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The Argument for Greg Monroe over Omer Asik

Could the Pelicans change course this summer and bring a New Orleans native back home? It might make some sense.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

There are some players in the league who, for one reason or another, captivate individuals. Of course star players like Michael Jordon, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and our own Anthony Davis accomplish this for a diverse spectrum of fans. As much as America enjoys rooting for the underdog during March Madness when it comes to the NBA fans flock toward the stars who provide the highest wattage.

Well below that are niche stars. Players who quirky talents, hair style, attitude on the court, or personality on social media draw the attention for very specific reasons. Greg Monroe is one of those players for me. I can remember watching Monroe while he was at Georgetown in the high post facilitating John Thompson III's retro Princeton offense and absolutely loving his passing ability. There is, of course, a back story behind this affection.

When I was in high school I was a decent but not spectacular big man. "Big" in the loosest of high school terms as I started center for a team at the height of just 6'4". Our offense revolved around a shooting guard who was dangerous the moment he crossed half court. The first play of every single game my junior year started with a pass to me at the elbow. The mere threat of our All-State shooting guard's ability resulted in constant overplays, and numerous backdoor cuts for layups. Watching Monroe thread a perfect bounce pass to a cutting wing reminds me of my own game at a much lower level.

Over the past two years I have written frequently on bringing Greg Monroe to New Orleans. Monroe graduated from Helen Cox High School on the Westbank in 2008 after winning Mr. Basketball in Louisiana two consecutive years. The fit in Detroit, especially while Josh Smith took up residence, was tenuous at best. In September Monroe signed the qualifying offer with the Pistons ensuring he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Just days after I discussed why the Pelicans should pursue Greg Monroe any realistic chance of that happening was eliminated as Dell Demps traded for Omer Asik. As I stated at the time, Asik was a deliberate and concerted effort to fill the areas of greatest weakness for New Orleans. That does not rule out going back to those deliberations this summer.

Boatloads of Data

This is not going to surprise anyone, but Greg Monroe is a more effective offensive player than Omer Asik. Monroe has a number of solid moves in the post, crafty footwork, and the patience necessary to score in the paint. Thanks to these skills Monroe is a much bigger part of the offense in Detroit than Asik is in New Orleans.

Omer Asik 15.4 14.5% 29.5% 21.9% 5.2% 16.1% 13.8%
Greg Monroe 20.7 12.0% 25.6% 18.5% 12.6% 13.4% 23.8%
FGA/100 FTA/100 REB/100 AST/100 BLK/100 PF/100 PTS/100
Omer Asik 10.7 6.1 20.3 1.9 1.4 4.4 14.6
Greg Monroe 20.4 8.0 17.7 3.6 0.6 3.4 26.1

From Basketball Reference

Both players also play with dynamic young big men in Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis. The difference in their front court partners is vast and making any kind of one-to-one comparison is difficult. Asik has taken an absurd 97.7% of his shots within eight feet of the basket, converting at a 52.6% clip. Monroe sticks to the basket slightly less so, but attempts 90.2% of his shots in the same area, making 50.8% of those attempts.

Asik is 1-5 beyond eight feet this season. Monroe has not done much better, shooting 16-50. Synergy Sports Technology allows us to identify not just where each player is getting their shots, but how.

Offense: Synergy Post Up Poss Off Reb Poss P&R - Roll Poss Cut Poss Transition Poss
Omer Asik 0.750 16 0.910 89 1.071 56 0.964 111 1.278 18
Greg Monroe 0.862 282 1.135 104 0.865 89 1.309 68 1.607 28

From Synergy Sports Technology

Cuts are the most difficult to manage in Synergy Sports. Sometimes a cut is just what you think, a player cutting toward the rim and receiving a pass. Most times, especially when concerning big men, a cut is a dump off pass from a driving guard or just proper positioning. When Anthony Davis passes to Asik in this clip that counts as a "Cut" on Synergy. Monroe converts such plays at a higher rate, but does so less frequently. This is likely due to the frequent presence of Andre Drummond, who makes a living off such plays. Another occasion where Monroe's superior hands come into play are offensive rebounds, where he gets the bucket more often.

