NBA

Why Andre Drummond will be the ultimate test for LeBron James, Frank Vogel and the Lakers’ culture

The Andre Drummond signing is a correction, a transparent attempt to fill the Dwight Howard-sized hole that has festered in the Los Angeles Lakers‘ frontcourt all season long. Rob Pelinka made a conscious decision to prioritize offensive flexibility at the center position when he signed Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol over Howard, and it’s a choice whose ramifications the Lakers are still feeling today. The ferocious physicality of last season’s champion is gone. So too is the vertical spacing that helped make up for the Lakers’ lack of shooting. 

Harrell and Gasol aren’t worse than Howard. They’re different in ways that the roster hasn’t fully recalibrated for yet. Drummond is a chance to recapture last season’s formula. Harrell and Gasol’s presence is an opportunity to improve upon it. The Lakers want a mix of both, to have their cake and eat it too. Howard’s role as the team’s designated garbage man and general agitator wasn’t glamorous or especially difficult. He rebounded, dunked and block shots. Drummond can do those things, but he’s never done them exclusively. Howard hadn’t either until LeBron James got his hands on him. But Howard was 34 when he re-joined the Lakers, humbled by a non-existent free-agent market and mounting injuries 

Drummond is 27. That’s how old Howard was when he first joined the Lakers, and well, we all know how that went. It took years of declining play to disabuse Howard of the notion that posting up was a good idea. Drummond, smack dab in the middle of his prime, hasn’t yet learned that lesson. He’s been out since Valentine’s Day and he has still used more possessions on post-ups this season (136) than four entire teams, per Synergy sports (Charlotte, Houston, Brooklyn and Utah). On a per-game basis, Drummond’s 5.4 post-ups per game would rank him 14th among all NBA teams, and it’s not as though those possessions are going well. Plays like these? Yea, this can’t happen on a championship contender: 

Drummond is 6-10 and weighs 280 pounds, yet his 51.9 field goal percentage in the restricted area still has him below literally every player currently on the Lakers roster that has attempted more than one shot there this season. That poor touch near the basket unsurprisingly manifests in inefficient post-ups. He scores only 0.816 points per post-up, ranking him in the 31st percentile league-wide, and aside from an outlier stretch when he first arrived in Cleveland, has never produced even league-average efficiency from the post. 

One needs only to look at his dejected teammates to understand the intangible dread strain those possessions inflict upon on an offense. Drummond practically never passes out of the post. On a total of 157 post possessions this season, Drummond passed only 21 times. When the ball goes to him inside, it has roughly a 13 percent chance of ever making it back out to another player. This is fundamentally at odds with how the Lakers used the post to win the championship. James passed out of almost half of his post-ups last season, and Anthony Davis wasn’t far behind at around 42 percent. Harrell never passes out of the post, but he scores so efficiently that the Lakers tolerate his ball-stopping.

Losing invites inefficiency. Cleveland’s roster is full of it. JaVale McGee was a perfect citizen in Los Angeles. This season? He’s taken more than twice as many mid-range jumpers and three times as many 3-pointers with the Cavs. Good teams tend to induce good shot selection. 

Good shots for Drummond are almost always going to come out of pick-and-roll. He’s scored only 0.837 points per possession out of it this season, good for only the ninth percentile league-wide, but that pitiful number stems out of Cleveland’s poor guard play. Drummond reached 1.312 points per 100 possessions — the 97th percentile! — during a 2013-14 season that was ultimately the last healthy one for Brandon Jennings. Detroit built its offense around the Drummond-Reggie Jackson version under Stan Van Gundy and found reasonable success. 

Needless to say, LeBron is an upgrade over Jennings and Jackson. Ideally, he’ll serve as a lob threat to keep defenses honest against a driving James. That’s great in theory, but Drummond has caught only two lobs out of pick-and-roll all season. To some extent, that falls on his small guards, but Drummond has plenty to answer for as well. Has he lost some hops? Was he playing possum like former teammate Blake Griffin seemingly was in Detroit? Dunks like this suggest he’s still got plenty of verticality:

The Lakers need defenses to respect Drummond as a lob threat, because paints are already going to be packed. If Drummond does indeed start for the Lakers, it will give them the least cumulative shooting they’ve had in any of the primary starting lineups they’ve used since acquiring Davis. 

