It was never supposed to be this difficult.
In their bid to return to the postseason after a five-year absence, the Detroit Pistons weren't supposed to have any difficulty retaining restricted free agent Greg Monroe. With the 24-year-old having quickly established himself as one of the most consistently solid young big men in the game, new head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy initially sounded firmly committed to keeping him around.
But it's unclear that the feeling is mutual. And in any event, it's even less clear that the two sides will reach an agreement on dollars.
The Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis reported that "the Pistons have moved from the initial five-year, $60-million offer and an offer that’s slightly better on a per-year basis than the four-year, $54-million deal that Josh Smith signed last summer is on the table."
Ellis added that having failed to secure an agreement, "negotiations aren’t ongoing."
Monroe himself subsequently suggested via Twitter that he hadn't actually been extended an offer for five years and $60 million.
Whatever the offer, Pistons owner Tom Gores told the Free Press' Ellis, "Of course we would like him to do that, but the fact is Greg has to decide what’s exactly right for him and he has great people representing him. We’d like Greg to get on board, but he’s got time to think about it and we should give him that time."
So all we know at the moment is that talks haven't been especially productive.
For his part, Monroe has been in South Africa participating in the Basketball without Borders Africa camp, teaching kids from around the continent how to play the game.
Asked if his free agency had been weighing on him, Monroe told Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger, "Not very much, to be honest. It's been great to get out here, relax, clear my mind and take this new experience in. I don't listen to all of the reports and rumors—I'm just enjoying the fresh air."
Regarding his contract, he added, "We're still trying to sort things out. I'm really not sure what is going to happen, I've just enjoyed my time here, and it's been nice to get away and do something positive with my time."
If it doesn't sound like Monroe is particularly excited about reaching an agreement, there may be a reason for that.
Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler wrote in July that, "The problem for the Pistons is that Monroe and his camp are not overly thrilled with the idea of signing a long-term deal at what they perceive to be less than market valuation."
"Monroe’s camp wants a short-term deal or a player option so he can hit the unrestricted market if he agrees to a lower dollar deal," explained Kyler.
At the heart of the problem is apparent disagreement about just how much Monroe is worth. He's durable and productive, but he's also a predominantly interior scorer at a position increasingly dominated by stretch-4s or more athletic tweeners.
Complicating matters even further, Detroit signed Josh Smith last summer. Though the Pistons attempted to play him at small forward in 2013-14, he's far better-suited to play the 4. In theory, Monroe could slide over to play center, but this franchise has no interest in demoting starter Andre Drummond and his seemingly unlimited upside.
It isn't easy to justify a max contract for Monroe.
Last season he averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 32.8 minutes per contest. Great numbers, but not the kind that instantly guarantee a max deal. Monroe isn't an elite rim protector and plays most of his game below the rim, further casting doubt on the premise that he's superstar material.
Indeed, Monroe finds himself in something of a contractual no-man's land.
He's just indispensable enough to potentially name his price, but he's not dominant enough to make the Pistons feel good about it.
With Monroe returning his focus to his future, the question now turns to whether there's a way out of this deadlock.
In a perfect world, Monroe might get his money on a different team via a sign-and-trade arrangement. He's productive enough that a club in need of some size might be more willing to pay the premium bill.
In theory, anyway.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier in July that "the Pistons have been willing to engage teams in sign-and-trade scenarios for Monroe, but those talks have gained little traction, sources said."
While the organization may not view Monroe as worth a maximum contract, it probably considers him worthy of a fairly stacked trade package. That could make a deal difficult to orchestrate, even if that's the best direction for Detroit and Monroe alike.
The next-best option would be dealing away Smith, who's owed $42 million over the course of his next three seasons with the club. Trading Smith for a true swingman would alleviate some of the dysfunction in Detroit's rotation, potentially improving floor spacing and unclogging the paint where Monroe does his best work.
Moreover, the organization may find it easier to spend big bucks on Monroe without Smith's contract also on the books—assuming it were able to exchange Smith for an expiring contract or two.
In July, ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that "the Detroit Pistons and the Sacramento Kings have resumed trade discussions on a deal that could send Josh Smith to Sacramento, according to sources with knowledge of the talks."
Stein noted that "initial talks called for Sacramento to send Jason Thompson and either Derrick Williams or Jason Terry to the Pistons for Smith, but those discussions reached an impasse and were pushed into July along with the rest of both teams' free-agent business, sources said."
While Thompson has three seasons remaining on his contract, Terry's expires after this season. Williams is set to become a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 campaign. Either scenario would trim Detroit's salary commitments and make it a little easier to swallow a lucrative deal with Monroe.
Then again, the odds of a deal happening may be slim. According to Wojnarowski, "Van Gundy reached out to forward Josh Smith to tell him that reports of the franchise engaging in substantive trade talks with Sacramento centered on Smith have been inaccurate."
Though various talks centered around Monroe and Smith seem to have gone nowhere, something will almost certainly have to give in Detroit. The franchise can't afford to make such significant investments in a front line that simply didn't pan out last season.
While Detroit's worst-case scenario would be losing Monroe for nothing, that doesn't mean more of the same is even remotely ideal—especially at a higher price point.
If all else fails, the Pistons should do what it takes to retain Monroe and revisit trade talks (for either Monroe or Smith) down the road.
The status quo isn't sustainable, either in basketball or financial terms.
There's more at stake here than Monroe's contract situation. The future makeup of the Pistons hangs in the balance, and there remains plenty of work to do on that front.
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