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Can Greg Monroe anchor the Celtics’ second unit?

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The 27-year-old big man was Danny Ainge’s splashy trade deadline acquisition. His back-to-the-basket conventionalism feels like a relic of the past, but Monroe is not your typical post-up big man.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Discard any overarching opinions that you developed about Greg Monroe over the past three months. The Phoenix Suns never wanted him. For Phoenix GM and Massachusetts native Ryan McDonough, Monroe was only acquired for his $17.8 million salary—a financially necessary means to achieve an end, i.e. matching Eric Bledsoe’s contract while acquiring Milwaukee’s draft pick in the process.

Phoenix’s big man rotation was already set, and Monroe’s presence wasn’t going to interfere with long-term development. Alex Len is in the midst of a one-year bridge deal while he auditions for a long-term extension. Since 2015, Tyson Chandler has served as the lead-by-example veteran. They also have sizable lottery pick investments in small-ball centers Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.

Consequently, Monroe became a non-prioritized afterthought who was often sent to DNP-CD purgatory. He appeared in a total of 20-of-41 possible games with the Suns, and most of his playing time was due to injuries to teammates. His eventual buyout always seemed to be more of a matter of “when” rather than “if”.

Boston acquired Monroe while still exploring other deals at the trade deadline, hoping he would inject some offensive firepower to the reserves unit. The Celtics still rank in the bottom-10 in bench scoring, a troubling statistic exacerbated by the fact that the starters are a mediocre 18th in offensive rating since turning the calendar to 2018.

The 27-year-old Monroe is off to a slow start with the C’s. Through six games, the big man has averaged 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds over 13.7 minutes per game. After racking up 21 DNP-CDs in Phoenix, Monroe should be afforded a few more games to acclimate to the Brad Stevens system. So much inconsistent action in Phoenix could have inhibited his ability to quickly adapt. If Monroe is serious about contributing to a deep playoff push—and his decision to bypass an opportunity at New Orleans’ starting center spot seems to suggest as such—then we should expect him to be motivated to adapt.

Boston’s depth makes it harder to find consistent minutes for Monroe. In Milwaukee last year, there wasn’t much standing in his way for ample playing time. John Henson appeared in only 58 games, while then rookie Thon Maker, who only began playing basketball in 2010, was concentrated on finding his bearings.

Now, Monroe will have to fight for minutes with Aron Baynes, who has the league’s best defensive rating (minimum 40 games played), and atypical rookie and championship-battled Daniel Theis, who is arguably playing his best basketball of the season right now. Brad Stevens’ forward-thinking coaching style results in matchup-based bench rotations, something that the traditionally-minded Kidd refused to embrace.

In last night’s contest against the Hornets, Monroe got himself going. To begin the second quarter, Stevens unleashed the newest Celtic while Dwight Howard was on the bench. Monroe proceeded to subjugate the undersized and inexperienced Willy Hernangomez, whose team left him on an island against the Boston newcomer’s overpowering post moves. He went 3-for-3, scoring seven points in the first three minutes of the frame. Realizing the mismatch, the Celtics fed Monroe early in the shot clock, and the lead swelled from four to 10 while he was on the floor.

The Celtics rank 23rd in points per possession off of post-up play types. For basketball’s progressive ideologists, Monroe’s back-to-the-hoop prowess belongs in the 1980s and 1990s. However, there is an argument that post-up heavy players still carry value in today’s pace-and-space centric league.

Monroes deft scoring touch and knack for carving out space around the rim are well-documented, but where he separates himself from other big men is his advanced floor awareness and vision. He loves to play bully-ball to get his shots up. Improving the Celtics post-up efficiency can also be achieved by using Monroe to generate quality looks for others. During his 20-game stint with Phoenix, Monroe averaged 3.9 assists per 36 minutes, which was the highest mark of any stint in his career.

The Celtics tend to find more success when the ball touches the paint during a given offensive possession. Normally, that occurs in the form of a Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, or Terry Rozier dribble drive, but dumping the ball into the post can effectively collapse defenders as well, so long as they can read-and-react to distribute out of the post when necessary. Adding Monroe’s low-block efficiency to Brad Stevens’ play-calling arsenal will help to diversify an offense that dearly needed to add some variety before the trade deadline.

Serving as a big-man facilitator requires making intelligent and rapid decisions off of the catch, so as to not bog down the pace and offensive flow. Monroe averages 2.07 seconds per post-up touch. By comparison, that’s slightly higher than similarly skilled big men Zach Randolph (2.06 seconds), Dwight Howard (2.0), and Enes Kanter (1.77). Opposing defenders will focus in on Monroe’s isolation scoring game with more attention than they would for Baynes and Theis, and the surveillance that he garners forces eyes onto him and opens up opportunities from teammates.

While he probably won’t pile up highlight dimes like Nikola Jokic or Al Horford, Monroe’s vision is an underrated asset that can help to clear up floor space for the other four Celtics on the floor. He has an innate sense to identify where double-teams are coming from and how to exploit creases in opposing defenses.

In the above clip, Monroe feels the second defender bearing down from behind. He pivots off of the catch because he knows that the wing shooter should be wide open. The decisiveness makes it difficult for the Brooklyn defense to recover. He shows off Horford-level awareness by knowing where his teammates are without looking. As Monroe grows more comfortable within the Celtics’ scheme, his playmaking will become more expeditious.

