Milwaukee Bucks: Can Greg Monroe repeat his improved defense?

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 20: Norman Powell
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 20: Norman Powell /

As we approach a new season for the Milwaukee Bucks, can Greg Monroe continue the improved defensive play that he demonstrated last season?

Away from the obvious jump to superstardom from Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the more obvious elements that allowed the Milwaukee Bucks to put together a much improved season in 2016-17 was the improved play of Greg Monroe.

Having signed back in the summer of 2015 as arguably the biggest free agent coup the franchise had ever seen, Monroe had a tumultuous first season in Milwaukee as the Bucks floundered and he failed to make a decisive impact personally.

That story changed dramatically last season. Having never previously started less than 66 games for any NBA season, Monroe was consigned to the second unit as he failed to register even a single start last year.

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If that bruised his ego, he didn’t let it show. Instead, Monroe embraced his bench role and produced arguably the most positive play of his NBA career.

The 27-year-old notably made the postseason for the very first time in his career, while another important first came with the fact that he also registered a positive net rating for the first time in his seven NBA seasons.

In other words, the Bucks outscored their opponents significantly per 100 possessions when Monroe was on the floor. To be precise, having given up 2.7 more points to the opposition per 100 with the New Orleans native in his first season in Milwaukee, the Bucks bounced back to be 3.7 points better than their opponents when the big man was on the floor in 2016-17.

Statistically, it could be argued the standout element of that improvement came as Monroe found it much easier to get his share of points while spending greater time playing against opposing second units rather than starters. That plays out in a jump of over 5.3 points extra per 100 possessions when comparing year on year, which is something that can also be attributed to building up great chemistry with the likes of Malcolm Brogdon and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Perhaps even more important, though, were the incremental improvements the center was able to make defensively.

Monroe has never been the most mobile of big men, nor has he cut an imposing figure in a rim-protecting capacity. Yet in spite of the fact he’ll never be one of the league’s best defenders, Monroe managed to hurt his team less on D last year. That rings true as Monroe registered improvements in key defensive metrics such as defensive rating, defensive box plus-minus, and defensive win shares.

For those who had watched Monroe defend for the Bucks 12 months earlier, the increase in desire and effort he gave was impossible to ignore.

Monroe brought greater energy to the floor on a nightly basis, disrupting the passing lanes, and doing whatever he could to paper over the cracks that would often appear in Milwaukee’s rearguard.

That improvement could probably be viewed as a result of greater familiarity with the Bucks’ particularly aggressive approach to defending their opponent, but can also be attributed to greater personal motivations.

Monroe spent last year knowing he had the opportunity to enter free agency, if he so chose, at the end of the year. In a league that’s less hospitable than ever to old-fashioned centers, that created a need for Monroe to put his best foot forward.

Having decided to stay with the Bucks this summer by opting in to his player option, Monroe has now set up a similar situation for next summer.

To analyze where that leaves Milwaukee in terms of Monroe’s defensive performance, there are two options. Firstly, perhaps Monroe has just figured out elements of defensive play that didn’t make sense to him as a younger player, and it will be smoother sailing for him from here on in. Alternatively, if factors of personal pride and financial motivation drove Monroe to get better, they should be even more prevalent for him in the coming year.

In the summer of 2018, there’ll be no safety net for Monroe to opt into. He’s now officially playing for his next deal.

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For the Bucks, the hope has to be that a taste of playoff basketball, and of what can be achieved when he plays at a higher level on both sides, will lead Monroe to come back just as strong. And while it may be natural to expect some regression, for the most part the stars should align to allow Monroe to compile a similarly impactful season this time around.