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Sports

Greg Monroe Takes a Paycut to Escape the Pistons in a Year

Greg Monroe desperately wants out of Detroit, but, barring a trade, he'll need to make it through the next year unscathed.
August 13, 2014, 3:50pm
Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

For much of the summer, Greg Monroe has been trapped in a sort of free-agency hell. He's restricted, meaning the Detroit Pistons have the right to match any offer from another team. Other teams weren't going to make him big offers, because the Pistons likely would match any contract he got. He's too good for Detroit to let go for nothing, but not good enough (or at least not highly-valued enough) to be guaranteed a max-level offer from another team. In a summer that's seen role players like Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward score huge paydays, a 24-year-old big man with star potential has been hung out to dry, the victim of every unlucky break one can catch in the market.

So he's doing something about it that's sort of unprecedented. Monroe is signing the Pistons' $5.479 million qualifying offer, putting off his free agency for another year, and giving himself the option of a clean break from Detroit. He's not the first player ever to sign the qualifying offer, but he's arguably the best and most notable. For a player of his caliber, signing a one-year deal is a massive risk. If he gets injured next season, there's no long-term security to fall back on. But for a fourth-year player who wants out of his current team at whatever cost, it's just about the only option, and if he has a career year, he could be in for an even bigger payday next summer—though the Pistons would still be able to give him the most money.

The first question Monroe needs to answer is who, exactly, he is as a player. Right now, he's mostly the kind of guy that fans and pundits like to call "vastly underrated" because he's an offensively gifted big man who plays on a small-market team. It's impossible to fairly evaluate a player who has never been in a stable situation of any kind as a pro. He's gone through four coaches in four seasons as a Piston, playing on a roster that's been mismanaged year after year by Joe Dumars. The team's marquee free-agent signing last summer was Josh Smith (on a four-year, $54 million deal that basically became a Rashard Lewis-like albatross before the ink dried), a power forward. Combine Smith's immovable contract with Andre Drummond's superstar potential and it's tough to find a spot for Monroe. It makes perfect sense that he'd want out.

For once, the Pistons have something resembling stability in the front office. Stan Van Gundy has taken over as head coach and replaced Dumars as head of basketball operations. He will be by far the best coach Monroe has ever played for in the NBA, but the Pistons still don't have a roster he can thrive with long-term. Maurice Cheeks tried to play a big lineup with Smith at small forward alongside Monroe and Drummond, and it was a disaster. The Pistons will have a hard time moving Smith, whose value could not be any lower right now, and Drummond is untouchable. Monroe will have to be the odd man out, through no fault of his own. He's going to have no shortage of suitors next summer, when teams miss out on targets like Kevin Love (allegedly set to sign an extension with Cleveland), LaMarcus Aldridge (allegedly finally happy in Portland), and Marc Gasol.

Monroe's decision to sign the qualifying offer could have implications beyond just the Pistons' cap sheet. Specifically, it could be instructive to Eric Bledsoe, who's in a similar position. The Suns have every reason to sit back and wait until he has no other options but to return, because no other teams have the cap space to make an offer they won't match. But unlike Monroe, Bledsoe can't really afford to risk signing the qualifying offer. He played in just 43 games for Phoenix in 2013-14, battling knee problems all year, and with their July acquisition of Isaiah Thomas, there will still be plenty of competition for backcourt minutes. Monroe has never missed significant time, so the qualifying-offer gambit was never quite as much of a risk.

More than anything, Monroe's decision proves the uncertainty of every NBA career. In a different timeline, he's drafted into a better situation and develops normally, without all the coaching changes and lineup juggling. But this is the hand he was dealt, and all he can do is take a proactive approach to improving it.