Greg Monroe maximizing limited leverage with Detroit Pistons


Greg Monroe (left) has positioned himself well to make his exit from Motor City. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Greg Monroe doesn’t always take the approach that everyone expects, choosing instead to go by what feels right to him. That mindset might explain how Monroe once went against meaningless exhibition protocol two years ago, when he pulled a basketball away to prevent John Wall from attempting a self-pass, alley-oop dunk in the inconsequential final seconds of the Rising Stars Challenge. Or five years ago, when Monroe was projected to be a lottery pick after his freshman year at Georgetown and elected to return for one more year despite the possible risks of injury or drop in draft stock.

And, in a league that is progressively phasing out traditional big men for those who can spread the floor and shoot three-pointers, Monroe continues to be a back-to-the-basket throwback who adds more low post moves to his arsenal. Monroe is smart enough and strong enough to do things his own way.

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Monroe has opted for a rather unprecedented plan to accept a one-year qualifying offer worth $5.5 million from the Detroit Pistons in an effort to gain his outright freedom next year as an unrestricted free agent.

With teams having the first right of refusal, restricted free agency was never meant to work in favor of the players under the collective bargaining agreement – especially those who might be unwilling to make a long-term commitment to a franchise that has failed to make much progress during his time in uniform. Even if he desired to sign elsewhere this summer, Monroe would essentially be setting the contract terms for the Pistons to match and tie him up for the next four years.

The only leverage Monroe possesses is to take the qualifying offer and take control of his own destiny next year without the restrictions he faces now.

Monroe and his agent, David Falk, never sought an offer sheet from another team but pursued sign-and-trade proposals with at least five other teams, including Portland and Oklahoma City, according to person familiar with the discussions. Monroe denied receiving a reported five-year, $60 million offer – or anything close – from Pistons and would’ve been unlikely to accept either way.

As the only power forward in the Eastern Conference to average at least 15 points and nine rebounds last season, Monroe certainly could have commanded more on the open market; his current salary cap hold with the Pistons is $10.2 million. But his motivation has been moving on, not the money. The money lost to Monroe in the interim is the cost of his freedom, and his desire to leave Detroit makes the price tag palatable.

His frustrations with the Pistons are understandable since he is about to have his fifth coach in five years with incoming coach Stan Van Gundy (who will also serve as team president) and Detroit is no closer to being a playoff team than it was when he arrived.

The Pistons attempted to make a strong postseason push last summer when they signed Josh Smith and traded for Brandon Jennings. Those moves improved the talent on the roster but the team finished with just 29 wins for the second year in a row, Maurice Cheeks was fired as coach mid-season and Joe Dumars, the Hall of Fame architect of the franchise’s last title team in 2004, resigned.

This summer, the Pistons made some subtle signings but continue to have a front line with three pieces that don’t complement one another. Smith is a tweener who excelled at power forward in Atlanta but struggled on both ends as a small forward in Detroit. Andre Drummond, an imposing physical specimen with tremendous athletic gifts, is the potential franchise building block who is barely 21. The way the Pistons are currently constructed and how Van Gundy’s previous teams in Orlando and Miami played, Monroe doesn’t provide the amount of versatility or perimeter scoring at power forward that the coach got from Lamar Odom, Rashard Lewis or Ryan Anderson.

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.

Monroe has until Oct. 1 to sign the deal and would essentially flip the tables on the Pistons. He would then have the right to veto any trade but would sacrifice his Bird rights in the process, making it more unlikely that he will move on before next summer. If a player wasn’t enamored with his situation in the past, he would typically take the money now — either from his current team or another suitor — and force a trade later.

The durable Monroe has only missed three games his entire career but would have no security in case of injury. That is the one valid danger of this decision. But Monroe appears to be eager to leave, no matter what. His decision isn’t being made out of frustration with negotiations or haste.  For a player who picked Georgetown over Duke coming out of high school and has returned each summer to Washington to complete his theology degree, Monroe has always been measured and intelligent, a quality that endeared him with previous coaches.

The Pistons are aware of Monroe’s desires to leave and Van Gundy has alluded to the possibility of losing their talented big man in a year.

“I really don’t feel a real sense of anxiety about it,” Van Gundy told reporters last month. “I know I would love to have Greg long-term, that’s what I want. But you can only control what you can control. I’m fairly relaxed about it.”

Monroe has taken a similar tone with regards to this summer, turning a situation from where Detroit was determining where he could go to one in which he controls not only where he goes but what Detroit gets in return for him – something now or nothing later.

Unlike others who have had to settle for a qualifying offer because of a stalemate after the sides couldn’t strike a deal, Monroe is using this unorthodox move to gain complete control of his situation. It comes with a cost — the present for the future — but it also positions Monroe well for a greater victory in the long game of his NBA career.

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Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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