Monroe being a superior post player is no surprise, but really focus on the sheer volume. The Pistons go into Monroe on the block frequently; near six and a half times a game. Fans clamoring for a back to the basket option can look for post ups from Monroe. Greg Monroe ranks just 26th out of 45 players who have at least 100 post ups; but also ahead of much more celebrated players like Pau Gasol (0.853), our own Anthony Davis (0.844), Nene (0.811), Tim Duncan (0.758), and Dwight Howard (0.723).

Monroe's struggles in the pick and roll compared to Asik are problematic. Moose ranks in the 30th percentile in that area while Asik nearly cracks the 70th. If Monroe was in New Orleans that would not be a terrible concern as Anthony Davis is absolutely devastating on such plays, but when Davis needs a rest it could put the Pelicans at a disadvantage.

Defensive Shock

The impetus of this entire article is thanks to Zach Lowe's most recent article on who he thinks should play in the All-Star game. Unlike Lowe I focus nearly all my NBA time watching the Pelicans. I often watch a game once in the evening live and then buzz through the DVR'd recording the following morning while my daughter naps. Lowe gets paid to do this, and he consumes an astounding amount of basketball during the season. So when he wrote this about Monroe, I thought it was time to take a deeper look. (As always, clicking on the link and reading his entire article is worth it).

Monroe is playing the best all-around ball of his career and deserves stronger All-Star consideration than he appears to have received. He has outplayed Drummond for the balance of the season, and he’s working harder than ever on defense — at both big-man positions. When Detroit took off without Josh Smith, we all (justifiably) focused on the power of positioning three shooters around a pick-and-roll — something Stan Van Gundy can do only when he sits one of the Drummond-Monroe combination.

Detroit A.S. (After Smoove) has actually been at its best with both Drummond and Monroe on the floor, per Monroe is beasting in the post, dishing snappy interior passes, and making smart reads on defense. He’ll never be a rim protector, but opposing ball handlers are shooting just 38.5 percent on pick-and-rolls in which Monroe’s man is the screener — a strong number, per Synergy.

The roster weirdness that undid the Smith-era Pistons hurts Monroe’s All-Star case just enough to open up a spot for someone else.

First, I want to look at the publicly available numbers. As Lowe states, Monroe is no rim protector despite his size and length.

Defense: NBA Stats FGA at Rim FG% at Rim REB% per Opp Contest REB% PER Allowed Total D Total D Poss
Omer Asik 11.3 50.2% 62.1% 45.9% 17.1 0.848 480
Greg Monroe 8.1 55.6% 64.3% 42.6% 19.8 0.791 465

From NBA Stats82 Games, and Synergy Sports Technology

The last two columns are from Synergy, and they tell a very interesting story. Monroe is actually a "better" defender than Asik has been this season, on roughly the same number of possessions. All of this was pulled before Tuesday's game against Cleveland for Detroit however. We need more context. Monroe has played 1273 minutes in the above sample size while Asik has played 1056. This means Asik is defending roughly 16.4 possessions per 36 minutes compared to 13.2 for Monroe.

That difference in defensive activity, especially when Detroit averages an additional possession per game compared to New Orleans, is important to note. That Asik defends 3.2 additional possessions at the rim per 36 minutes, the exact same margin of total defensive possessions, is just a freaky coincidence. I think.

Synergy Defense

Defense: Synergy P&R - Ball Poss Post Up Poss Isolation Poss Spot Up Poss P&R - Roll Poss
Omer Asik 0.876 259 0.913 103 0.714 42 0.786 42 0.750 28
Greg Monroe 0.702 205 0.761 67 1.095 21 0.918 85 0.836 61

From Synergy Sports Technology

One thing that jumps out is the defense against the ball handler in the pick and roll. This is by far the largest sample of every big man defender I have researched. Among defender who have at least 100 such possessions Greg Monroe ranks 13th while Asik ranks 74th. The very best players at this consist of names you would expect; Brook Lopez is 1st, Tim Duncan is 2nd, Al Horford is 3rd, and Dwight Howard is 4th. However, the names around Asik are equally familiar; Pau Gasol is 73rd and Roy Hibbert is 77th.

