If Greg Monroe is simply the same player in the next two seasons that he was last season, the Milwaukee Bucks will have never had a more successful free agent signing.
But it’s hard not to get greedy, isn’t it? Expecting the same performance out of Monroe is a baseline expectation. It’s easy to dream of Monroe taking another step forward. Now that he’s free of Andre Drummond for good he can play a more natural center position without another player crowding him around the hoop. He’ll (hopefully) be surrounded by better shooters. He’ll be in a system that’s experienced success. He’s on a team that’s getting better and better with two potential young superstars whose games will hopefully grow alongside his. He’s going to re-sign when this deal is up and this all under-25 lineup thing is going to be magical in four years. There’s no reason this isn’t going to work, right?
Or are there lots of reasons this isn’t going to work? Is he too slow footed defensively to do everything the Bucks will want him to do as their center? Man, he’s a horrible shot blocker and the Bucks never play two bigs together. The NBA is all about small ball now, and the Bucks didn’t get any faster with Monroe. Come playoff time he’ll have to sit on the bench and he’ll be furious about it. He’s gone after two years.
*deep breath* *deep breath*
There are some things Monroe will bring to the Bucks. But no player comes free of questions. Let’s look at Monroe’s history and see how the Bucks may be able to benefit from his play and where he’ll probably need some work heading into next season.
What Greg Monroe does well
While the Milwaukee Bucks were searching for an identity two seasons ago under Larry Drew, the team tried hard to establish John Henson as a post-up threat at the center position. He never really advanced past the initial stage of developing a move on which he could rely. He can still toss up that hook shot with his left hand, but the Bucks all but abandoned him as a post-up player last season. Henson only attempted 46 field goals out of the post.
No Bucks player attempted more than 67 shots out of the post last season. It’s safe to say Monroe is going to change that stat next season.
Last season in Detroit, the big man attempted 351 shots out of the post, more than all of Milwaukee’s regulars combined. His .87 points per possession were a middle of the pack number, especially given the volume of his attempts. But when we dig into the numbers there’s hope that his efficiency may increase without a guy like Drummond next to him.
When Monroe shared the court last season with Drummond, he made just 57.1% of his shots from 0-3 feet and 34.8% from 4-9 feet. When he was on the court without Drummond, those numbers were 62.7% and 39.3%. Even better, when Monroe was on the court with Anthony Tolliver, more of a classic stretch four, and neither Drummond or Josh Smith, he shot 48% from 4-9 feet. Given what we’ve seen out of Jason Kidd‘s lineups so far, it seems like the Bucks will pair Monroe with a more mobile, better shooting four than he was most often paired with in Detroit.
Kidd recently was quoted in Zach Lowe’s Grantland article about the possible death or return of the post-up and it sounded a lot like Kidd saw it as a means to offensive success.
“I think the post-up makes a comeback,” Kidd says. “Sometimes it feels like we are making the game harder than it should be. The bottom line is this: The closer you get to the basket, the bigger a threat you are.”
Kidd didn’t have the right personnel to post up very often last season, but we should see the Bucks operating through Monroe in the post next season. And given Monroe’s ability as a passer, that could set up the Bucks for more success from the 3-point line, which Kidd has also recently pined for.
Ah yes, Monroe as a passer. His vision and willingness to find teammates has been a hallmark of his game ever since he was a Georgetown. It’s called out as his biggest strength in his Draft Express profile from 2010:
With the ball, Monroe can hurt the defense in a variety of ways, but his best skill is undoubtedly his passing ability. Showing excellent court vision and instincts with the ball in his hands, Monroe makes a variety of outstanding passes from the perimeter, high post, and low post, finding open shooters and slashers alike. From the first day he steps onto the court in the NBA, there’s little doubt that he’ll already be among the league’s elite passing big men.
Monroe’s assist rate over the past four seasons has bounced between 10% and 18%, which could mean Milwaukee’s in for something special with him as a passer. Before arriving in Milwaukee, Zaza Pachulia only once had an assist rate over 10%, but over the past two seasons, his assist rate has been just over 16%. With the Bucks, Pachulia has been designated as a playmaker.
It will be interesting to see how much the Bucks put Monroe to work at the elbow to take advantage of his passing skill. Milwaukee pretty evenly distributed minutes last season between Pachulia and Henson once Larry Sanders left the team in December. Pachulia operated with the ball in his hands largely from the elbow while Henson was more often used as a screen setter and finisher around the hoop. Monroe’s passing ability could be useful at the elbow, but, as we’ll get into later, he isn’t anywhere near the jump shooting threat Pachulia was.
Pachulia averaged 8.6 touches per game at the elbow last season, good for third in the league. Monroe averaged 5.4 and Henson averaged 2.6. Milwaukee will probably try and get Monroe more touches in the post than it ever did for either Pachulia or Henson. He should be able to kick out to open shooters if he’s double teamed or find cutters coming through the lane. But we may see the Bucks toy with him operating out of the high post as a playmaker at times as well.
Among Monroe’s favorite assisting targets last season were Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
He found KCP in a variety of ways. Sometimes out of post-ups he kicked out to KCP on the opposite side of the court once double teams came. Other times when he was operating from the elbow at times in high pick and roll scenarios he found the wing cutting to the hoop.
Passes to Drummond followed a more predictable pattern. Monroe would catch near the hoop or make a move out of the post, which brought Drummond’s defender on a double team time and time again. Monroe would quickly find his front court partner before a defender could rotate, and Drummond would finish with a dunk.
