Admit it: When comparing restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe, easily the top two targets still on the market, your gut reaction is to assume the Phoenix Suns' lightning-fast, ox-strong guard outshines the Detroit Pistons' solid, defensively limited big man.
Bledsoe is a highlight machine, blessed with physical skills that make him a handful on both ends. He was probably the biggest breakout star in the league last year and is still young enough to suggest he's not done improving.
But let's not allow Monroe's rough 2013-14 campaign to cloud the comparison. The truth is, Detroit's big man might actually be more valuable than Bledsoe going forward.
It's admittedly tough to sell Monroe as the better player. Bledsoe's value is obvious, and our general tendency to prefer exciting smaller players to less-relatable giants is difficult to overcome. Still, when we consider all of the information available—with special attention to both free agents' situations last year, as well as their overall numbers—there's a pretty strong case for Monroe.
Doomed From the Start
Everybody knew the Pistons' acquisition of Josh Smith last year would destroy the team's offensive spacing. It was one of the rare preseason narratives everybody agreed on that eventually played out exactly as expected.
Detroit lacked reliable perimeter shooters at the guard positions, a problem exacerbated by a frontcourt rotation of Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond, all of whom lacked jumpers. Defenses clogged the lane, daring any Piston to fire away.
Smith, as he is wont to do, obliged. He shot 34.2 percent from 10-16 feet and 36 percent on long twos, per Basketball-Reference.com. Overall, Detroit ranked 28th in the NBA in mid-range accuracy and dead last on above-the-break threes, per NBA.com.
Up until last season, Monroe had been a very effective offensive player from the elbows and on the blocks. He excelled at surveying the floor, attacking with one dribble and finishing at the rim with a variety of moves.
But he had no room to operate on last year's Pistons, and his stats suffered.
Plus, Detroit's poor start and ongoing ineptitude made it a postseason afterthought early on. It lost eight of its first 12 games to start the year, endured a coaching change from Maurice Cheeks to John Loyer and closed out the affair with 24 losses in its final 32 games.
Lacking proper spacing and suffering from the malaise that comes with immediately lowered expectations, Monroe didn't have much of a chance to succeed in 2013-14. He posted his worst across-the-board numbers since his rookie year.
To be fair, 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game (especially under the circumstances) aren't anything to sneeze at. And if we look past last year's struggles, there's still a ton to like about Monroe: He's nimble for his size, has good hands and can score in a variety of ways in the lane.
If we only looked at last season, there would seem to be even more to like about Bledsoe. As was the case with Monroe, though, we have to consider the situation Bledsoe enjoyed in Phoenix.
The Suns played faster than the Pistons, let the triples fly and created far more space for offensive players to operate. Utilizing two point guards frequently, Phoenix took playmaking pressure off of Bledsoe whenever possible, and the presence of multiple three-point threats on the floor at all times turned the lane into a runway for the athletic guard.
Naturally, his stats were terrific: 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. Only five other players in the league—LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and James Harden—matched or exceeded those numbers last year, per Basketball-Reference.
Numbers don't exist in isolation; their context matters. And when we consider the disparate situations in which Monroe and Bledsoe played last year, it's pretty remarkable that the overall statistical picture was still pretty close.
For what it's worth, Monroe regains the numerical advantage when we look at minutes-adjusted career numbers:
The Bledsoe-Monroe comparison can't proceed any further without mentioning the dynamic guard's injury issues. A torn meniscus cost Bledsoe half of the 2013-14 campaign, and though he returned looking as spry as ever, we're still judging his star credentials on incomplete information.
And though this isn't meant as a slight toward Bledsoe, there are simply more great guards in the NBA right now than there are skilled big men. The Suns have a pair of terrific backcourt players besides Bledsoe in Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, for example.
Perhaps most importantly, Monroe is actually six months younger than Bledsoe. There's an old adage that it takes bigs longer to develop than smalls, so it's not completely off-base to assume Monroe has another career growth spurt ahead that Bledsoe doesn't.
What if that growth comes on the defensive end, and Monroe matures into a legitimate two-way star? And what if he's liberated by whatever new team signs him and allows him to play in more space?
Or what if the Pistons manage to do the impossible: trade Smith to unclog the offense?
Possibilities like those could be why new Pistons coach and president Stan Van Gundy has long been committed to keeping Monroe in the fold, as he told reporters:
We want Greg Monroe back, but it’s obviously got to be a mutual thing, too. There’s no hesitation there. From day one, I think Greg can tell you I went down and met with him; he was the first player I met with. I went down and met with him within a few days of getting the job and made it clear to him when we met with him in Miami, we made it clear to him that we want him back and we haven’t wavered on that at all.
A few weeks ago, it seemed obvious that both Monroe and Bledsoe would get max offers—either from their own teams or on the open market. But neither restricted free agent has signed an offer sheet or contract yet. The longer this goes on, the better the bargain might be for each.
At least they have that in common.
There's no getting around it: Bledsoe is the more exciting player. We know less about him because he's been a starter for just half a season, and we tend to overvalue guys we haven't had a full opportunity to pick apart yet. Monroe's shortcomings are better understood because he's been a regular for all four of his NBA seasons.
Where we can only hope Monroe becomes a decent defender, Bledsoe has already proven his worth on that end—and then some, per Grantland's Zach Lowe:
Attacking Bledsoe one-on-one on the perimeter or from the block is usually going to lead to a brutally tough shot — even if you can drive into the restricted area. He’s so strong that one chest-to-chest bump stalls the momentum of almost any guard, and his giant wingspan allows him to challenge floaters and layups from all angles.
Even when described in print, Bledsoe just sounds more exciting. Monroe, by contrast, seems boring. We watch Bledsoe dart up and down the floor, barreling into bigger bodies, and marvel at the way he plays.
Technically skilled bigs with good passing eyes are less exciting.
But the stats, on balance, indicate Monroe may be the better player—especially when viewed within the proper context.
A Point Worth Remembering
Most observers probably assume Bledsoe is the guy with the brighter future. Maybe that's true. Maybe he really is a borderline superstar who'll only get better and healthier as his career progresses.
Monroe, though, has been the more effective, more proven NBA player to this point. And given his age and the way he's excelled in less-than-ideal situations, he could eventually put more distance between himself and Bledsoe.
Teams bidding on these two players, including their incumbent clubs, might want to keep that possibility in mind.