Shifting Gears

Monroe jumps in with both feet in transition from center to power forward

With Andre Drummond starting, Greg Monroe slides to power forward.
With Andre Drummond starting, Greg Monroe slides to power forward.
Issac Baldizon (NBAE/Gettty)
Andre Drummond moved fluidly, got 10 shots within arm’s length of the rim and made 80 percent of them. His four rebounds in 19 minutes didn’t jump out of the box score, but the way he speared them – darting from one side of the rim to the other – underscored the rare combination of length and athleticism the Pistons so dearly missed in his absence. He blocked two shots but appeared to get his hands on at least two others and altered or dissuaded another handful. He was credited with two steals.

But Drummond’s first game back was so eerily like his last game missed – both lopsided losses to teams with records nearly identical to the Pistons, both games essentially decided by one-sided third quarters – as to be a sobering reminder of what Lawrence Frank emphasized in the days and hours leading to Drummond’s Friday return: Good to have him back, but it’s not a magic bullet.

With the postseason no longer even a remote possibility, the focus of outsiders and fans, at least, is on Drummond and the ripple effects of his return. With Drummond starting, Greg Monroe – who has played nothing but center for his first three NBA seasons – slides to power forward. For Frank, well, the focus is on something else.

“This is bigger,” Frank said. “What we’re dealing with, our play post All-Star break and what it’s been quite frankly for the last five years, we have to find a way. We’ve got to stop talking about individual players and start talking about the team. We’ve got to get where we’re playing much more competitive basketball.”

The most noticeable manifestation of the regression Frank has witnessed has taken place on the defensive end, where Pistons opponents shot 49 percent and averaged 103 points during Drummond’s 22-game absence and made better than 50 percent in six of eight games prior to Toronto’s 99-82 win. With Drummond in the lineup, the Raptors shot 54 percent.

The loss was haunting for the Pistons – Frank used words like “embarrassing” and “humiliating” in his postgame press conference – because it repeated a recent trend of letting minor turns in momentum erupt into game-changing avalanches. Pretty hard to parse the nuances of things like Monroe’s switch to power forward from center in light of that larger issue, and Frank’s focus remains on what he’s seen as the befuddling and discouraging trend of a “lack of resolve,” as he’s called it.

But from the longer view, the 10 games the Pistons will have had to gauge the viability of a Drummond-Monroe frontcourt will be invaluable to take into their off-season evaluations – and a healthy head start for Monroe to begin making the conversion to power forward.

“It is a bit of an adjustment, especially as we play different teams,” Monroe said. “Last night was more two traditional big men and the same case tomorrow in Chicago, but the more games we play, different personnel. I think that’s where the adjustment comes in and on our team, offensively and defensively, it’s different stuff we have to do. I’ve been playing the five the whole time I’ve been here. A lot of stuff is just habit, so it’s a little bit of an adjustment.”

Monroe feels the challenge for him will be greater on the defensive end, both in learning the tendencies of a new batch of players – who will play a far wider variety of styles – and in relearning the defensive responsibilities of the power forward as opposed to the center.

“Offensively, I’m pretty much going to get the ball in the same spots I’ve been getting them, so it’s not that much of a difference,” he said. “But defensively, a few different coverages, a few different rotations – that’s the difference. I’ve built habits for my position and so, without thinking, I would go to where I normally have, but now it’s a little bit different. But I understand them. I know what I have to do. I’ve seen them every day. It’s not brand new, but there is an adjustment.”

Toronto power forward Amir Johnson, the ex-Piston, made all seven of his first-half shots and finished with 20 points and eight boards, but Frank brushed aside a suggestion that it was a reflection on Monroe’s ineffectiveness.

“It was help and recover issues,” he said. “It wasn’t a mano a mano matchup, but it was a little bit symptomatic of everyone in multiple efforts and covering for each other and when we’re not doing that, what happens.”

Frank thinks the greater challenge for Monroe will be merely learning personnel at power forward around the league as opposed to the principles of the position.

“It’s not that big a deal,” he said. “You’re making the same rotations at the four as the five. When you’re guarding a range shooter, a lot of times that guy is not low – he’s usually outside the 3-point line – so there are different low-man principles. But that is not a big deal.”

Offensively, the playbook has been tweaked but not overhauled.

“There are variations of the same plays we’ve been running to maybe get me a postup or to get me picking and popping or whatever we were trying to do,” Monroe said. A few times against Toronto found Drummond roaming the baseline for easy baskets, a spot where Maxiell would not have been in the previous lineup. “So it is a bit of an adjustment facing up and seeing somebody on the baseline all the time, but it’s something I’ll get used to.”

“We’re still a movement-based offensive team,” Frank said. “It’s just your spacing is changed a little bit because of where guys are at. We have two bigs, three perimeter players. They’ve both involved in pick and roll. It’s just the spacing. Andre is a roller; Greg is a combination of half roll, half pop. He mixes up because of his ability to take guys off the dribble. You try to get Greg separation so he can get a lead and attack on the move. That’s where he’s at his best. Andre is at his best screening, rolling, throwing it up at the rim because of his size and athleticism.”

Now the challenge is to draw out those individual bests in a combination that gets the Pistons playing at their best.

“I’m embracing it,” Monroe said. “I don’t have a problem with it at all. As far as I know, this is the plan moving forward. I’m definitely embracing it.”