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Paul Flannery | February 28, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Greg Monroe and the Bucks deal with the curse of unmet expectations

Greg Monroe and the Bucks deal with the curse of unmet expectations

BOSTON -- Greg Monroe scored 20 points and shot 9-for-13 on Thursday night against the Celtics. If he wasn’t the best player on the floor, he certainly was during stretches of the fourth quarter when the Bucks erased a double-digit deficit and got back in the game.

Much like an earlier February game against the Celtics when Monroe scored 29 points and carried Milwaukee through the fourth quarter, the C’s didn’t have an an effective counter for Moose. He passed well out of double teams and ate up defenders whenever he got prime post position, which was often.

The difference was that in Milwaukee the Bucks had a big lead and used Monroe as a closer. In Thursday’s game the Bucks were the ones doing the chasing. The Celtics had already built a sizable lead thanks to an initial surge that occurred in the game’s opening minutes when Monroe was on the bench.

The Bucks’ big free agent acquisition is a sixth man at the moment, which seems like a demotion in theory but in practice has been a nice lineup adjustment by coach Jason Kidd. With key reserves such as Jerryd Bayless and John Henson out with injuries, Kidd shuffled the deck by starting Miles Plumlee and O.J. Mayo in place of Monroe and Michael Carter-Williams. The move may not be permanent. Kidd hinted that he may switch the lineup back when some of the injured players return, but he offered no promises either way.

"Our bench has gotten better with Michael and Moose," Kidd said. "You start those two and our bench gets really thin. With those two guys being unselfish and knowing that they want to start, and we all know they do, for the betterment of the team right now we need those guys to come off the bench."

There are lots of other reasons for the switch. Jabari Parker has played exceptionally well since the All-Star break and Giannis Antetokounmpo is basically running the point, two developments that are crucial to Milwaukee’s long-term plans. There are numbers that indicate that Parker and Giannis play better without Monroe. The Bucks’ defense -- Thursday night notwithstanding -- has also been tremendous since Kidd made the change and they had won four of five.

"That’s for you guys," Kidd said when asked how Monroe has adjusted to the role. "You guys are into all the stats and stuff. You tell me. I don’t think his stats have changed. I don’t think there’s been that much of a dropoff. The biggest stat that’s increased is winning."

Kidd’s right. Monroe’s numbers haven’t really changed in the reserve role. He’s still getting his share of points, shots and minutes. His low-post game has always been effective no matter the circumstances and now he has the added benefit of working against backup bigs. Monroe has also been a consummate pro about the situation.

"That’s kind of like childish or elementary to me, when you talk about who’s starting," Monroe told me after the team’s shootaround. "It’s really not that big of a deal. As long as I play and contribute while I’m on the floor, that’s what matters."

Context and expectations are everything in this league and both are crucial to understanding what’s happened to the Bucks and Monroe. Milwaukee came into the season with great hopes after last year’s surprising surge from league worst to a feisty playoff appearance. With a prime free agent like Monroe on board, external expectations were raised to an uncomfortable, and so far unattainable, level.

"Everybody has their opinion until you play on the floor," Kidd said. "Whether those expectations are right or wrong, I think it’s a great lesson learned for your young kids to be in that situation because they’re going to be in that again."

If the Bucks had followed a more natural evolutionary arc, we’d have a much different feeling about their season. If they had won say, 30 games last season instead of 41, their trajectory this season would have been more acceptable, albeit uneven. Of course if they had followed that path, they wouldn’t have been in position to sign Monroe. That’s where it gets complicated.

Rather than ascend, the Bucks have regressed. Their defense now ranks in the lower third and their offense hasn’t improved all that much even with Monroe piling up double-doubles and shooting over 52 percent. Never known as a great defender, Monroe was an easy scapegoat earlier in the season. But the further you go down the rabbit hole, the harder it becomes to find fault with any one individual.

There have been injuries that have played havoc with rotations. Opponents have had a year to adjust to Milwaukee’s trapping schemes and their lack of outside shooting remains a problem, just as it was last season. Their schedule has also been brutal with a heavy dose of road games that will ease off in the final month and a half.

Beyond that, Parker is just 20 years old and with fewer than 80 games under his belt he’s still early in the development stage. For all of his talent and jaw-dropping flashes of potential, so is Antetokounmpo. Monroe’s arrival also coincided with the departures of Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, savvy veterans whose value is never more apparent than when they are no longer there. Both have been key contributors on their new teams.

And Monroe has produced. He’s averaging almost 17 points and 10 rebounds per game with a .563 True Shooting Percentage. His 22.8 Player Efficiency Rating is the highest individual mark on the team since Ray Allen back in 2001. Just as there are numbers that suggest the other members of the Bucks’ core play better without him, there are numbers that suggest the Bucks are better as a whole with him on the court. Monroe may not have been the missing piece, but he hasn’t exactly been the problem either.

"Nothing is for certain," Monroe said. "You have expectations but you never know what can happen. I don’t have any regrets coming here."

As a player, Monroe is a product of another time. In a different era, not even that long ago, he would have been considered an All-Star performer. In this one, where spacing and rim protection are at a premium and Draymond Green can be viewed in some circles as the league’s best center, Monroe is a throwback to an age when big men worked the paint and stayed there. It’s not that Monroe is a bad player. He’s obviously not. It’s that a player with his skillset requires adjustments from everyone.

Consider what the Hornets were able to build around Al Jefferson when he was the offensive focal point. Or, for a completely opposite extreme, consider what the Celtics have done with Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics encouraged Thomas to play his high-usage game to the hilt and it just so happened to blend perfectly with the talents and personalities of his teammates. Thomas has adjusted, as well, becoming more of a playmaker in his first full season with the team.

