The Curious Case of Greg Monroe

According to NBA rules, Pistons center Greg Monroe is now eligible to be traded. According to the Sporting News, he wants that, badly. The Heat have reportedly made an initial inquiry.

But, according to the Sporting News, teams seeking Monroe will need to cough up a first-round pick, and that’s a serious sticking point. It’s a rich asking price for a player who will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, at which point any team can sign him without sacrificing anything in return.

Under normal circumstances, that’d be ok. Because the audience would be different. In free agency, the audience for a player would be limited to teams with the necessary cap room to sign him. The audience for a player in potential trade scenarios might include a handful of teams which don’t project to have the cap space to sign him the following summer, and might be willing to pay a hefty price to gain access to the Bird rights which give them the opportunity to do so. Bird rights are what allow a player’s prior team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him, for up to as much as a maximum salary. Under normal circumstances, Bird rights tag along with a player in trade.

But Monroe’s predicament is anything but normal.

Monroe, selected by the Pistons with the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, completed the fourth and final season of his rookie-scale contract last year. Players coming off rookie-scale contracts can be made restricted free agents – a more restrictive form of free agency whereby the player’s prior team gains a right of first refusal to match a contract he signs with any other team – but only if they first issue a qualifying offer. The qualifying offer is a standing offer for a one-year guaranteed contract, which becomes a regular contact if the player decides to sign it. This ensures that the team does not gain the right of first refusal without offering a contract itself.

Monroe’s representatives steered other teams away from presenting Monroe with any offers last summer because they didn’t want the Pistons to match, and keep Monroe for another four seasons. Instead, Monroe accepted his $5.5 million qualifying offer. Now, after playing out his one-year contract, Monroe will have the freedom to pick his new team in July, and that’s what he wanted: control of his future. 

Playing under a one-year contract complicates potential trade scenarios. When such a player is traded, his Bird rights are lost with it. This applies to Monroe.

Losing Bird rights can be quite damaging, financially, to a player. The collective bargaining agreement therefore provides him some degree of protection. It allows him the right to veto any trade. That gives him the power to influence potential trade discussions. A trade partner would not only need to put together a trade package that appeals to Detroit, something the Heat may or may not have the ability to do, but also represent a destination that Monroe himself would approve.

Monroe wants not only the ability to control his future but also, as with most NBA players, the ability to secure as large a contract as possible next summer in doing so. Not acquiring his Bird rights along with him therefore becomes a substantial issue for a potential trade partner. Instead, what they’d get is his “Non-Bird” rights, which would give a trade partner the right to exceed the salary cap in giving him a raise of only as much as 20 percent, or $6.6 million. Over the course of a four-year contract, that’s as much as $28 million.

Monroe could surely make more on the open market. He’ll be seeking the max, which figures to start at more than $15 million. He may or may not be worth it. He may or may not get it. But that’s what he’ll be gunning for.

The only way for any NBA team (other than the Pistons) to give him anywhere near the long-term money he seeks, whether he is traded in the interim or not, is to free up the necessary cap space to sign him next summer (or pursue a sign-and-trade transaction, for which the Pistons would have no reason not to demand a king’s ransom in return).

For the Heat, that could represent a substantial challenge. While there will be plenty of teams who figure to have the necessary cap space, and a desire to engage in potential discussions for the undoubtedly talented, if imperfect, big, the Heat don’t project to be one. Miami has already doled out $70 million in commitments for next year (including player options). The salary cap is projected at $67 million.

Monroe enthusiasts shouldn’t lose hope entirely though. It’d be a challenge, but it’s certainly not impossible. The Heat could, for example, trade Luol Deng to free up significant room. Deng has played extremely well for the Heat thus far this season, and may garner interest on the trade market, or, if not, could otherwise seek to opt out of the final year of his contract in pursuit of a longer-term deal (he has a player option for next season). But even the craziest of trade machinations would probably only free up somewhere in the range of $10 to $12 million of cap space. That’s not enough to get Monroe his $15 million plus.

For the Heat to get all the way there, Dwyane Wade would likely need to opt out of his deal, and compound his discount further. At some point, one needs to ask how much is reasonable to ask of a man who has already agreed to take a $9 million haircut for next season from what he was otherwise eligible to earn ($25 million), a man who is currently eighth in the NBA in scoring (22.5 points per game), and doing it while shooting a spectacular 52.2 percent from the field. Wade may be aging, but he’s surely worth the $16 million for which his contract calls (he has a player option).

Perhaps Wade would be willing to provide further concessions. The man has been about as generous with his money (as well as with the basketball) as any other. Maybe knowing that, or at least how Heat president Pat Riley would plan to re-sign him to a long-term contract next summer, would help Monroe to accept a trade to the Heat. The problem is, technically, he can’t know.

Technically, teams can’t talk to players (their own or players on other teams) about a future contract until after their current contracts expire. Therefore, technically, Riley couldn’t discuss with Monroe how he’d plan to make the Heat a long-term home.

Whether or not such discussions actually happen in real life, we don’t know. And we’ll never know. Because if they were ever discovered, they would represent a major salary cap violation. But you can bet they do happen. You can bet, for example, that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and Kevin Love mutually agreed to a long-term arrangement before Gilbert traded Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Love.

Would Monroe accept a trade to the Heat if, technically, he can’t know whether they’d have the means to sign him long-term?

Perhaps.

Perhaps he desperately wants out of Detroit, which is off to a brutal 5-21 start to the season.

Perhaps he feels that Miami would be a better place for him to showcase his talents. He’d seemingly have no competition for a starting role in Miami, and plenty of space opposite a more perimeter-oriented Chris Bosh in the frontcourt with which to ply his trade. In Detroit, he’s little more than a frustrated bench player thus far enduring the worst season of his career.

But even if Monroe would accept, what could Miami offer that would make a potential trade compelling to the Pistons? The Heat would need to send out at least $3.6 million in salaries in exchange for Monroe, unless a larger deal for more Pistons players were to be negotiated.

Taking back any unwanted long-term salary as an enticement would make it all that much more difficult to retain Monroe next summer. Would it be worth it for the Heat to throw in a future first-round draft pick to make it happen – to gain access to a player who could otherwise be signed as a free agent next summer anyway? Would it be wise for the Heat to sacrifice even the slightest bit of its future flexibility for what would amount to a six month rental?

Could it be that Monroe would be a potentially solid long-term play for the Heat, but not necessarily the answer for this season?

These are the types of questions that both the Heat and Monroe would need to answer in order to make a potential trade scenario happen. Perhaps a Monroe-to-Miami trade scenario should be classified as not impossible, but very unlikely.

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