wants to pay him?

A ’68 Mustang fastback not but 20,000 on the odometer. Cherry, its semi-Hemi less gunked up than a rack of ribs off the well-worn smoker. Power so heavily steady, she can get away from you if you’re not careful. Staid and sturdy enough to weather three freeway wrecks, all that’s left is to wait for an auction-lot bid once the cash for the Cobras and Vettes is spent.

That’s Greg Monroe this summer, if he were a car analogy cobbled together from various Wikipedia entries.

Almost a full month after the NBA’s free-agency frenzy began in earnest, the Pistons’ pivot — at 24, already one of the league’s unquestioned frontcourt up-and-comers — remains in a strange limbo. A restricted free agent, Monroe hasn’t been offered so much as a forkful of spoiled picnic potato salad, let alone the near-max contract many believed he’d field.

Heading into July, everyone knew Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James would dictate the terms of engagement — theirs being particular kinds gravitational forces. How the subsequent dominoes somehow stopped at Monroe (and, to an equally weird degree, Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe); that’s a bit more complicated.

(AP Images)

From a sheer statistical perspective, it’s hard to beef with Monroe’s bona fides: 16.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes and a career PER of 19.3. That sounds supersexy, until one considers this: Over four NBA seasons, Monroe has yet to — brace yourself — hit a single three-pointer.

Not one! You know who has hit a three since 2010? Ben Wallace! Two of them! In this very dimension! Meanwhile, over that same “stretch,” Ryan Anderson—one inch slighter and 15 pounds lighter than Monroe— made 580 of them. And he missed almost all of last season with a spine injury.

That’s not just a lot more three-pointers. That’s infinitely more three pointers! Why? Because 580 multiplied by zero is zero! It’s math! I think.

That the stretch four has become an integral part of the standard NBA offense goes without saying. The numbers, borne by a delicate medley of increasingly specialized skill sets and guard-friendly, league-led legislation, bare it out. As teams place a heavier emphasis on guards capable of broadening the perimeter point of attack, keeping the paint free and clear of lane-clogging bigs is of the utmost importance — your Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll savants notwithstanding, of course.

Monroe’s definitively not a stretch four, but he’s not really a pick-and-roll big, either. In fact, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell what, exactly, the former Georgetown standout really is, in the purest positional sense.

And that’s precisely the problem. At least when it comes to his value.

The NBA avant-garde might be quick to embrace the label-less revolution—the idea that a player’s semantic signifier isn’t nearly as important as what the statistics signify. You can, for instance, cite’s figure that Monroe logged 66 percent of his time during the 2013-’14 campaign at the power-forward slot, and then point to Monroe’s superior production at center as proof positive his destiny lies at the five.

What you can’t say, given the data at hand, is that Monroe—skills and smarts aside—is a safe big-money bet. And, ironically, it was Detroit’s very faith in positional nebulousness — typified most acutely in Joe Dumars’ decision to bring Josh Smith into a frontcourt fold already featuring Monroe and alien-in-waiting Andre Drummond — that might’ve contributed most heavily to Monroe’s current financial flux.

This is about the limit of Monroe’s jump shot range, which in the modern NBA, isn’t good enough. (AP)

With Smith shoehorned into heavy small-forward minutes, defenses would collapse on the perpetually pivot-bound Monroe, understanding very clearly how Monseigneur Smoove would be unable to help himself from laying a Boston manor’s worth of bricks from the perimeter.

That’s not to say Monroe’s was a particularly sad season. Rather, his impending free agency all but demanded he pen a marked cross-the-board improvement, to prove his productive ceiling outstrips the positional ambiguity. As such, any team willing to offer near-max money would either have to a) be committed enough to a specific team-building philosophy that 15-and-10 over the next four years would make the strategic nut, or b) so solidly in the salary black that 20-and-12 was worth the roll.

All the while, the aesthetic specifics of Monroe’s games have, at once sadly and predictably, been forgotten. As basketball tropes go, “old school” is among both the truest and most tired. For Monroe, the moniker somehow fits, in the deliberate block-bound dealings and deft touch 10 feet and in; in the Lanier-like lefty grace; in the vision unbecoming such brawn and burl (a byproduct, no doubt, of John Thompson III’s Princeton-inspired system).

Hell, even his name harkens to a distinctly Motor City sentiment—the guy you worked with on the Ford plant line that’d save a life and lend a lunch-cart quarter all in the same shift; a name of some foundry’s founder now scrawled in gleaming metal letters across a dozen different elementary schools; bombastic bluesman whose due rests with the dead.

Monroe will receive an offer sooner or later. How fair that offer is, given both past productivity and Detroit’s positional plight, though, remains an open question. Barring a league expansion that brings six more Sacramento Kings franchises into the NBA, Josh Smith’s $14 million aren’t going anywhere. And neither is Andre Drummond, who could be eating planets by the time he’s 25.

Maybe Stan Van Gundy, knowing he has him over a diplomatic rail, offers Monroe a modest extension—something in the three-year, $36 million range—and simply figure out the fits and positions after the fact. That would put the 6'11" pivot in line for a max extension at 27, right in the heart of his prime.

Or, more in keeping with Motown’s moribund fortunes, perhaps the Pistons simply refuses to match even the most modest of tenders. His game renounced, as was the city itself, for being far bigger and better and more important than it did make sense—an assembly-line logic in a Wall Street world, where points are more important than the art of production itself.

Like the broken gray Gotham he represents, Greg Monroe’s game was built to last, until somehow it suddenly wasn’t. It’s still serviceable, of course; NBA teams are no more likely to pass completely on that kind of proven utility than we are to walk to Wal-Mart, ‘88 Lincoln lying idle on the lawn. It just hasn’t stopped the market—buoyed as it is by equal parts logic and lies—from wielding its invisible hand.