While Monroe also outpaces Asik defending post ups it is important to note that Monroe rarely receives the task of guarding the most dangerous post player. Asik is the designated stopper to protect Anthony Davis, Monroe lines up beside an even bigger man in Andre Drummond. All other areas Asik far outpaces Monroe. Spot Up could be slightly misleading, as Monroe must chase stretch fours while Asik rarely defends shooting threats.

Combining the pick and roll ball handler and pick and roll roll man evens the scales slightly. On a total of 266 possessions Monroe has allowed 0.733 points per possession. Asik, defending 287 such possessions, allows a higher success rate at  0.864. The big area where Monroe makes the difference is turnovers; Monroe has forced 53 turnovers in 266 possessions (19.9%) while Asik has forced just 34 (11.8%).

Sunk Cost

The Pelicans cannot recoup the cost of acquiring Asik by re-signing him this summer. That cost is unrecoverable regardless of future actions; at some point, likely this summer, New Orleans will send a first round pick to Houston. Nothing that happens in free agency can change that. It is what is called a sunk cost in economics. Debating such costs is fruitless. Only prospective costs should be discussed when considering bringing Asik back on a long term deal this summer.

This is also related to the situation with General Manager Dell Demps and Head Coach Monty Williams. Dell's contract expires this summer while Monty's goes through 2016. Both Zach Lowe and Ric Bucher have reported in the past seven months that Joe Dumars is a potential replacement of Demps should the franchise not meet internal goals this season.

Internal goals and media invented goals are important to differentiate here. Just because media personalities think New Orleans has sold the farm to get in the playoffs now does not mean the Pelicans actually believe that making the playoffs is the only way this season is a success.

Dumars is best known (currently) for a slew of bad contracts: Ben Gordon, Charlie Villenueva, and Josh Smith. However, he was also GM when the Pistons drafted Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Kyle Singler (2nd round), Andre Drummond, Khris Middleton (2nd round), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in four consecutive drafts. That's an excellent haul if he could have just been patient and stopped firing coaches and trading away players (Knight and Middleton) to chase bigger names (Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith).

Past History, Future Cost, and Fit

The big key in that is that Dumars drafted Monroe. If Dumars believes Monroe can be a center in the league (and Monroe was for his first two seasons in Detroit) then pairing him with Anthony Davis is going to have some appeal. Monroe is not even an average rim protector. Will Anthony Davis eventually evolve into an elite defender to cover Monroe's weaknesses?

Greg Monroe will cost more than Omer Asik, offensive in this league is always more expensive than defense. Posting and Toasting has an excellent guide on prospective maximum contracts. The maximum Monroe would cost is $15.8 Million in his first season. I often say that I expect Asik to cost $11-12 Million a season, in line with similar centers.

Is Monroe's offense, durability (he's missed just one game due to injury in four and half seasons), and youth (Monroe turns 25 in June, Asik turns 29 in July) worth the additional $3-4 Million in the first season? How much will the defense suffer putting Monroe in at center compared to Asik's increased rim protection and activity? What about fit and available possessions with the other players in the core?

While it appears unlikely that Eric Gordon stays beyond his current contract getting Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson (does he stick around?) touches seems impossible. All that while considering that Davis soon will need 28% or more of the available possessions just because he is the best player on the floor every time he steps onto the court.

Summer Lovin'

This Summer is the most important since Tom Benson bought the franchise. Anthony Davis is eligible to sign a maximum extension. Either this summer or next big decisions will be made about who runs the franchise, who coaches the team, and what the core of that team will be going forward. If Dell Demps and/or Monty Williams are no longer with the Pelicans enormous changes are going to take place.

Changes in the front office or on the bench could have negative consequences on Davis and everything must be made with both long term success and his future career in the Crescent City in mind. While I am not advocating that a soon-to-be 22 year old act as a final authority this franchise can learn from prior mistakes with Chris Paul, David West, and Tyson Chandler.

Davis can be informed of the direction of the franchise before it is leaked to Adrian Wojnarowski or another NBA reporter. AD should learn directly from the source of such decision making about where this team is headed and the thought process behind it. Not from Twitter or third parties. He can be involved simply by being in the conversation.

Don't be shocked if Greg Monroe is a target. The Pelican front office looked into him via sign-and-trade last summer before trading for Omer Asik. Just like I went back to the well, they could too.