Greg Monroe isn’t the type of player who is ever going to make headlines by talking.
Monday, though, he made an important point clearly on the court.
Not only did his Milwaukee Bucks badly need a win, having lost their last three games by an average of 27 points, but Monroe had a personal reason to shine.
He accomplished everything he wanted, scoring 20 points and adding 13 rebounds as the Bucks were finally on the right side of a blowout, beating the Detroit Pistons 109-88.
“I am trying to win every game,” Monroe said. “They just happen to be my former team. No matter who comes in here, I’m going to come in with the same focus. That is, do what I need to do to help my team win on that night. They just happen to be the only other team I have played for.”
Monroe would always say that – he’d probably tell the media that he was going into Game 7 of the NBA Finals with the same focus – but there was something different about his play. When the Bucks blew the game open in the third quarter, it was because Monroe was destroying his friend and former teammate Andre Drummond in the post.
“We just tried to be physical,” said Khris Middleton, who started his career with Monroe and Drummond in Detroit. “We know he doesn’t like contact. Once he misses a couple, he is going to get down on himself and start forcing tough shots. Greg did a great job of just making him shot tough shots and not letting him get to his right hand.”
Drummond and Monroe are still close – Monroe says they text each other almost every day – and they hope to be teammates again at the All-Star Game in February. Monroe, though, knows he’s better off as a Buck than as a Piston.
The relationship between Monroe and the Pistons goes beyond the normal one between a player and a franchise that might have traded him or saw him walk away in free agency. He was supposed to be the cornerstone of the next great Pistons franchise, and by the end, it wasn’t clear if he wanted to leave more than the team wanted to get rid of him.
When Joe Dumars took Monroe with the seventh pick in 2010, it looked like he had finally gotten something right. The “Moose” moved into the starting lineup as a 20-year-old rookie and stayed there for five years. By the time he was able to drink legally, he was averaging 15.4 points and 9.7 rebounds, a level of production he maintained throughout his career in Detroit.
In his five seasons with the Pistons, he put 158 double-doubles, the ninth-best total in the NBA, but Dumars was never able to build a team around him. He started on a roster that had one foot still in the past, with title-winners like Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, and the other foot on a banana peel, thanks to disastrous free-agent signings Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon.
The Pistons went 55-93 in his first two years, but Dumars hit gold again in the 2012 draft. With the eighth pick, he grabbed Drummond, giving the Pistons a frontcourt that should have ruled the Eastern Conference for years.
It didn’t. In Monroe and Drummond’s first year together, they went 29-53 under John Kuester. In their second year, with Josh Smith added to the mix, they went 29-53 under Mo Cheeks and, after he was fired, John Loyer.
After that, in the spring of 2014, owner Tom Gores fired Loyer and Dumars and gave full control of the franchise to Stan Van Gundy. His first job was to either sign Monroe, a restricted free agent, or trade him. Either would have worked because Van Gundy knew that Drummond, Monroe and Smith weren’t going to work on the same roster.
Instead of just having Monroe and Drummond crowding the post, it was now three-fifths of his lineup jammed into the lane or, even worse, Smith would go outside and brick more 3-pointers.
Van Gundy, though, couldn’t find a buyer and settled in to sign Monroe to a long-term deal. Monroe, though, crossed up everyone by signing the team’s qualifying offer, meaning he would take a much lower salary for 2014-15 with the reward of unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.
An injury could have been a disaster, but with Smith waived at Christmas, Monroe averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds. That made him a hot commodity on the free-agent market, and there was zero chance that he would sign with Detroit. He wanted a fresh start on a team with potential, and Van Gundy wanted to build a team around Drummond, Reggie Jackson and three outside shooters. Monroe didn’t fit into that plan.
So he went to Milwaukee, and on Monday, he outplayed Drummond as his new team routed the old one. That doesn’t solve the Bucks’ bigger problems, but it ended the second embarrassing skid of the season and left them with a respectable 6-8 record, given all their early-season injuries.