In this next play, watch Monroe get the ball and immediately look over his shoulder turn his to scan and survey the defense behind him. At 6’11’’, he has a beneficial height and length combination which allows him pass over the outstretched arms of a triple-team to find a cutting Jabari Parker. Furnishing these passes with accuracy and zippiness isn’t easy, but Moose does it seamlessly.

These two above plays were improvisational read-and-react plays, and while Boston can’t necessarily plan for Monroe to dispatch these kinds of passes, they should feel comfortable knowing that a quality shot will be generated if he is able to get a touch near the basket.

The next two are slightly different. They’re designed off-ball sets tailored to the idea that Monroe’s passing ability can create unguarded looks for teammates, and he engineers with flawless execution. There aren’t many centers who can serve up precise passes to full-speed moving targets, but Monroe does so with simplicity.

In this second play, can you picture Jayson Tatum or Marcus Morris playing the Jason Terry shooter role off of a flare screen?

We’ve already begun to see Brad Stevens start to incorporate Monroe as a facilitator at the top of the key. Check out this inverted set, where the guards are positioned by the block and the bigs are near the perimeter. Watch closely as Monroe craftily takes a small dribble before finding Kyrie Irving. The dribble shortens the distance of the pass. The pass is less likely to get deflected and the ball is in Irving’s hands a split second earlier, thus lowering the odds that the defender blocks the jumper.

Below, Monroe is positioned beyond the three-point line, which is well outside of his scoring comfort zone. However, it causes Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. to drift away from the basket, negating any semblance of rim protection. For the Celtics, the key here is that Monroe is able to deliver a pinpoint bounce pass to a curling Semi Ojeleye in stride.

The value of Jason Kidd’s tenure in Milwaukee is up for debate, but lost between his underrated decision to yank Monroe from Milwaukee’s starting lineup to turn him into a prolific bench scorer prior to the 2016-2017 season is underrated. Milwaukee finished 7th in second unit offensive rating last year, led primarily by Monroe, who finished inside the top-15 bench scorers on a per-36 minute basis (minimum 30 GP). That’s enough to suggest that—with the right second unit lineup—Monroe can lead the second-unit with his offense.

After he formally signed on February 8, the Celtics had four games in seven days, leaving the coaching staff with limited time to plug Moose into their system. Since then, he benefited from a week-long All-Star break to help study the system. Pair that with Stevens’ proven track record of maximizing role player utility, and betting that Monroe will start to look comfortable within the scheme is a solid wager.

Running the second unit offense through Monroe could result in a higher percentage of open looks, especially since the group has struggled with shot selection this season. Boston launches the 7th most tightly contested field goal attempts (closest defender 0-2 feet away). By comparison, they were 18th last season. Additionally, they currently rank 20th in potential assist rate after finishing 5th in 2016-17. So despite the fact that they’ve produced early offensive success after the All-Star break, there is still room for improvement, and Monroe could be a nice catalyst off the bench.

Rozier, Smart, and Morris should continue to be the primary focal points with the second unit, but deploying some occasional play types that allow Monroe to utilize his distributing aptitude acts as another card that Brad Stevens can deal.

Last season was the first time Monroe’s seven-year career that he played in the postseason, and despite his defensive issues, he proved to be a valuable weapon for the Bucks, evidenced by an impressive +15 differential in the series, all while playing 20-plus minutes in every game. A player’s success between October and March doesn’t guarantee that his effectiveness will translate in the postseason, so it’s refreshing to know that Monroe has a track record of being a net-positive in a playoff format. Here is a chart detailing his six-game playoff résumé:

The question remains whether Monroe’s offensive utility and rebounding volume will yield a net-positive when offset by his defensive issues. Ordinarily, one-way specialists tend to become obsolete in a postseason format, where opposing coaches have ample planning days to exploit players who are a liability on a certain end of the floor. Monroe, a offensive virtuoso with limited defensive upside falls into that category. While his small-sample playoff success may put some cynics at ease, it’s fair to question how effective he can be if coaches zero in on his lack of agility, especially as postseason game plans become magnified and dissectible.

According to Synergy Sports tracking statistics from the 2016-17 season, Monroe actually graded out positively (78 percentile) when defending pick-and-roll ball handlers, but negatively against P&R rollers (24th percentile). Those metrics have dropped this season, to the 40th and 22nd percentiles, respectively, albeit while playing in indeterminate roles spread between Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Boston.

Whether the Celtics are willing to run portions their second unit offense through the veteran big man remains unclear, but giving him the latitude to make decisions in the low block and high-post position seemed to work for the Bucks. Boston has 20 more games to experiment.

Poll

Will Greg Monroe become a meaningful contributor to the Celtics’ rotation?

This poll is closed

  • 83%
    Yes. His talent level is unique, so I think he will carve out a notable role.
    (749 votes)
  • 16%
    No. He’s a depth piece who should be deployed in specific situations only.
    (144 votes)
893 votes total Vote Now

Follow Matt Chin on Twitter @MattChinNBA.

Statistics are accurate as of all games headed into February 28, 2018. All non-cited statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com. All salary information is from RealGM.com.