In these late days of free agency, two of the NBA's better young players remain conspicuously unclaimed. One is Eric Bledsoe, an exhilarating lead guard who understands that the Suns are wielding his restricted status against him. The other is Greg Monroe, an effective and traditional big whose future with Pistons is very much uncertain.
The broad link between Bledsoe and Monroe is convenient and undeniable, seeing as the two have yet to parlay their youth and talent into an acceptable deal. The circumstances of each, though, are wholly distinct. In Bledsoe's case it isn't merely the mechanisms of restricted free agency working against him, but the positional marketplace itself. Good, productive NBA point guards are currently in such surplus that only a handful of teams are in the market for an upgrade. Among those, very few have the cap space or flexibility to piece together a significant offer. Within that subgroup the team with the most room under the cap (Philadelphia) isn't in a position to make expensive, long-term salary commitments. Bledsoe is at the mercy of supply and demand. The Suns, opposite Bledsoe at the negotiating table, are simply in a position to take advantage.
Monroe occupies a very different positional space that should be a great deal more lucrative. He's a true back-to-the-basket big in a league with few of them. He's viable as both a power forward or center and has been productive (15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game overall last season) in both roles. He's barely 24 years old, yet commands physical advantages over his competition. Most remotely capable NBA centers command a high price when hitting free agency, a point to which Marcin Gortat
's five-year, $60 million deal stands in testament. Why, then, would there be so little movement regarding a potential offer sheet for Monroe?
There are no clear answers on the subject. It's worth wondering, though, if part of the reason Monroe is still available is because of how difficult it would be to build a contender around him. There are those star players with skill sets so unique as to create inconvenience. The challenge in constructing a great team around Monroe transcends that concern, perhaps to the point of impracticality. It must be stressed that Monroe is a good player -- a very good one, by some standards, and clearly valuable in the right context. Establishing that context, however, seems to require resources so precise as to obstruct high-level teambuilding.
Consider Monroe's game beyond production. On offense he is tethered to the paint and the post, the only spaces on the floor from which he can score. He's reasonably effective in those immediate areas but not overwhelmingly so; Monroe isn't primed to be an offensive hub, as his so-so efficiency would only wilt with higher usage. Without the ball, though, Monroe is reliant on cuts and screens to make himself useful, as he poses no threat whatsoever when straying from his comfort zone. Opponents are wise to this fact, encouraged by Monroe's four seasons of inaccurate mid-range shooting. In his best shooting season (2011-12) to date, per basketball-reference.com, Monroe made just 31 percent of his jumpers. Last year he made just 27 percent. Such lowly percentages are made all the more sobering by the fact that Monroe's attempts are so often uncontested -- marking his non-improvement on such shots as a reason for long-term concern.
MORE NBA: Examining offseason winners | And losers
Defensively, Monroe is big enough to get in the way of opposing scorers but blocks shots at the same rate as Mike Dunleavy. A rim protector he is not; Monroe has neither the feel for coverage nor the vertical lift to really challenge opponents at the basket, making it all the more important that he be flanked by a player who can. At the same time, Monroe's minutes at power forward have illustrated his troubles in recovering out to perimeter threats. The further an opponent strays from the paint the more pressure it puts on Monroe's lumbering recovery. He does his part to chase out to the three-point line when necessary, though rarely does so quickly enough or with enough balance to help steady his team's defense. Monroe is stuck between, in a sense: Not quick enough to hang with most opponents stationed outside and not imposing enough to help anchor a top defense inside.
Eric Bledsoe is simply not a max deal player yet
On Monday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix discusses the few options Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has besides returning to the team.
Given those limitations, how would one go about building a roster to best take advantage of what Monroe's talents? His post work would go most smoothly alongside a stretchy big capable of spreading the floor. His defensive issues, though, need be addressed by a more conventional rim-protecting counterpart. In the frontcourt alone that means Monroe's team would be aiming for a defensive pillar with shooting range -- an intersection of remarkable rarity. Barring an unexpected union with Anthony Davis, Monroe might be faced with a career of somewhat clumsy fits. He's already seen the lot of them in Detroit, where in four seasons the Pistons only managed three positive lineups with Monroe among the 17 that played 100 minutes or more, per NBA.com. Some of that is the mark of a consistently bad, mismanaged team. Another part, though, speaks to the difficulty of finding and acquiring the right kinds of pieces needed to build around a sub-superstar so particular.
Monroe would pull a hefty salary without functioning as a primary creator, without offering his team much benefit at all when he doesn't have the ball in his hands and while acting as an imposition to collective defense. NBA teams might very understandably pass on making a lucrative offer to such a player out of concern that the talent acquired wouldn't justify the procedural knots that follow. Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, in a way, hit their max-contract (or near-max, in Parsons' case) paydays on the opposite appeal. Both have utterly agreeable games that make sense in almost any system. Each have their respective weaknesses, but their liabilities -- those problems their teams have to build and scheme around -- are few. They can handle the ball, move effectively without it, rebound sufficiently for their position, spot up to clear the paint, make plays for others and defend their positions adequately. They'll earn almost $15 million this season and even more in the years to come on the grounds of their plug-and-play talents.
Monroe, by contrast, requires a supporting cast of painstaking specificity. There can be little question that his traditional playing style -- as a polished, interior pivot man -- works against him in this sense. The evolution of the game toward speed, space and mobility involves a process of selection, though which teams naturally value those players who befit a modern style of play. Post work is not prominently featured within it, largely due to rule changes and the tactical shifts that resulted. It isn't prudent to pound the ball into Monroe to work from the block possession after possession, even if his ability to convert such possessions is what sets him apart. Therein lies the problem with being a throwback player in a game that has evolved rather pointedly: At some point anachronism comes with a price.