Restricted free agents in the NBA don't have many options.
More often than not, they're stuck, as they're almost completely controlled by the team that rostered them the season before they hit the open market. They can choose to sign with their old franchise or ink an offer sheet with a different squad, but the team controlling their rights can choose to match any offer sheet they do sign.
No matter what, things are out of their control. Well, not exactly, as Greg Monroe is proving.
As USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reports, "Monroe has informed the Detroit Pistons' he will accept the qualifying offer, play for Detroit in 2014-15 and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, two people familiar with Monroe's plan told USA TODAY Sports."
Wait, what? That's allowed? Qualifying offers aren't just procedural and they actually mean something?
Indeed, they remain a legitimate option for all restricted free agents, even if it's something that seldom comes to fruition. Lower-tier free agents might decide to play for the qualifying offer if nothing better presents itself, but rarely do superstars make that decision.
Zillgitt writes, while arguing that Eric Bledsoe could follow in Monroe's footsteps, that this isn't an easy choice to make, and it really is quite rare:
Monroe didn't make the decision lightly. He has been discussing options with his agent David Falk for the past two offseasons, and Falk has been impressed with Monroe's analytic, intelligent and unemotional approach to free agency.
It is a rare move for a restricted free agent to forsake financial security and a long-term deal now for the hope of something similar one year later. Signing the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent doesn't happen often, but it does happen and there are risks involved — injury or a down season — that could impact the value of the next contract.
It requires foresight, confidence and boldness to sign the qualifying offer, and while it gives a player a chance to explore unrestricted free agency earlier than usual, most players don't want to take that risk.
Monroe's boldness could set a league-wide trend, one in which players exercise control over their situations by delaying their big contracts for a year. But that's highly unlikely, simply because this is such a ridiculously unusual situation.
As Rotoworld.com explained after the decision was announced, "It's an interesting move for Monroe, who becomes one of the better players to have ever signed a qualifying offer instead of taking a long-term deal."
Actually, I'd contend he's the best in recent years.
Over the last decade, only 13 first-round picks have accepted qualifying offers instead of signing a long-term deal during their respective bouts in restricted free agency, per Tom Ziller of SBNation.com, who elaborates below:
Think of all the weird, tortured restricted free agency cases we've had over the years, like Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Gerald Wallace and others. None of them resulted in the player signing the qualifying offer.
Ben Gordon is the closest example of a high-level case. After failing to reach a deal with the Bulls in 2008, Gordon signed the qualifying offer and received an absurd, painful five-year, $55 million deal with Detroit in 2009. But Gordon is a rare case: since 2003, only 13 first-round picks have ever taken the qualifying offer. Of those 13, only Spencer Hawes agreed to a long-term deal with the same team.
Even with Monroe taking an unorthodox route and attempting to legitimize it, the risks will never outweigh the benefits, even if there are admittedly positives associated with such a decision. For the Detroit big man, those all center around hitting the open market one year later and having complete control over his future (well, to the extent that's possible with other teams offering contracts).
His situation is too unique to be replicated, even if Bledsoe also signs a qualifying offer with the Phoenix Suns and makes it seem as though a trend is beginning. Newsflash, though: Two players out of every restricted free agent this summer does not make for a statistically verifiable trend.
Let's look beyond his agent, David Falk, and his ability to make unorthodox decisions that pan out nicely for his client. As Zillgitt highlights, Falk successfully aided Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert and Alonzo Mourning by turning down offers and watching as better options developed later on.
Let's also look past the expected uptick in the salary cap, one aided by league-wide revenues and the looming television contract that has made savvy players like LeBron James sign short-term deals to re-up later. That's unique to this season and perhaps the next few, but the cap won't trend upward forever.
For two primary reasons, Monroe himself is unique.
He's a natural center, a player who has always found more success when lining up at the 5 than at any other spot on the court. More so than any other position—considering the correlation between dominant center play and championship-caliber seasons, as well as the dearth of quality options at the 5—centers are always going to be in demand.
Even with the NBA trending toward more small-ball stylings and marginalizing the impact of traditional back-to-the-basket bigs, some teams will always desire an old-school big man like Monroe.
"I would like to get him long term," Stan Van Gundy told Vincent Goodwill of the The Detroit News. "I have great respect for him as a person and a player. I think we've tried to make him understand what we're trying to do and why he's an important part of it."
If that's the type of praise he's getting internally, from a coach and president of basketball operations who presumably knows that he isn't a good fit next to Josh Smith and Andre Drummond, just imagine the regard for him within organizations that can actually maximize his talents.
Beyond that, he's the rare young veteran, oxymoronic as that may seem.
Monroe has four years of NBA experience under his belt, and he only turned 24 in early June. Despite his youth, he's already a known commodity, but he's also an up-and-coming player. On top of that, he's already established and experienced, especially because he spent two years at Georgetown before declaring for the NBA draft in 2010.
He's basically a walking contradiction.
Contrast that against the other notable free agents from this offseason.
Bledsoe is slightly less than a year older, but he's by no means a known commodity, not coming off an injury-plagued season in which he thrived—when healthy—as a first-year starter. Gordon Hayward is only months older than Monroe, but no one has any idea what his ceiling and floor look like, as the Utah Jazz have allowed him to remain a massive question mark. Chandler Parsons is a fairly predictable commodity now, but he's going to turn 26 prior to the start of the 2014-15 season.
At this point, Monroe is who he is—a uniquely aged player who has minimal injury concerns.
Anyone and everyone is subject to the injury imp, but everything about Monroe allows him to avoid incessant worries that an ill-timed malady could drastically decrease his earning potential. Not only is his skill set established, but he's a big man who doesn't rely on athleticism, thereby mitigating any worries he might otherwise have about suffering a blow so major he can't recover to his pre-injury form.
Injuries, after all, are one of the biggest reasons why qualifying offers will never be in vogue. There's never any certainty in a physically demanding sport, and an extra year of wear and tear could lead to a major blow that depresses a player's stock.
Essentially, it's the same situation players are in when they decide to return for another year of college: They're risking injury for a chance to up their stock.
Giving up a shot at a long-term contract is never something that the majority of players will do. It takes a special set of circumstances and a truly unfixable situation, much like the one Monroe faces with Smith and Drummond also lining up in the frontcourt throughout the foreseeable future.
Monroe is not going to be a trendsetter. The qualifying offer will not suddenly gain prominence now that he's apparently opting for that route.
As Ziller writes, "Players—more accurately players' agents—have been threatening to sign the qualifying offer for ages. There's a reason no one takes those threats seriously. The QO is not an arrow in the players' quivers. It's a fake weapon."
It'll take a lot more than this to help a fake weapon transition into something real. The qualifying offer is real enough for Monroe, but it won't be a potent weapon for the rest of the NBA until there's a significant change in the league's collective bargaining agreement.
For now, restricted free agents are still exactly that—restricted.