Drummond is a different, and much more complicated, story. The 26-year-old center is in his eighth season with the Detroit Pistons and has two all-star appearances, an all-NBA nod, three rebounding titles and nearly 400 double-doubles to his name. Yet he did not receive a contract extension before the season and now reportedly finds himself on the block in advance of the Feb. 6 trade deadline. Multiple reports this week indicated that the Pistons were open to moving Drummond, who is expected to be one of the biggest names in a weak crop of summer free agents.
On the surface, Drummond might appear to be a franchise big man and a strong candidate for a max contract. He’s averaging 17.6 points, 15.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, old-school center numbers that recall Moses Malone or Elvin Hayes. He has never complained too loudly throughout Detroit’s decade of futility, instead carrying himself with a workmanlike approach; he has missed a total of just 10 games over his last six full seasons. He has also shown some signs of development during his mid-20s, stepping forward as a secondary passing playmaker when injuries or personnel changes demand it.
Unlike Davis and Lillard, though, Drummond’s stat-stuffing has never translated to sustained team success. The Pistons have had just one winning season and two postseason appearances during Drummond’s career, and they are off to a 12-23 start despite having the league’s sixth-highest payroll. Even with their big-bodied center in the middle, the Pistons have had bottom-10 defenses four times in the past eight years, including ranking 24th in defensive rating this year.
After investing in the likes of Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin, the Pistons have never had an above-average offense with Drummond. Most damning: Drummond has yet to appear in a playoff win, and he struggled to stay on the court during a humbling first-round sweep against the Milwaukee Bucks last April.
“Young players should learn coming into the league what a max player actually means,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said this week of Jimmy Butler, his star wing who signed such a deal with Miami last summer. “It’s not about stats, it’s not about [points], it’s not about whatever [video game] numbers you can get. It’s not. It’s about how your team functions and [whether] you are winning because of a player.”
Drummond is on the other end of that spectrum from Butler, largely because of circumstances beyond his control. In modern basketball, which took form shortly after Drummond entered the NBA, premier big men are expected to be versatile, fleet-footed defenders and capable outside shooters. Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, who was selected 26 spots after Drummond in 2012, has won three titles and was rewarded with a $100 million extension last summer because he fit that profile.
While Drummond has worked on his conditioning and experimented with shooting the three-pointer, he has proved to be limited by his bulky frame and unable to develop a reliable shot outside of, well, three feet from the rim. As a result, he barely cracks the NBA’s top 100 players by Real Plus-Minus, an advanced statistic that measures a player’s impact on his team’s success.
There will always be room in the NBA for elite rebounders and high-volume interior finishers such as Drummond. But players with those skills alone are not as highly valued as they were in years past, and the Pistons are unlikely to obtain much more than decent draft assets and salary cap relief in a Drummond trade.
ESPN.com reported Friday that Detroit was in “serious” talks with the Atlanta Hawks on a possible Drummond deal, and Yahoo Sports reported that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors were also among the interested parties. For his part, Drummond should welcome a possible change of scenery, and each of those potential landing spots represents greener pastures.
Atlanta has the cap flexibility to make him a max contract offer and a dynamic point guard in Trae Young whose pick-and-roll skills would help extract the most value from Drummond’s narrow offensive game. Boston represents a winning environment with a need for interior help after losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes over the summer. Toronto’s Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are aging frontcourt pieces, and acquiring Drummond could help reorient the franchise’s timeline around 25-year-old forward Pascal Siakam.
The sad truth is that virtually any situation around the league would be better for Drummond than Detroit, which remains stuck on the road to nowhere. Drummond is about to enter his prime, and the Pistons are poised to squander it. They lack much in the way of young talent and don’t have a long-term solution at point guard — Jackson has succumbed to numerous injuries, and Derrick Rose is a better scorer than he is a setup man. Meanwhile, Griffin’s max deal complicates Detroit’s ability to add salary, and his persistent health problems make it difficult to sustain winning.
Building around a center who can’t shoot or lead an elite defense is challenging, and the Pistons have largely flunked that test. If they had been willing to take care of Drummond with a generous extension, perhaps he could have looked past the losing seasons, fit concerns and age curve questions. But they didn’t. If he does get moved, Drummond has no reason to look back.
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