John Niyo and Rod Beard preview the 2019-2020 season for the Detroit Pistons on Pistons Backcourt. The Detroit News
Detroit — From a traditional basketball standpoint, Andre Drummond is a fine player. He’s large, he rebounds, he’s durable.
From a team-building, forward-thinking standpoint, Drummond presents a rare conundrum, a Drummondrum, if you will. It’s hard to make him fit in today’s NBA, with its reliance on wing athleticism, pick-and-roll guards and deep shooters at every position, including center.
The Pistons have tried to make him fit, tried to convince everyone it can work. It might work somewhere but there’s scant evidence it can work here, where the Pistons have failed to find shooters to complement him and haven’t won a single playoff game in Drummond’s tenure.
His eighth season begins tonight and it could be his last in Detroit. Barring a sudden change, it should be his last season here.
This doesn’t have to be a messy breakup, and there’s no need to spend the entire campaign rehashing it, but the Pistons require a dramatic overhaul and Drummond, 26, may be ready to move on. Frankly, a split — either at the trade deadline or after the season — would be the optimal outcome for both sides, with his contract expiring.
You know who might agree, although he’s reluctant to say it definitively? Drummond himself. At a summer tournament in Connecticut, he mentioned he was going to be a free-agent — which would require he decline a $28.7-million option with the Pistons next season — and said, “It should be fun, I’m excited.” Later at media day, he downplayed it, saying “I love playing in Detroit.”
You know who also might be convinced it’s the right strategy, despite a strong affection for Drummond? The owner himself, Tom Gores, a shrewd businessman who understands the concept of diminishing returns. At the unveiling of the Pistons new training center downtown two weeks ago, Gores was asked about the possibility of a long-term deal to keep Drummond here and called it “a top priority,” but also was sufficiently vague.
“We’re committed to each other, we just got to run the process,” Gores said. “Everybody’s talking at a business level, a lot of respect with each other, but it’s early.”
It’s early — the Pistons open at Indiana tonight — and it’s also late. Already, ominous signs are sprouting, with Blake Griffin (knee) sidelined for a couple weeks. Soon, it might be time for the biggest change of all.
Gores still could cave to emotion and offer a four- or five-year contract at about $30 million per.
After all, he reportedly nixed any trades for Drummond when Stan Van Gundy was here. But unless the Pistons somehow get on a roll, peeling off another $150 million for Drummond is virtually impossible to justify.
Drummond is admirably consistent, averaging between 13.2 and 16 rebounds the past six seasons, leading the league three times. What’s missing is any notable upward trajectory. Despite his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess, he’s never in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. For all his hard work, his offensive game has barely improved and his shooting is nonexistent outside of 10 feet. He posted a career-high 17.3 points per game last season but hasn’t shot better than 53.3 percent in five years, despite most of his attempts coming near the rim.
Numbers don’t flatter
The deeper analytics aren’t overly kind. Drummond was terrific during stretches last season and posted his best player-efficiency rating, but it ranked 10th among all centers. He’s generally an easy-going guy but he lets his emotions on the court sidetrack him. When he shows frustration, teammates show frustration and fans show frustration.
“It’s up to us to try to utilize his athleticism, his speed, his ballhandling in different ways,” Dwane Casey said. “I know a lot of people malign Andre, but still he’s one of the elite rebounders, and as long as you’re elite in something, that’s very, very important to your team.”
The pick-and-roll is Drummond’s other strength, but Reggie Jackson doesn’t shoot well enough (career 33.3 percent on 3-pointers) to run it at a high level. Maybe a rejuvenated Derrick Rose can be that complementary guy. Maybe Luke Kennard takes another leap in his third year.
To his credit, Drummond has tried all sorts of ways to improve his free-throw shooting (up to a palatable 59 percent), to expand his shooting range (remember that disastrous 3-point experiment?), to get in better shape and develop a nice passing touch.
Getting in touch
“I’ve really worked on a lot of ballhandling drills, being on the move, because that’s where it’s going to come down to,” Drummond said. “I’m not going to be really playing one-on-one with anybody. Get the rebound and get out on the break.”
Drummond isn’t difficult for teammates to get along with, but his skill set makes him difficult to play with.
If the Pistons struggle again with a reworked roster, both sides should acknowledge it and part ways. If Drummond indeed opts out of his final year, as he indicated, he’ll be a coveted free-agent in a barren 2020 market.
It makes financial sense for Drummond and the Pistons, who also would be free of Jackson’s contract and would have massive salary-cap flexibility for senior adviser Ed Stefanski, who has shown he can maneuver for undervalued talent. They would enter a great unknown, trying to lure free-agents to join Griffin, whose career renaissance clearly has a not-too-distant expiration date.
But if the Pistons muddle along again on the fringes of playoff contention — I have them at 42-40, one game better than last season — there’s nothing left to figure out.
They keep trying and so does Drummond, and there’s no crime in that. There’s also no crime in admitting it isn’t working here.
The fascinating Drummondrum must be resolved for the Pistons to move forward, and that probably means Drummond must move on. As always, he’s entitled to prove otherwise.