It comes with an air of inevitability that the Detroit Pistons are reportedly “talking to several teams” about trading two-time All-Star center Andre Drummond. The Pistons aren’t very good and haven’t been for a long time, and Drummond has the ability to decline his $28.8 million player option for the 2020-21 season, which will allow him to hit a free-agent market this summer bereft of stars. Drummond hasn’t waffled on his desire to opt out, either, as he told the Detroit Free Press in August: “I’m a free agent next summer. It should be fun, I’m excited. I think I’m the only one that has a big contract coming up that year.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean Drummond is a goner; after eight seasons and no playoff wins, Drummond is still holding the line that he would love to play in Detroit for the rest of his career. It’s certainly possible that Drummond just wants to be wined, dined, and put on a T-shirt with Muhammad Ali and Albert Einstein before locking up some long-term financial security. But with Blake Griffin clearly not right health-wise, and the franchise lacking any real long-term direction, eight years might be enough for both parties. It’s always a little surprising when a team doesn’t shoot down trade rumors surrounding their star, but not having these trade discussions would be a brazen display of negligence.
Trading a star without leverage can be a dangerous game, but Detroit is smart to get ahead of things and make Drummond available a full month before the February 6 trade deadline. With Kevin Love capable of decapitating a teammate with an outlet pass and demanding a trade at center court any day now, the Pistons can’t afford to wait for the trade market to become saturated with sellers and cheaper, lower-maintenance, modern-day big men.
While a contender could view Drummond as a short-term rental, someone will be stuck with the bill for him soon, and spending max or near-max money on anyone who doesn’t space the floor creates a higher degree of difficulty, both for roster-building purposes and postseason play. So much of Drummond’s appeal is baked into his durability—he’s played in at least 78 games in each of his last six seasons—but Golden State changed the priorities of the league when the Death Lineup chewed up even the very best centers. Drummond is everything the last five years of basketball sought to root out: big men who can’t switch, can’t space, and can’t seem to play with consistent effort in a clearly defined role.
Even with all that being true, it’s a good time to buy low. The pendulum might swing back in the other direction now that the Warriors dynasty is dead (or at least on hiatus), and we’ve seen some of that already take effect in the East. Philadelphia’s size up front will at least give fellow contenders like Boston and Toronto—two rumored Drummond suitors—enough pause to consider bulking up and making this an arms race, so long as the price is right. In the East, Drummond can help be a part of the blockade, both physically and metaphorically, against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks cruising to the Finals.
Pistons owner Tom Gores had been consistent, even recently, about staying the course and trying to win now, but the reality of a Pistons rebuild is becoming clearer with every game that Griffin misses (now 19 and counting). Acquiring draft capital, especially in a city unlikely to be a major free-agent destination, would ease the pain of dealing the league’s leading rebounder in four of the past five seasons. Draft picks are the preferred form of currency used in these kind of in-season deals between established contenders and sellers, and a brighter future may be more palatable to a fan base that’s no longer energized by watching their best players hobble around in knee braces or apathetically grab a bunch of uncontested rebounds.
Drummond’s inconsistent energy levels can’t be described as inexcusable, as he’s been stuck in basketball Groundhog Day in Detroit for the last eight years: It’s February, there’s snow on the ground; he’s running a half-assed pick-and-roll with a shoot-first point guard who can’t shoot; there’s a 31 percent 3-point shooter standing in the corner who doesn’t want the ball; the half-empty home crowd is sitting on their hands; and the team is still, always, somehow in the hunt for the 8-seed no matter what happens. In other words, a change of scenery for Drummond would be nice.
But—and I cannot stress this enough—Atlanta is not that change. There are basketball reasons, to co-opt a phrase from the late David Stern, that justify Atlanta’s reported interest in Drummond. The Hawks are dead last in defensive rebounding percentage, and Drummond has almost always kept the Pistons near the top of the league in that category. But striving for basic competency is not the point of a rebuild like Atlanta’s, and if a player’s biggest contribution is providing multiple rebounds that certain teams will forfeit anyway, how important can that contribution really be to your bottom line?
