CHICAGO – You’ve got to be quick now to spot it, as if you were tracking one of the most elusive or endangered species on the planet. Once, maybe twice in an NBA game anymore, your focus and patience will pay off and – THERE! – you’ll catch a rare glimpse of a traditional center posting up another traditional center for a few offensive seconds.
Might as well be a snow leopard hanging out with a unicorn.
Look, the exaggeration is only slight considering who qualifies as an NBA “big man” these days and what that means in this post-Golden State, pace-and-space, 3-point obsessed league. On Monday night at United Center, it was Milwaukee’s Greg Monroe posting up Chicago’s Robin Lopez a time or two, throwback moments to how the game used to be played and brief exceptions to the rule that explains Monroe’s situation with the Bucks.
Fifteen months ago, Monroe was celebrated as a victory for the little markets and the biggest free-agent splash in Milwaukee franchise history. The 25-year-old, double-double dude from Detroit had chosen the Bucks over the Knicks and the Lakers, drawn at least in part by the great things he had heard from his good buddy Khris Middleton about the organization and the city in general and about coach Jason Kidd in particular.
That was then. Now Middleton is out, probably for the season, after tearing a hamstring in a preseason scrimmage. Kidd and his bosses are driven to find not just a replacement shooter for him but to beef up the Bucks’ 3-point game overall (they ranked last in both attempts and makes last season).
And Monroe faces the prospect of coming off the bench, something he’d done only 12 times in 381 games dating from the mid-point of his rookie season – until he hit a 12-game stretch under Kidd before and after last season’s All-Star Game.
Monroe (15.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 52.2 percent shooting) put up solid numbers overall last season, but Milwaukee went 6-6 when he didn’t start compared to 26-41 when he did. Kidd started Miles Plumlee during that stretch and liked the way the team functioned enough that Plumlee was re-upped on a four-year, $50 million deal. On top of Monroe’s three-year, $50 million contract and John Henson’s four-year, $44 million extension that kicks in this season.
The idea that the other Milwaukee starters – particularly Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, who need both touches and lanes to the rim – might function better with a center who doesn’t require the basketball (Plumlee vs. Monroe) is legitimate. And truth be told, Kidd never has played or coaches for any length of time with a ball-centric low-post big man.
As for Monroe, what his defensive flaws and limited ability to protect the rim don’t explain, his scoring-by-2 in a 3-point world does.
Four years ago, I broke the news to Roy Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 defensive presence then with Indiana, that the All-Star ballots no longer would list “Centers.” He didn’t react nearly as graciously as Monroe did last week when he learned from reporters at Bucks media day that he wasn’t likely to be starting this season.
But the trend is the same, an ongoing diminution of the traditional bigs. In the wake of Monroe’s signing in July 2015, some Bucks fans were nervous that he negotiated an option to leave after just two seasons. Now some of them are nervous he’ll pick up that third year at $17.9 million. His salary-to-value ratio is a potential snag, too, to some of the trade rumors he and NBA fans have heard.
Monroe, talking about the trend prior to that Bucks’ preseason opener, can read box scores. “The game is definitely changing,” he said.
“People are playing a little bit faster, shooting more threes. So it’s definitely tougher to kind of slow it down and throw it [inside]. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m pretty sure there’s less post-ups.
“I don’t know if I would say ‘stylized out.’ But the center’s definitely not looked at the same way it was in years past. Just the change on the [All-Star] ballot probably shows that.”
Monroe admitted that this was not how he imagined things going with Milwaukee, not on that day last summer when he sat at a head table, beaming next to his pal Middleton (who had just signed a five-year, $70 million deal). Every team on which he had played – youth basketball, high school, Georgetown – wanted him on the court with the ball in his hands.
The NBA in 2016? Meh.
“Uh … for sure it’s not what I envisioned when I came,” said Monroe, who does enjoy his Bucks teammates and who praised Kidd and the coaches’ communication. “But like I say, you just have to adjust. I have to take advantage of my time on the court and try to be as productive as I can. And try to help our team win by doing the things they want me to do while I’m on the court. That’s what I’m focused on. Most everything else will take care of itself as long as I focus on playing.”
The good news Monday was that Monroe subbed in midway through the first quarter with the Bucks in a 14-3 hole. He immediately went to work with a hook shot, a 17-foot jumper, a block of Jimmy Butler’s layup and a steal from Taj Gibson, all in two minutes time. Milwaukee outscored Chicago 22-7 the rest of the quarter, held on to win and Monroe finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in 17 minutes.
“Playing with him the last few weeks,” said new Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova, “I’ve seen aspects of his game that you don’t really see as an opponent. He can really pass the ball. So the more we can move and cut off the ball when he’s got it in the post, either we’ll get layups because he’ll see us or it will allow him more room to go to work.”
Kidd spoke about shuffling through his lineups in the preseason, with a chance Monroe could start Saturday against Dallas in Madison, Wis. One of the Bucks players suggested Monroe could thrive against opponents’ second-string bigs, get the ball more with fellow reserves than with starters and wind up as a Sixth Man candidate.
Then there was 39-year-old Jason Terry, the veteran shooter who is with Milwaukee as much as a morale officer as anything else.
“You have to have a post presence in this league, I don’t care who you are,” said Terry, who broke in when Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and David Robinson still roamed the NBA landscape. “Unless you’re Golden State. And they’re extreme – they’re the only team I can think of that has a chance to win that doesn’t have a post presence. Other than that, one of your 13 guys is going to have to have a post presence. A guy you can throw it to in the half court who can go get you a basket or can facilitate from the low post.”
Wants? Maybe, as a change-up in a coach’s repertoire. Needs? Less and less, it seems. Monroe’s minutes last season dipped below 30.0 per game for the first time since his rookie season. If he works exclusively off the bench, they’ll dip further.
Any sense the pendulum will swing back, he was asked, with the low-post bangers coming back into fashion?
“Time will tell. You know how this is, a copycat league,” he said. “One team might try it again, might go big again, might make it to The Finals, might win. Then everything will switch, everybody will regroup.
“So maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It’s just that, as a player, you’ve got to find a way to adjust with the times.”
While wondering, at age 26, what the new times will hold.
“In this league, you always have the future in your mind,” Monroe said. “You want to win now, you want to do the things to win now. But you’re always, at the same time, auditioning or preparing for the future.”
While wondering what sort of one you’ll have.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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