Milwaukee rarely played two center types together last season, so he may not have a big man to look to underneath when the double team comes next season. But Monroe has displayed great court awareness and the ability to find open teammates when pressure comes from the defense. There’s no reason to expect that to change when he arrives in Milwaukee.
Relying heavily on the physical but slow Pachulia, the slim Giannis Antetokounmpo and the lengthy but often contact challenged Henson, Milwaukee struggled badly on the defensive glass last season.
The Bucks finished 24th in the NBA in defensive rebound rate, grabbing 73.3% of available defensive rebounds. It’s likely Monroe will come in an make a big impact on Milwaukee’s ability to close out possessions right away.
Despite often having to battle for boards with his physically built for rebounding teammate Drummond, Monroe still managed a defensive rebound rate of 25.1%. Pachulia led the Bucks last season at 19.9. Monroe was almost as good a rebounder last year as peak Larry Sanders (25.8 in 2012-13). He doesn’t offer what Sanders offered as a shot-blocker, but Milwaukee’s defense doesn’t necessarily seem like it requires that sort of effort anymore.
What Greg Monroe doesn’t do well
Shot blocking and rim protection
Not being able to block shots does not mean a big man cannot be an effective defender. If any team knows that, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks.
Kidd often praised Pachulia for his ability to be where he needed to be at the right time. So maybe physically he wasn’t so talented, but he worked within Milwaukee’s scheme and his teammates could rely on him.
When you watched him play defense last season, you’d see a lot of movement and a lot of physicality. But you know what you almost never saw? Zaza getting out of position trying to block a shot. He knew it was a low percentage play for him and that he’d lose costly time trying to scramble back into position after a block attempt. So it was often the same thing with him: two hands raised as high in the air as possible, followed by an attempt at a box out and rebound. For Milwaukee, that worked.
That might have to be the Monroe playbook next season.
Opponents attempted 7.3 shots per game at the rim against Monroe last season. Among players who had at least seven shots attempted against them at the rim last season, only three players had an opponent field goal percentage higher than Monroe’s 55.1%. He blocked just 34 shots and his defensive rating was a very mediocre 103.7. More specifically, he wasn’t great at defending the roll man pick and rolls last season either, allowing .93 points per possession (ppp) where Pachulia allowed just .84 ppp. But he forced turnovers at a rate very similar to Pachulia in these scenarios (9.4% to Pachulia’s 9.0%) and under Milwaukee’s hyper focused coaching staff, will likely have to show some improvement.
Not having a shutdown, shot blocking defender at the rim in their starting lineup didn’t stop the Bucks from ending up with the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense lat season. Henson was a great shot blocker as a reserve, averaging four blocks per 36 minutes. Pachulia, who blocked just 21 shots all of last season, finished 9th in the NBA in defensive rating (min 58 GP) and started more than half of Milwaukee’s games. He wasn’t great at protecting the rim, he wasn’t great at stopping big men from scoring, but he was great at being part of something bigger on defense.
We’ll have to wait and see if Monroe can handle that defensive role. He isn’t an Al Jefferson of last year level catastrophe. But he isn’t an impact player either. The Bucks don’t need him to be great, they just need him to avoid screwing up the defensive progress they made last season. Hopefully for their sake that isn’t going to be too much to ask.
Shooting outside five feet
Even if he struggles defensively, hell, even if he struggles badly defensively, Monroe is still a plus offensive player who can solve a lot of Milwaukee’s post problems. Aside from that though, there isn’t a ton that he offers offensively right now. As far as range goes, Monroe can pull the ball out to the edge of the restricted area and that’s about it.
He doesn’t have to be Ersan Ilyasova as a 3-point shooter to be effective, but even if he were Pachulia he might be even more interesting. We’ve talked about his impressive passing ability that can extend out when he catches the ball in the high post, but he doesn’t offer the same jump shot threat that Pachulia offered at the elbow last season.
I’m not entirely sure what NBA.com/stats classifies at mid-range, but we can see there’s a significant volume difference in the shots Pachulia and Monroe attempted last season from mid-range. When we get into specifics a little further, we can see that Pachulia had a significant amount of success from 10-14 feet, a place where Monroe hesitated to even attempt shots. Surely you remember Pachulia launching one elbow jumper after the next last season. If he was left open, he was never shy about firing. Fans often complained to me that he never made those shots, but he actually made them more often than most people assumed.
Monroe won’t offer that same shooting threat, but he is far more effective than Pachulia at catching and driving to the basket from the high post. And given his vision, he can drive and find cutters capitalizing on the defensive attention he commands. But he isn’t going to be able to lay back and pick apart a defense with his jump shot as Pachulia occasionally tried to do last season.
Monroe will be interesting. He offers Milwaukee an option it didn’t have last season and he doesn’t seem to be the plug and play option Milwaukee’s acquired in the past when they’ve had a weakness. This isn’t “we need free throw shooting, let’s get Corey Maggette.” This is likely going to be the Bucks reshaping their offense to accommodate someone who is an expert at in an area they are deficient. Monroe could be a big step forward for the Bucks and the Bucks could provide Monroe the structure he needs to improve defensively with the freedom he’s never had to thrive offensively.
There are always reasons to suspect a new player acquisition won’t work out. But there seem to be a lot more reasons to expect Monroe’s signing to be as successful on the court as its been from a PR perspective already.