Even though Atlanta’s interest in Drummond reeks of ownership impatience, you can understand the thinking behind the fit: Giving Trae Young a huge screen-setter with roll gravity would unlock even more of his superpowers. Drummond would shore up some rim-protection issues on the other end as well, as he’s continually made strides in that area: In each of the last four seasons, Drummond’s total number of at-rim contests have increased while his defensive field goal percentage allowed has decreased.
Drummond’s overall self-improvement in a stagnant situation shouldn’t be taken for granted. After years of shooting below 40 percent from the free throw line, he’s at a career-high 61.4 percent this season. He also sees the floor significantly better than he used to. Give Drummond an extended taste of success—a 10-game winning streak, a playoff win, a 25-rebound performance in a meaningful game in front of the national television audience he’s never really had—and some of his warts will start to fade.
But giving up any asset in order to convince Drummond to sign on long-term and turn around a young lottery dwellar requires a dangerous “I bet Jeff Green will be great for us” kind of energy that doesn’t serve Atlanta. Using cap space on veterans while Young is on his rookie deal makes sense, but drafting for fit (De’Andre Hunter, whom the Hawks traded up to no. 4 for last year) and spending on talent is backward. Do the Hawks even know what they have with John Collins yet? He’s played 10 games this season, and only seven with Young. Couldn’t Atlanta, at least theoretically, wait a few months and sign Drummond outright in free agency without having to sacrifice anything?
Drummond is only worth the risk, even on a big salary, for a team that is close to title contention with enough on-ball talent already in place. Dallas, also mentioned among Drummond’s suitors, makes some sense on paper: Kristaps Porzingis is on a max deal, so cap space will be tight down the line anyway, and the salary they can use to match Drummond’s $27.1 million for this season (Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr.) is all expendable. The problem is the fit: Dallas has the league’s best offensive efficiency in large part because the paint is wonderfully unclogged. Putting Drummond and his defender in Luka Doncic’s driving lanes and asking coach of the year candidate Rick Carlisle to deal with a new center who has motor issues—and, by the way, who is accustomed to getting 17 percent of his offense from the same post-ups Carlisle just railed against—is how you get a cranky prodigy and a cranky coach.
Boston can’t realistically match Drummond salary-wise without dealing Gordon Hayward, who would be of no real interest to Detroit but is still a valuable player and asset. A third team could get roped in (Denver and Paul Millsap’s expiring deal?), but Hayward’s passing and floor-spacing make Boston more dangerous in the postseason than a true big like Drummond would, and Boston has enough juice with draft picks (and is an attractive buyout destination) to add without any subtraction.
That leaves Toronto, far and away the most logical destination for Drummond. Marc Gasol’s $25.6 million expiring deal makes salary matching simple, and the Raptors may be more willing than most to forfeit a first-round pick, confident that it will land toward the tail end of the draft order. Gasol could be subsequently bought out to latch on to a contender, saving Detroit some money in a lost season. The Raptors have intriguing, controllable, ancillary pieces in Terence Davis or Chris Boucher to serve as deal sweeteners. The one-year extension Kyle Lowry signed in October will keep the Raptors in win-now mode beyond this season, whether Drummond accepts his player option or not; a Drummond trade wouldn’t alter any long-term plans, as Toronto could still keep the decks clear to chase after big-name free agents in 2021. Getting another healthy big would fill a present need for the injury-ravaged Raptors. Toronto is 27th in defensive rebounding percentage and 20th in offensive rebounding percentage, so Drummond could step in and pay immediate dividends. If there’s a team with an impetus to win now and enough house money to take a risk, it’s Toronto.
A title contender that actually needs what he provides is ideal for Drummond, as is playing alongside a veteran point guard he has a relationship with (Lowry) in an offense that will use him as a dangerous roller (36.5 percent of Serge Ibaka’s offense comes as the roll man). With live shooters (Toronto is fifth in 3s made and fifth in 3-point percentage) in every spot and meaningful games on tap, Drummond would finally get the chance to star in the supporting role someone with his skill set was always meant to play.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.