Greg Monroe's future with the Detroit Pistons is tied to the always-aggressive Stan Van Gundy and his ability to make sense of a roster still overrun with questions and confusion and overlapping, incompatible talent.
So, Josh Smith.
Sources are telling ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the Pistons and Sacramento Kings continue to discuss a potential Smith trade. Talks began ahead of the NBA draft before bowing out of the rumor mill entirely. That they're back on now, when Monroe, a restricted free agent, still hasn't signed an offer sheet, is not pure coincidence.
Rather, it speaks to the influence Smith's future with the Pistons has over Monroe's.
When free agency first began, Grantland's Zach Lowe was hearing Monroe wasn't at all willing to remain in Detroit long term if J-Smoove was still around:
Reading between the lines, a sign-and-trade involving Thomas and Josh Smith may be in the works, and multiple sources say Monroe’s camp has made it known Monroe will sign the one-year qualifying offer if Smith remains on the roster. Monroe’s camp denies that, and that kind of empty threat is not atypical from top restricted free agents. It’s really their only form of leverage.
Signing and trading for Isaiah Thomas is off the table since he joined the Phoenix Suns, and per Vince Ellis of USA Today Van Gundy has denied that Monroe takes exception to Smith's presence, but the overall premise of these talks are alive and well.
Smith and Monroe cannot play together for long stretches at a time. Not with Andre Drummond in the fold. They're both better suited when able to have unmitigated access to the blocks.
Playing together creates a floor-spacing nightmare. The Pistons finished 29th in three-point shooting last season, converting only 32.1 percent of their long balls. They also ranked 20th in offensive efficiency, revealing themselves to be a disjointed collective that couldn't consistently move the ball or create high-percentage shot opportunities.
Those poor results aren't shocking when considering the personnel, specifically Smith, who was, essentially, a small forward incapable of hitting jumpers.
Not that he wouldn't take them. He did. He took a lot of them.
Almost 51 percent of Smith's total shot attempts came outside nine feet, per NBA.com. Problem is, he shot just 28.4 percent when stepping out there. Monroe wasn't much better, connecting on just 36.4 percent of his attempts outside nine feet.
Both were more effective, and preferred to operate, within 10 feet of the basket, as power forwards usually are. But they both cannot play power forward. Not unless one of them comes off the bench (which they won't). And even then, their minutes would have to be completely staggered to ensure they're rarely, if ever, playing together when Drummond is jumping center.
It's not that the Pistons were worse offensively with both on the floor. They were slightly better.
|The Monroe-Smoove Effect|
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net. Rtg.||eFG%||TS%||PACE|
|With Monroe and Smoove||103.6||107.5||-3.9||48.7%||51.7%||97.22|
Slightly better just isn't good enough.
Say the Pistons re-sign Monroe. They're going to have tens of millions of dollars—close to $100 million, even—invested in this pairing over the next three years. For that kind of money they need a duo that can have a profound impact, not nudge their offensive needle by less than one point per 100 possessions.
If this is to work, Smith must learn how to shoot threes, and the odds of that happening are poor. Though he's never been shy about hoisting bombs—3.4 attempts last season—he's converting just 27.9 percent of them for his career. His single-season high stands at 33.1 percent.
Landing Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler helps, no doubt. They can both hit threes, whereas guys like Rodney Stuckey—27.3 percent from long range last season—could not.
But adding them only helps if Monroe is going to play center and Smith is at power forward. Surround them with three shooters and there's hope for the offense. Yet the frequency with which Detroit can do that is limited because of Drummond.
New acquisitions won't mean as much for the Pistons if they're still trying to squeeze success from a nonsensical dyad. Van Gundy knows this, dating back to his days with the Orlando Magic, when he (almost) exclusively ran one-in, four-out sets around Dwight Howard. Playing Smith, Drummond and Monroe is the equivalent of having, at best, three guys in and two guys out.
Well aware this won't work, can Van Gundy and the Pistons commit big money to Monroe? When, according to the Sporting News' Sean Deveney, big money equates to a max contract?
Most definitely maybe.
Though probably not.
Re-signing Monroe is also predicated on him wanting to stay, not just the Pistons wanting to keep him.
Who's to say he wants to stay when Smith is still around? Lowe's report may have been refuted, but Van Gundy didn't sound so sure Monroe was sold on what Detroit is doing, per CBS Detroit's Ashley Dunkak:
I don’t have a great feel from him of what he thinks about what is going on. He’s well aware of not only who we’ve signed but our reasoning behind all of them, that what we’re trying to do both in terms of on the court, adding shooting around, which gives he and Andre and Josh more room to operate, and also in terms of the kind of people we’re trying to add. I think that that’s important too. I hope all of our guys are recognizing the type of people that we’re trying to add and that we think it’s important to build a team with...
...We have tried. [We] tried to make a very strong case for ourselves and for our organization. I think that we’ve tried to make him understand what we’re trying to do and why we think he’s an important part of it, but again, he’s got some decisions to make, too.
Something is clearly up.
Players like Monroe, talents of his caliber, don't sit around at the height of free agency without doing something. He should have signed an offer sheet with another team by now.
But he hasn't, suggesting he's waiting for something, hoping Van Gundy is able shore up his future with more than a couple floor-spacing scorers who don't solve Detroit's most pressing problem.
Monroe is already making a sacrifice by playing power forward, remember. He's put up better numbers as a center. Last season he registered a player efficiency rating of 20.6 at the 5, compared to 18.3 at the 4, per 82games.com.
Asking him to step aside for Drummond is one thing. Tasking him with playing alongside Smith—whose PER was six points higher at power forward (17.8) than small forward (11.5)—is unreasonable.
This is the next four to five years of Monroe's future we're talking about. His individual production—even though his shooting percentages are marginally better when playing with Smith—is going to suffer if things don't change.
Beyond that, this has already been rendered a flawed design.
The Pistons won 29 games last year. They were supposed to contend for the playoffs. Additions like Meeks, Butler and D.J. Augustin help move them in the right direction, but how many extra wins will they represent? Two? Four? Six? Do they even impact this team at all?
Bringing in Smith and Brandon Jennings turned out to be a lateral move. The Pistons matched their win total from 2012-13. There's no reason to suddenly believe one more year of an imperfect dynamic bolstered by career journeymen is enough.
Because it's not enough.
Not for Monroe to sign on the dotted line.
That leaves trading Smith as Van Gundy's only option. That's the only way he guarantees Monroe's return.
And the Kings are his only hope.
J-Smoove is owed $40.5 million over the next three years, according to ShamSports. Outside teams won't be lining up to absorb the contract of a supposed star who has never reached his full potential, mostly because his feeble, rim-clanging jumper spawns paint-clogging horror shows.
Even the perpetually puzzling, everlastingly eccentric Kings have reason to pause, per Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News:
If the Kings deal falls through, there is (likely) no one else. This isn't an expiring contract Van Gundy is looking to unload. It's a long-term albatross, belonging to one of the NBA's greatest enigmas.
It doesn't help that every team—including Sacramento—knows Van Gundy is in a bind, despite public rebuttals to the contrary. Stein even says the Pistons were considering Monroe sign-and-trade deals involving the Portland Trail Blazers.
The threat of losing him is real.
“Look, I would like to get him long-term,” Van Gundy said, via Dunkak. “That’s what I would like to have happen."
Trade Smith and that's exactly what will happen.
Fail to move him and Monroe isn't just a flight risk. He's gone.
*Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.