What it comes down to is a question of fit, and it remains to be seen whether the Bucks can make it work with Monroe and vice versa. All of that takes time and it’s worth remembering that they are an exceptionally young team. At 25 years of age, Monroe is the oldest player of a core group that also includes Khris Middleton.

"If you look back at the history of the game it could be that we’re ahead of schedule," Kidd said. "There’s always been teams that have been put together that are young that have failed. Most have all failed because we all come in last place if you don’t win the gold trophy. The process for what we’re doing, I think we’re ahead of schedule."

That may be an unsatisfying answer given all that was projected for them, but it may also be accurate. That’s the conundrum for the Bucks to unravel in a season when expectations collided awkwardly with the context of their situation.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

It’s a good time to be a free agent. With so much money coming into the league thanks to its massive television deal and the unprecedented rise of the salary cap, those fortunate ones are going to get paid. Despite the abundant number of restricted free agents and the presence of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, this year’s free agent class is not deep. The unrestricted guys are going to get paid and they’re going to have options. Here are a few who will cash in this summer.

DeMar DeRozan: Still just 26 years old and in his seventh season, DeRozan has hit his stride. His game has generally made the analytically inclined blanche, but he’s become a far more efficient player by attacking the basket and shooting a respectable percentage from long range. DeRozan is also remarkably durable, dependable and a consummate pro. If he and the Raptors capitalize on their breakthrough season with a solid playoff showing he’ll be able to name his price.

Mike Conley: It would be a shock to see the league’s most underrated point guard in any place other than Memphis. But with the season-ending injury to Marc Gasol hanging over the Grizzlies' already uncertain future, he would be wise to consider all his options carefully. Conley is the best point guard by far among the free agents and he would look good in a number of situations.

Nic Batum: A year after struggling to find his game in Portland, Batum has been reborn in Charlotte where his playmaking has been a huge asset for the surging Hornets. Batum fell off a bit after a torrid start to the season, but he’s been playing better of late and has Charlotte firmly in the playoff picture. His all-around game fits in just about everywhere but he has a really good thing going with the Hornets under coach Steve Clifford.

Hassan Whiteside: Behold the most polarizing player in the league, not just the free agent class. From his well-traveled past to the raging debate about how meaningful his impact really is, it’s hard to get a clear picture of just how much teams will value his services. But he is tall and he is a disruptive force at the rim. Those qualities alone will get him a big deal somewhere.

Ryan Anderson: In a parallel universe, Ryno would have been an intriguing midseason rental for some contender where he would have been able to show off his long-range shooting prowess on the postseason stage. In this one, where the Pelicans are clinging to any and all playoff hopes, he’s still in New Orleans on a team struggling to fight its way back to relevancy. Anderson can still shoot and shooters always make bank.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Bullshit! Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! Yeah, he loves that little wave when he comes out and passes a milestone. He loves it. LOOOVES IT! I don’t care what he says. ‘I don’t like going to the All-Star Games.’ ‘I don’t want a farewell tour.’ He loves it!" -- Mark Cuban on Dirk Nowitzki.

Reaction: In some ways, Dirk is already doing this. He is always available with the press in every city he visits and takes on all questions with insight and humor. We don’t need a farewell tour to appreciate Dirk. It’s already happening.

"No distractions at all. That's what made him great. Layup line, everything was the same. And everybody knows in life, even outside of basketball, when you can be consistent in things you’re usually successful. And that's what KG did. Same routine every single time." -- Avery Bradley reflecting on Kevin Garnett.

Reaction: I used to marvel at KG’s pregame idiosyncrasies. My personal favorite was the way he would tap his toes, one then the other, in perfect time during the anthem. He would do this every single time, without fail like a metronome.

"I know what our goal is, to try to go after Kevin, which is not a bad situation. But my ultimate goal is this year. I ain’t trying to waste a season. I’m in my sixth year. Time don’t wait for nobody and I’ve dealt with it my first three years of not being in the playoffs. I know how it feels to have a longer summer, a longer vacation. I don’t want that." -- John Wall to the Vertical’s Michael Lee.

Reaction: This is the thing with plans, grand as they may be. Plans take time and time isn’t something NBA players have a lot of to spare, especially when they’re in their prime like Wall. If it works out like Miami’s audacious plan to get LeBron James and Chris Bosh, then it’s worth it. If it doesn’t, then all you have is a wasted year you can’t get back.

"It’s a shock. For him, it’s devastating. You go to work every day and you think nothing is going to happen. You think you’re going to go through the motions and then you come out with an injury like that. All of a sudden your world is changed. You wake up and you’re not going on road trips and you’re not around the team. Everything changes. It’s tough." -- Memphis guard Mike Conley on Marc Gasol.

Reaction: The history of big men recovering from navicular bone injuries is not great, but the Grizzlies need to take the long view on his recovery. Gasol is as important to his franchise as any star in the league and the team needs to be prepared for all possibilities. In the interim, it’s a devastating thing for this team.

"I think in retrospect trading Isaiah Thomas when we did was a mistake. I think sometimes in the recruitment process things sound better in July than they do in November. He wanted more, he wanted a bigger role and I understand why: He’s a talented player. In retrospect, we should have carried him into the summer. If there’s one that stands out, if I could get a mulligan, that’d be it." -- Suns GM Ryan McDonough.

Reaction: Kudos to McDonough for his candor on this one. It’s very rare when GMs admit their mistakes like this.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Here’s Isaiah Thomas with the pass that broke the Basketball Internet on Thursday.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.