Not much more than one year ago on July 9, 2015, Greg Monroe signed a three-year, $50 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. As a player who had averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds the previous season, Bucks fans were excited to have that kind of talent.
A big name chose them in free agency. Someone turned down the Los Angeles Lakers and big market teams to be in Milwaukee. It was a promising sign for the team’s young core and their future.
Fast forward to now, and the Bucks have been in pursuit of a trade to ditch Monroe for months.
His place and value in the NBA are declining. As the game gets faster, more threes are attempted, and the ideal requirements of a center adjust, Monroe gets left behind. Slower, post-up scorers (not to mention those who can’t protect the paint) are hardly the starting centers that teams want, especially for a young, athletic group like the Bucks.
Having Miles Plumlee start at center, as he did in their 93-91 win preseason opener against the Chicago Bulls, and giving the swat-happy John Henson more minutes next season makes far more sense. Monroe starting 67 games and averaging 29.3 minutes a night as he did last season could (and should) be a thing of the past.
It’s the way the game is going, and teams need to adjust. If a center can space the floor from three like Al Horford, their offensive value climbs immediately. If they can’t do that, then teams look to another type of center: the DeAndre Jordans or even Bismack Biyombos of the world.
Explosive centers who can run the floor, roll to the rim, rebound, block shots and switch out to defend the perimeter when necessary. That skill set, surrounded by ball handlers and shooters, is what many teams long for if they aren’t lucky enough to have someone of that nature already.
Then there’s Monroe, a player who can neither come close to emulating the explosive two-way play of Jordan or stretch to the three-point line. He took 54.2 percent of his shots within two feet of the basket last season (only 6.5 from at least 16 feet out at a 39.3 percent rate), and I don’t need to go too far into the numbers to explain his lack of defense or rim protection.
However, Monroe is still a talented basketball player. There’s a reason the Bucks were initially excited to sign the double-double machine a year ago, and why their offensive rating was 7.1 points higher per 100 possessions with Monroe on the floor last season. While they’ll likely still push for a trade to ditch his $17.1 million salary, he can produce in the right role. And that role should be off the bench, as it was for a brief 12-game stretch in February and March.
Take Enes Kanter, for example. Kanter operating as a starting power forward or center (especially for the fairly perimeter weak Oklahoma City Thunder) wouldn’t be wise if a big man capable of shooting from three, protecting the rim, or generally defending well is needed.
Instead, Kanter being used in a more controlled role off the bench is far more effective, allowing him to provide a surge of offensive rebounding and scoring when starters, Russell Westbrook in particular, are resting. Averages of 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per 36 minutes last season still show Kanter’s impact, though, even if it’s not on display for 30-plus minutes.
For someone closer to Monroe, look at Al Jefferson. His career includes far higher honors than Monroe as it’s only been two years since Jefferson made the All-NBA Third Team. Post prowess and interior scoring has always been the staple of his game and standing in the league. While that may still define his skill set, though, Jefferson’s All-NBA days are long gone.
Similarly to Kanter and Monroe, athleticism, elevation, rim protection and a three-point shot are all skills that elude Jefferson, leading to his new role heading into next season.
After signing a three-year, $30 million deal with the Indiana Pacers, Jefferson accepted the shift to experienced, post-up super sub, complimenting young star Myles Turner as the team’s backup center. To serve as a go-to scorer for second unit guards to anchor the offense on some possessions and provide a reliable spark of scoring.
And this is the direction the Bucks need to go in if they can’t find a trade for Monroe.
As head coach Jason Kidd said to Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Bucks media day, he believes Monroe coming off the bench provides more depth and second unit firepower:
“We’ll probably start off with looking at the second half of the season by looking at Michael (Carter-Williams) and Greg (Monroe) coming off the bench. We won’t make that decision until later in the week. We’ll go through training camp, we’ll have them start, we’ll have them come off the bench, we’re going to look at a lot of different combinations. I think we liked the way that it ended last year with Miles (Plumlee) starting. It gave us some firepower off the bench and made us deeper.”
Kidd’s right. And he followed through with the idea, too. Monroe delivered in his backup role during the Bucks’ preseason opener, tallying 15 points (7-of-13 shooting) and nine rebounds (four offensive) in only 17 minutes.
Quick production off the bench as a more highly featured element of the second unit offense, offering adjusted depth as Kidd mentioned, is what Monroe should look to specialize in.
Like Kanter and now Jefferson, top-notch sixth man impact can be beneficial to both the player and the team. It gives that scoring boost when the bench needs it and enables the player, especially strong post players, to beat up on weaker second unit opposition.
When Kidd made the announcement on media day, though, Monroe was none the wiser than the reporters. He’ll try to adjust, but being startled hardly bodes well for his moral:
“That’s news to me, but it’s not the first time. Like I always say, it’s about once I’m on the court and that’s all I focus on. If you have questions about the rotation you’re going to have to ask (Kidd). When my number is called, I just try to be ready.”
This is the direction Monroe needs to accept if he’s going to be as productive and appreciated as possible, at least for the near future. The next step is finding out if he and the Bucks can both be happy with this change. Shifting to such a role may even help raise his value if other teams seek him to provide the same impact for them. If not, a trade could still be unavoidable if the Bucks can find a partner.
Whether he’s held in Milwaukee for the time being or he’s dealt elsewhere, the next in a seemingly increasingly line of high-profile, scoring backup bigs, Monroe embracing this change could be for the best.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.