James-Bradley-Green-Davis-McGee

18.2

35.3%

114

James-Caldwell-Pope-Green-Davis-McGee

18.2

35.8%

111.2

Schroder-Caldwell-Pope-James-Davis-Gasol

18.2

35.4%

117.3

Schroder-Caldwell-Pope-James-Davis-Drummond

15.9

35.4%

?

The Caldwell-Pope/McGee version of the starting five struggled primarily due to the general malaise of the bubble. The Bradley version was mediocre in the half court, scoring only 99.1 points per 100 possessions there, but thrived by scoring in transition. The Lakers scored 18.4 fast-break points per game last season. They’re down to 14.3 this season. Davis’ absence is partially responsible. The Lakers love letting him leak out on misses. The result is usually either deep post position on a mismatch or an easy dunk: 

Drummond is going to help on this front when Davis returns. The difference in rebounding between him and Gasol is comical. Gasol is averaging fewer total rebounds per game (3.9) than Drummond is pulling in offensive rebounds (4). Having the NBA’s best rebounder is a good way to initiate fast-breaks, but if that rebounder can’t shoot, his team becomes reliant on those fast-breaks to make up for a cramped floor in half-court settings. 

That was the idea of signing Gasol in the first place. That theoretically made all five starters shooting threats, and even when it didn’t, Gasol’s passing encourages enough off-ball movement to make up for it. Even with Davis starting off slowly from behind the arc, that group was an offensive juggernaut. Swap Drummond in for Gasol and not only have the Lakers lost shooting, but they’ve lost ball and player movement. Schroder is a significantly worse shooter than Bradley, Caldwell-Pope and Green. If Drummond isn’t finishing dunks and generating gravity as a roller, he’s mucking up an offense that was working without him.

The Gasol version of the starting lineup was crushing opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions before Davis went down. There is no cogent argument in favor of breaking it up in pure basketball terms. But the Lakers didn’t trade for Drummond. They had to recruit him. That meant providing certain assurances about his role. 

How Frank Vogel balances those promises with the group he already has is going to be the most fascinating element of this signing. He told reporters Sunday the Lakers are “gonna need all three” of their big men, but someone is going to have to sacrifice.  The original starting lineup was already working. Harrell left money on the table to join the Lakers and has largely lived up to the billing. Center minutes were already going to be tight in the playoffs when Davis starts playing the position regularly. Heck, Markieff Morris was an adequate part-time center last postseason. How will the Lakers find minutes for all of those centers?

The Gasol-Harrell pairing hasn’t logged a second of playing time together. It might now, and it’s a strange fit. Gasol was tethered to Davis early in the season because of his immobility defensively. Harrell can’t cover for him. Gasol can function alongside another big man offensively. He’s never near the basket anyway, and Harrell is an excellent cutter. But that duo is too big to play with Davis, and pairing it with James would prevent him from running spread pick-and-roll with Drummond and three shooters, an alignment that would slaughter opposing bench units. There will be nights where one of the three sits out. There might be entire series. Howard sat out most of the Houston series last year. McGee was mostly a non-factor after the first round. Neither complained. 

Drummond might be the odd man out at times. Even when he isn’t, he’s going to be asked to play in ways that 27-year-old two-time All-Stars are rarely asked to. James got Howard to buy in. Historically speaking, there are few better ways to win a championship than bending to LeBron’s will, but Drummond’s situation is practically without precedent. Players like Howard relent when faced with their basketball mortality. Drummond might play another decade. 

Cleveland and Detroit never could sand those rough edges out of his game. A championship culture might be able to, as could the financial benefits of cooperation with free agency looming. It’s a worthwhile bet, but not one without risk. For all of their recent injury-induced struggles, the Lakers looked like a defending champion when they were healthy. Introducing a big name with big expectations could upset the balance that group was starting to strike. It could also give the Lakers lineup flexibility they didn’t have a season ago and tie together the best parts of last year’s team with this year’s. James, Vogel and the infrastructure the Lakers have built hasn’t failed yet, but Drummond is their most daunting project yet. 



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