Monroe is playing better than he has at any point in his career, despite an uncertain role and less-than-ideal teammates. Initially relegated to the pine by new head coach Stan Van Gundy, Monroe cracked the starting lineup in short order. Of course, that meant he was thrust back into the Andre Drummond-Josh Smith unit with whom he partnered to post a cringe-inducing minus-8.0 net rating over 1,361 minutes last season, per NBA.com.
Monroe's reinsertion into the first unit came about largely because the Pistons lack quality (healthy wings). Van Gundy is utilizing Smith at the 3 because he has to; no guards or small forwards have been able to knock down a perimeter shot.
That's another obstacle Monroe has overcome.
See, Monroe depends on shooters for spacing because he's an old-school frontcourt scorer. He can't create space himself and only operates out of the block and from the elbows on offense. When there aren't shooters stationed on the perimeter to keep defenders honest, Monroe has to operate in an extra-condensed paint environment.
For all that, Moose is posting career highs in points and rebounds per game—17.2 and 11.4, respectively. He's also tossing up a player efficiency rating of 23.5 that tops his previous career best of 22.0, per Basketball-Reference.com.
His impact on the Pistons has been profound. Opponents have crushed Detroit with Monroe on the bench this year, outscoring it by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. When Monroe is on the floor, things get a lot more competitive, and the Pistons post a negative but respectable net rating of minus-1.2, per NBA.com (subscription required).
Hey, he's a moose, not a miracle-worker.
This performance comes at a good time for Monroe, who became the best player in league history to take a qualifying offer and eschew an extension as a restricted free agent. He'll hit unrestricted free agency this summer hoping a few teams see him as a valuable offensive commodity.
You have to wonder whether his throwback prowess on O will be enough, though.
Monroe is a remarkably skilled scorer inside—strong, decisive in his moves and much quicker than you'd expect. He's a born bucket-getter, and his intuitive operation on the interior makes him a major threat from the foul line down.
But his game is an anachronism; it doesn't fit with the changing demands of modern NBA offenses. He can't stretch the floor, and he doesn't defend the rim. There aren't many guys like him playing prominent roles in the league nowadays.
Monroe's skill set, potent as it has proved to be so far, may not be one the league at large is willing to spend on.
Fortunately, Monroe's decision to take the qualifying offer wasn't financially motivated.
"I can't speak for everybody but in my case, when talking about leaving Detroit, it was the team specifically," Monroe told Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News when negotiations broke down in the offseason.
Scan the Detroit landscape, and you'll see the sense in Monroe's decision. Drummond is the 5 of the future, and Smith is exceedingly tough to trade because he'll make $13.5 million a year through the 2016-17 season. There's no real role for Monroe with the Pistons—at least not one he seems interested in playing long term.
It's appropriate that a guy with a throwback game would approach his free agency with a set of old-school principles. Monroe doesn't want to be in Detroit, so he's trusting himself to create value. It's a massive risk, as he could have signed a multiyear deal over the summer to secure his financial future, but there's a reckless nobility to the way he's handling things.
At the same time, we shouldn't get too carried away romanticizing Monroe's principled stance.
According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:
Monroe's agent, David Falk, has a long history of getting his clients the money they want and believes significant money will be there for Monroe in free agency next summer. Falk has also excelled at reading the market and believes another jump in the salary cap in 2015-16 will allow Monroe to cash in.
Perhaps there's a way for Monroe to get the things he couldn't get from Detroit on the open market. Maybe there's big money and a better fit out there for him. All he can control is his own play, and so far, he's taken care of that.
The production has been there, but there's just no telling what kind of value prospective suitors will place on a player who doesn't fit the new-age big-man profile.
Maybe that's a failing of the market, though. Monroe has real skill; it'll just take a creative front office to recognize where that skill is best applied: as a second-unit anchor.
Think about it. Monroe has proved his worth as a top-end scorer inside, and he's also shown us that he can't be a defensive leader. Why not turn him loose on the opponent's reserves?
Backup units need a stabilizing offensive force to keep points coming when the starters sit, and one of the best ways to do that is to dump the ball into a big man who can dominate one-on-one matchups, draw defenders, kick to shooters and get to the line.
Monroe does all those things, and a smart team could feature him as a major weapon off the bench, where players tend to be valued for what they can do instead of criticized for what they can't. Reserves are generally imperfect, possessing a few strong skills and lacking others.
That's what Monroe is: imperfect, a specialist of sorts. He could thrive as a reserve and potentially still finish games depending on matchups.
Monroe took a risk when he accepted the Pistons' qualifying offer. If there's a team out there this summer willing to take its own gamble, one prepared to look past the trends and see that Monroe has clear value in the right role, it'll pay off for everyone.