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Free Agent Stock Watch: Greg Monroe

A strained right knee has kept Greg Monroe out since March 14th, but while he said he’ll definitely make it back before the regular season ends two weeks from Wednesday, it’s quite conceivable, if not probable, that he’s seen his last moments of meaningful basketball in a Pistons uniform. The Pistons are in 12th place and four and a half games out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and Monroe’s unrestricted free agency looms in July. The end of the season will signal the end of a period of relative financial sacrifice for the former seventh overall pick, who turned down reported offers of eight-figure salaries to take a one-year qualifying offer of slightly less than $5.48MM and hit unrestricted free agency as soon as possible.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Golden State WarriorsThe move appeared to signal that Monroe wanted out of Detroit, as signing a lucrative, long-term offer sheet with any other team of his choosing last summer could have simply tethered him to the Pistons for that much longer if they had matched. Still, agent David Falk insists that his client will “absolutely” consider re-signing with the Pistons, echoing Monroe’s own comment on the matter from before the season. Falk also made it seem as though Monroe was a long way from thinking about where he wants to play next year, though the impending end of the season will no doubt bring him a step closer to that.

Monroe and Falk reportedly discouraged teams from presenting him with offer sheets. The big man said he was wary of committing for the long term to Detroit before he became comfortable with Stan Van Gundy, who was then just a few months into his job as coach president of basketball operations. A sign-and-trade was an alternative solution, since that would have allowed Monroe to sign a market-value deal for multiple years with another team without the threat of a match from Van Gundy and company. The Pistons reportedly talked to the BlazersHawks and Pelicans about sign-and-trades, but nothing materialized. The Magic and Cavs apparently had interest in Monroe, too, but Orlando felt “lukewarm at best” about him, as Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press put it, and Cleveland seemed to move away from him once LeBron James committed to go back there.

Nearly a year has passed since last year’s free agency, and Monroe has had just about a full season to get a feel for Van Gundy. Monroe dismissed rumors that he didn’t want to play alongside Josh Smith, but Van Gundy’s bold decision to waive Smith in December, less than halfway into a $54MM contract, had a marked effect on Monroe’s production. The former Georgetown Hoya was putting up 14.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in 29.0 minutes per game prior to Smith’s release, all figures that would have represented his lowest season numbers since he was a rookie. Since then, he’s put up 16.9 PPG and 11.5 RPG in 32.6 MPG, and those scoring and rebounding figures would be career highs if extrapolated over an entire season. The contrast could scarcely be more stark.

One executive estimated to Michael Scotto of SheridanHoops around the time of the Smith waiver that Monroe would merit a four-year, $48MM deal, but he’s probably lifted his value quite a bit since then. He denied that he received an offer from the Pistons that would have eclipsed the value of Smith’s deal, and he said that it wouldn’t have taken a maximum-salary offer for him to commit to Detroit. He downplayed the idea of accepting the highest bid and Falk reiterated that this season, insisting that money won’t be the primary determinant for where Monroe will play next year.

That’s an inauspicious sign in one respect for the Pistons, who can offer a fifth year and higher raises than any other team can. It’s a stance that could also ease a burden for a team that’s already planning a push to re-sign restricted free agent Reggie Jackson and faces rookie scale extension negotiations with Andre Drummond in the offseason ahead. Having Monroe back at any sort of discount would no doubt accelerate Van Gundy’s rebuilding plans.

That idea still seems a long shot, particularly with other teams already showing interest. The Hawks, who were one of the teams apparently in sign-and-trade talks with Detroit this past summer, and Knicks were reportedly planning pursuits as far back as December. The Lakers reportedly asked the Pistons about trading for Monroe before this year’s deadline. Surely others will be in the mix for the promising big man, who turns 25 in June, and even if he winds up with a max deal, it would likely cost his team a starting salary of no more than $16MM, since he’s in the 25% max bracket, a rarity for a high-level unrestricted free agent.

Monroe’s PER number is a flattering 21.1 this season, and while he’s not an elite defender, he holds his own, as his No. 20 ranking in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus/Minus for power forwards shows. He’s No. 10 in Basketball-Reference’s Box Defensive Plus Minus among the 18 players who swing between forward and center and who’ve compiled at least 500 minutes this season. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t score a deal that at least comes quite close to the max. Pistons owner Tom Gores has made it seem as though he’s willing to open his checkbook to make it happen, but I suspect Monroe will settle for lower raises and one fewer year on his contract to head to another team. Still, that’s just my speculation, and the market can shift between now and July as others distinguish themselves even if Monroe isn’t playing, especially come draft time.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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