The last legitimate source linking Greg Monroe to a franchise other than the Detroit Pistons came July 21 from Huffington Post writer Jordan Schultz. We have to go back a day earlier to find a possible escape from Phoenix for point guard Eric Bledsoe, who was linked to the Los Angeles Lakers by Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe.
As of publication, Bledsoe and Monroe remain unsigned. Neither Phoenix nor Detroit is acting with any sense of urgency. As we enter August—the most dormant month on the NBA calendar—neither Monroe nor Bledsoe is any closer to figuring out his NBA future than at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1.
Which, from a basketball standpoint, makes no damn sense.
Bledsoe and Monroe were, by nearly every available metric, the two best restricted free agents on the market. Bledsoe is an absolute menace defensively, lightning quick with long arms and enough strength to give both guard positions trouble. In his first season as a full-time starter, Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game—one of just six players league-wide to fill up the box score to that degree.
Monroe's tepid market is a bit more understandable. No one can quite figure out if he's a center or power forward, his playing style looks more archaic by the second and his counting stats have been in a near paralysis since his second season. I mean, come on: A whopping 12 NBA players averaged 15 points and nine rebounds in 2013-14. Sign him to a minimum deal and let's move on.
Thinly veiled sarcasm aside, Bledsoe and Monroe are the prototypes for the types of non-All-Stars teams typically covet. Both are 24 years old. Neither has been in a situation where he's the lead dog of his own show. One system adjustment or new coach might unlock a perennial All-Star.
The answer to why their market has been nonexistent is buried in the fourth paragraph, 12 words into the first sentence: restricted.
Under the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, restricted free agency is the NBA's sharpest double-edged sword for both teams and players. Previous iterations saw the scales tipped wildly in the favor of a player's incumbent team. At one point, teams had seven days to decide whether to match a signed offer sheet—which might as well be seven years in NBA free-agency terms.
The new deal is more favorable to the players, allotting only a 72-hour window between the submission of an offer sheet and a decision. While this concession has opened up much more movement for restricted free agents, it's also created a system of haves and have nots. And a black Sharpie line is usually drawn by the end of the NBA's moratorium period on July 10.
Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons have responded to their incumbent teams' refusal to provide adequate compensation by signing offer sheets with enough poison to strike fear into an inland taipan.
Lin and Asik signed contracts with the Houston Rockets that called for $15 million balloon payments in their final seasons. The Dallas Mavericks proved that karma is indeed an (expletive) this summer by turning the restricted free-agency game back on the Rockets, adding Chandler Parsons on a contract general manager Daryl Morey called "literally one of the most untradeable structures that I’ve ever seen."
No one who has seen Chandler Parsons play defense thinks he's worth more than $15 million annually. Lin and Asik—one whose resume was built on a 20ish-game sample, and the other a backup center who hadn't even played 15 minutes per game in a season—were lauded for pilfering a desperate Morey's money. Gordon Hayward, Tyreke Evans and others in recent seasons have also cashed in with contracts well beyond their on-court production.
For the Bledsoes and Monroes of the world, though, restricted free agency becomes a diabolical mind game.
The Suns and Pistons leaked through back channels that they would match any offer—up to and including the full max—and essentially threw a full-fledged Sub Zero on their market value. Teams are not going to waste precious days of free agency by tying up their cap on a player they have zero chance of landing. The risk of losing their second and third options in the interim is just too great.
Last summer, Nikola Pekovic hung dry on the open market until Aug. 14, when he re-signed with the Timberwolves for five years and $60 million. Minnesota paid Pekovic a fair price, but he's probably a near-max player if he enters the unrestricted free-agency pool this summer.
"Agency," the act of exerting power, is almost nowhere to be found. The guys left on the market are left with two options: take a below-market contract or bet literally tens of millions of dollars on your talent.
Bledsoe and Monroe can only regain a semblance of power by accepting their qualifying offers, which guarantee $3.7 million and $5.5 million, respectively. The Suns currently have had a longstanding four-year, $48 million contract on the table, equivalent to what Toronto is paying Kyle Lowry. Monroe and the Pistons have discussed a contract around five years and $60 million, on par with what Washington gave Marcin Gortat.
In today's basketball discourse, contract numbers get thrown around like fast-food orders. Let's stop for a minute and be clear here: Bledsoe would be betting $44.3 million; Monroe $54.5 million. That's build-yourself-a-Scrooge-McDuck-vault money. Incumbent teams know this and are comfortable playing a game of chicken with their talent, assuming lifetime financial security will eventually outweigh the allure of "fair market value."
"First off I'm going to let my agent handle it," Bledsoe told Kyle Burger of NBC13 in Birmingham last week. "I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using a restricted free agent against me. But I understand that."
Bledsoe is 100 percent correct. The Suns are using his restricted free-agency status against him. And, here's the thing: That's exactly what they should be doing. Stan Van Gundy and Ryan McDonough are using the system the league collectively bargained to create the most advantageous structure for their franchise.
It's not about the $4 million in extra cash they're saving per season. It's about the freedom that money gives Van Gundy and McDonough in the future. Trading Monroe or Bledsoe two years down the line is a hell of a lot more palatable at $12 million than it is at $16 million. The extra coin is also enough to add another free agent at a price near the mid-level exception.
Dumb teams overpay for talent. Smart teams run the pros and cons of every last dime they spend. It's that way in every sport with a salary cap, and especially so for non-tax spenders like Detroit and Phoenix. Van Gundy and McDonough are playing this out the right way, and they're even more comfortable doing so because they know what little options their players have.
The Sixers are the only team remaining with Bledsoe/Monroe-level cap space. Sam Hinkie has as much interest in actual basketball players as he does in living the rest of his life without eyebrows. The Pistons and Suns are free to sit, wait and dangle their offers like a corrupt movie villain.
Meanwhile, Bledsoe and Monroe get a harsh lesson on what it's like to be an outsider on the NBA free-agency market.
Salary figures courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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