Niyo: Locking up Drummond crucial step for Pistons

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The Pistons are looking for a commitment from Andre Drummond this summer.

And they won’t truly know they have it until they see it on the line. Both the free-throw line and the dotted line, as Stan Van Gundy looks to build off this season’s playoff return and continue building around his team’s All-Star center.

Drummond is scheduled to be a restricted free agent in July. And while Van Gundy — the Pistons president and coach — said last week he has “good confidence” the team can lock him up with a contract extension this summer, he acknowledged, “Nothing’s a sure thing.”

What’s certain is the team’s willingness — stated publicly by everyone from owner Tom Gores on down — to make Drummond a maximum-contract offer of five years and $120-plus million in the next couple of months. Standing in the Pistons locker room after their season-ending playoff loss to the Cavaliers, Gores said he had “no hesitation” about doing so. And when asked if he thought the feeling was mutual, Gores answered in the affirmative.

“You’d have to ask Andre, but I think we have a great relationship,” Gores said. “I think he likes Detroit, but you’d have to ask him.”

Drummond, at least publicly, still sounded like someone planning to stick around, saying that same night, “the team that we have, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody.”

Yet in the next breath, Drummond, the longest-tenured member of the Pistons roster at age 22, admits he’s “seen it all” in “four long years” in Detroit, adding, “It has been a struggle.”

And now that they’re finally getting to the good stuff, so is Drummond.

So it’ll be interesting — telling, even — to see how he handles it. Will he sign up now for the long haul, as many expect? Or will he opt for a riskier route and accept a qualifying offer to play for less than $4.5 million next season in order to be an unrestricted free agent in 2017? (The Pistons also can make a maximum qualifying offer this summer that’d give them more leverage if Drummond chooses to sign that instead.)

Free-throw problem

Regardless, this is the reason Van Gundy says, “I think we can state with great confidence that we’ll have him back here next year,” at the very least. But everyone has their own reasons — intentions, too — and we’re about to find out something more about Drummond’s this summer, on and off the court.

Last year, the decision to put off an extension helped the Pistons, giving them more cap flexibility heading into free agency this summer. But now?

Maybe the Pistons would entertain a serious trade offer if they believed Drummond were inclined to leave after next season. But it doesn’t appear they’re interested right now.

“Just boil it down to purely a business decision,” Van Gundy said. “His value around the league is very, very high. … But he’s a 22-year-old All-Star center. There aren’t very many guys in the league who have the abilities that he has.”

No, there aren’t. And Drummond did make big strides in his fourth NBA season, thanks to his own offseason work a year ago and to the work of Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower in retooling the Pistons roster around him.

Drummond led the league with 66 double-doubles this season, winning the NBA rebounding title (14.8 per game) by a wide margin — that’ll be an annual event for him for years — while averaging 16.2 points. But his struggles at the line, where he shot a career-low — and league-worst — 35.5 percent became an even bigger issue for the Pistons big man.

An intentional-foul strategy — still legal, though endangered in the NBA — proved frustratingly successful for Pistons opponents. And particularly so in the playoffs, where Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue didn’t hesitate to employ it in the Cavaliers first-round sweep, forcing Van Gundy to bench one of his best players for long, important stretches. “Because you can’t do anything with him,” an exasperated Van Gundy explained after the Game 3 loss at The Palace, in which Drummond sat the final 6 minutes.

Harsh words, no doubt. But last week, as Van Gundy talked freely about tackling the problem, he pointed to that as a silver lining of sorts.

“One good thing about this season, where it was really the first time people used that strategy against him extensively, is I think he’s motivated and very open-minded in terms of approaches,” Van Gundy said. “He wants to get it solved. He doesn’t like being on the bench. I think he’ll work at it.”

Work to do

The Pistons brass is working solutions of their own, including some “out-of-the-box” ideas, though Van Gundy declined to elaborate. They all know it’ll require more than just a simple mechanical fix or more repetitions in the gym. The team hired a full-time shooting coach in part to work with Drummond this season, but those efforts were essentially scrapped before the All-Star break.

“So we have to learn to deal with this a little bit differently,” Van Gundy said. “We just have to decide what the best approach to take is, and get Andre on board.”

Same goes for his willingness to get better in other areas, from his post moves to his pick-and-roll defense. Even in a breakout season, there still were far too many nights where Van Gundy found himself criticizing Drummond’s effort level.

That’s true of this team’s entire young core, of course. And it’s why Van Gundy insists the next important step for the Pistons — beyond adding a backup point guard or another big man to the rotation — will have to come from within.

But for Drummond, “it’s a two-way street,” the coach noted.

And with so much on the line, that’s just one reason this summer feels like a crossroads.