Monroe is young, talented, productive and—more pertinent still—worth far more than what the Pistons will pay him for the 2014-15 season.
It’s a win-win all around, right?
That, to put it mildly, is not ideal.
With Monroe’s future in Detroit uncertain to say the least, how Stan Van Gundy opts to utilize the burly lefty promises to be a compelling storyline indeed.
The question is both a strategic and a statistical one: Strategic in the sense that merely relegating Monroe to the bench would deprive the Pistons of a useful player (while all but sealing his exit); and statistical in the sense that there’s scant chance of Detroit’s Big Three ever forging a sustainable two-way dynamic.
As The Washington Post’s Michael Lee recently sussed out, Monroe’s decision to accept Detroit’s qualifying offer was as much about his future freedom as it was putting an end to the two sides’ awkward stalemate:
Monroe doesn’t have anything against Van Gundy but is uncertain if he has the patience to invest four or five more years in the Pistons. Next summer, Monroe might be able to go where he pleases without much competition. Kevin Love is likely to re-sign with Cleveland (once the Cavaliers consummate the expected trade with Minnesota) and Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge will be the only other quality big man available. Several teams will also have cap space under a steadily increasing ceiling that could mean more money for the 24-year-old Monroe.
The simple solution would be to bring Monroe off the bench to spell whoever of Smith or Drummond needs the rest more. Whether that’s the right message to be sending to someone in a contract year—disgruntled as Monroe doubtless is over being just the 14th player since 2003 to sign his qualifying offer (per SB Nation’s Kevin Zimmerman)—is, of course, another question entirely.
Looking at the individual numbers, one could certainly argue that it’s Smith who deserves more time riding the pine.
The problem with this course of action, however, is all too obvious: With three years and $42 million left on his deal, Smith’s attractiveness as a trade piece depends on his being able to redeem himself from last year’s train-wreck of a season. That, in turn, means ample playing time.
Which brings us to Drummond, the 7’0” paint-protecting monster and quite possibly the Pistons’ future centerpiece. Arriving to training camp as he will off a stint with Team USA, Drummond, at just 21 years old, is poised for a breakout year.
For the sake of Detroit’s long-term viability, the smart move would be to play Smith at the 4—where he’s by far more effective (per 82games.com)—and Drummond at the 5 as often as possible, so as to encourage the two’s frontcourt dynamic.
Monroe’s value as a possible deadline trade chip comes into focus here. Indeed, if Van Gundy (who also runs the Pistons front office) has any interest in bringing back attractive assets in a sign-and-trade, bolting Monroe to the bench probably isn’t the wisest idea.
In the end, it’s up to Van Gundy to strike the best balance possible between the team’s long- and short-term goals—between building for the future and doing everything in his power to get the Pistons back into the postseason.
In terms of the latter, Van Gundy’s best bet is to begin reorienting his new team along lines similar to those that propelled his former team, the Orlando Magic, to the 2009 NBA Finals. Namely: Build around your all-world center.
In fact, Van Gundy stated the strategy explicitly during his inaugural press conference back in May (via Detroit Bad Boys’ Matt Watson):
There's nothing about Andre Drummond that doesn't appeal to me. I think [this because of] his athleticism, what he's accomplished at a young age. And I was very impressed with my first phone call with him...The guy, man, he was asking questions like, 'What do I do? What do I need to do?' He's a guy that wants to be great…I think we have two responsibilities to Andre Drummond that will help our team. And that is, number one, to do everything we possibly can to develop him as a player.
If there’s anyone who knows how to build around the raw talents of a potentially league-changing center, it’s Van Gundy, who turned Dwight Howard into the cornerstone of a conference champion by surrounding him with shooters and playmakers.
For a Pistons team that finished the 2013-14 season 29th in three-point shooting, that’s no small task.
The signing of Jodie Meeks served as the first ancillary step in what’s sure to be a years-long process of retooling Detroit to better accentuate the strengths—and mask the weaknesses—of its young pivot. Ditto the development of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the lanky sharpshooter and No. 8 draft pick from a year ago who will be looking to rebound from a somewhat subpar rookie-year performance.
Even now, it’s difficult to see how Monroe fits into the long-term equation. Even Smith, for all his foibles and frustrating tendencies, possesses the two-way versatility that makes theoretical sense paired alongside a paint-bound beast like Drummond. Monroe, with his 15-feet-and-in game and wholly middling defense, seems at once redundant and superfluous.
This brings us back to the central question at hand: With Monroe all but a sure thing to walk next summer, what incentive, if any, does Van Gundy have to make his frontcourt rotations work?
Unless the grand plan is to finish in the lottery yet again—possible, given Van Gundy’s complete front-office control and the longevity that’s bound to come with it—adhering to last year’s minutes distribution doesn’t seem like a very fruitful venture.
Then again, we’re talking about one of the more respected basketball minds in the game today. Just because Van Gundy forged sustained success by building around a specific talent in a specific way doesn’t mean these Pistons must be beholden to the same blueprint.
Perhaps there is a way, then, that the team can both succeed in the short term while working out which of Smith or Monroe better fits the long-term plan. Though it would require diplomacy, bringing Smith off the bench—as someone capable of playing up to three positions—probably makes the most sense with Detroit having neither the talent nor the experience to execute Van Gundy's vision right away.
Featuring Monroe and Drummond as the 4 and 5 and starting someone like Caron Butler in Smith's stead might free up enough of a rotational flow to allow Monroe to shine. And just in time for next February's trade deadline, when there are bound to be suitors aplenty appealing enough for Monroe to consider a sign-and-trade.
Whatever the grand strategy, expect to see both names make their way around the trade-rumor circuit this season.
Given his distinctly throwback game, it’s not difficult to see why more teams, trending as the league is toward perimeter-oriented offenses, didn’t roll the dice on Monroe.
The question now becomes whether Van Gundy will give Monroe a chance to prove himself as a top-tier building block, or if the campaign to come will wind up being—like the summer that preceded it—a season deferred.