Auburn Hills — The Pistons have climbed toward the middle, from the brink of nothing to the edge of something. And now Stan Van Gundy has a week to answer the question many NBA teams face: How badly does he want to make the playoffs?
Or, to frame it more succinctly: How badly does he want to keep Greg Monroe?
The questions are interwoven, not just for the final 28 games, but for the future. And at this stage, the Pistons' best option probably is to ride it out with Monroe and hope a playoff berth entices him to stay. The 6-foot-11 forward will be an unrestricted free agent, and because of the one-year qualifying offer he signed, he can refuse any trade. If he wants out, the timing is up to him, and the perception is, he wants out after failing to reach agreement on a long-term deal.
If that's true — and Monroe denied reports in December he wanted to be traded — the only way for Van Gundy to salvage something is to deal him by the deadline next Thursday. Makes sense, as long as you acknowledge you'd be giving up on the playoffs, and you understand Monroe can say no. The Pistons coach and president of basketball operations has done the cost analysis, and recognizes a trade is unlikely.
"It's not gonna happen," Van Gundy said Wednesday. "I don't know where Greg's head will be in the offseason, but we're still hopeful of Greg Monroe for the long term. And with him going into free agency, you won't get a lot, maybe a pick. I'm not gonna walk in that locker room and give up a piece like that and then tell the guys we're trying to make the playoffs. They deserve the chance to ride this out. You never say never to anything, but I can tell you about 99.9 percent, Greg Monroe's not going anywhere."
That's good in the short term, not so good in the long term. Monroe is the Pistons' only reasonable trade chip, and if he didn't possess veto power, they'd certainly shop him. They should try it anyway. But while Monroe gambled on a big contract last summer and lost, the Pistons gambled too. Monroe has been reluctant to discuss his situation, but it could be too late for the team to shift from shop mode to woo mode.
Before the season, Monroe refuted reports he was unhappy playing alongside Josh Smith, and after the Pistons staggered through a 13-game losing streak in December, the trade rumor surfaced. Sure enough, Smith was released, and since then, Monroe has been as steady as ever, posting numbers — 15.4 points, 10.4 rebounds — near the best of his five-year career.
So the Pistons (21-33) likely will be neither buyers nor sellers at the deadline. They're renters, locked in a complicated lease. They enter the All-Star break two games out of the final spot in the East, bunched with a mess of middlin' teams.
Playoffs still possible
Of course they want to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. Van Gundy never has missed the playoffs as a head coach, and has done a good job restoring order in his first season here. Owner Tom Gores has shown a willingness to spend — from paying Van Gundy to paying off Smith — and a playoff spot would be a sign of the franchise's improving health.
It won't be easy, and when rising star Brandon Jennings was lost with a torn Achilles, it didn't look possible. But D.J. Augustin has stepped in nicely and the Pistons are a respectable 16-10 since their 5-23 start, and still have a rare big-man tandem in Monroe and Andre Drummond.
"Making the playoffs would be a tremendous thing for this organization, and we want to do everything we can to get that done — but without compromising our future," Van Gundy said. "You're not gonna see us tanking. But at the same time, you're not gonna see us give up a first-round pick or two second-round picks to bring in a guy who maybe gives us more depth, but is a two-month rental."
Why not pick up a complementary piece for a playoff push? The counter theory is, why bother? It's tanking season in the NBA, which is always disgusting. You play the lottery hoping to get lucky, but in sports, luck is not a strategy. How has that tactic worked for the Pistons the past five years? How has that tactic worked for other lowly teams?
Even if you luck out and land the No. 1 pick, you're getting another talented project such as Duke's Jahlil Okafor. Look how long it's taking Drummond to find any level of consistency in his third season.
No move is probable
Van Gundy will discuss options with GM Jeff Bower and his staff, but was firm about not trading a first-rounder. If a decent player became available as a short-term salary dump, the Pistons would be willing to pay the money, but not surrender key assets. They do need another guard, and there have been rumors of backup Norris Cole coming from Miami for Jonas Jerebko or others.
"You only do (something big) if there's a star out there, but we don't have any inkling any of those guys are available," Van Gundy said. "Look, we want to push to get 35 or 36 wins and try to make the playoffs. But we don't want to be in a situation where every year we're chasing 35 or 36 wins. The coach in me would give up anything to help these guys in the locker room. But luckily I've got Jeff Bower and other smart people who take the big-picture approach."
The Pistons don't have many trade chips on the roster, so it'll likely be a quiet week. Van Gundy and Bower at least have to explore the market and discuss the possibilities with Monroe. But he has done a lot of losing here, and with free agency in sight, it won't be easy for the Pistons to get a return now.
"I've got great respect for Greg as a player, and he's the kind of person you want in your organization going forward," Van Gundy said. "Greg sees the path we're on and I hope he's gained some faith in that. I know he'll have a lot to consider, but I hope he sees we're trying to do things the right way and he wants to be a part of it. But regardless, we still want him for the rest of the year."
Keeping Monroe long term is a long shot for the Pistons. Keeping him for the short term improves their playoff odds, and might end up being their only option.