The tragedy of Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond signed this summer to be a backup on a minimum contract. And no one's really talking about it.
By and large, the response has generally been a shrug. Or even, as Sam Vecenie put it on his Game Theory Podcast, "My concern about the Drummond thing is that Doc Rivers will play him."
During the 2013-14 NBA season, there were two players who were clearly the most promising young players in the league. One of them was Anthony Davis. The other was Andre Drummond.
At just 20 years old, Drummond was arguably the best center in the league. Flash forward seven years later, this offseason Drummond signed a humiliating contract. Coming off a deal that paid him nearly $28 million for last season, Drummond signed for the veteran minimum. Not only that, but to be a backup. Not only that, but a backup for one of his former rivals Joel Embiid.
So...what the fuck?
How does that happen? How does a guy go from poised to be a franchise player to a backup by the age of 27?
Over the course of his career, there’s been a number of reasons given for why Drummond never would regress, never quite make it as a franchise player, for why his teams weren’t particularly good. Those were excuses. The truth is ego. Self awareness. Delusions of grandeur.
It’s a fine line to walk when writing about things like these. These are obviously personal criticisms, but they’re ones that heavily impacted his game. And of course, we should be respectful of the fact that these players are humans, fallible, going through their own personal journeys, and that’s perfectly normal.
It’s also worth acknowledging the role of personality in a failed prospect. Andre Drummond has always had the reputation of being well-liked as a teammate and person around the league. It’s not that he’s a guy with a shitty personality. But it is the case that his personality undermined his potential as a player.
Troy Weaver said before the 2020 draft, “I just feel like my philosophy is we don’t draft players, we draft people. We want to make sure we get the person right. More times than not, high picks that don’t pan out the way people see it, you miss on the person.”
Of course, Weaver isn’t going to name names from his draft history. But for the Pistons draft history, well, that was the case here.
Pistons fans pinned the disastrous Drummond post up experiment, which for four years plummeted Drummond’s efficiency to the point that he was one of the most inefficient shot chuckers in the league, on Stan Van Gundy. They assumed that was the type of center Van Gundy wanted Drummond to be.
That always seemed ridiculous. SVG monitors numbers. Drummond was one of the highest volume, lowest efficiency post up players throughout that time. SVG would not want to build his offense around a ~.7 point per possession play, which is what a Drummond post up always has been.
Fans pinned the Drummond three point experiment on Dwane Casey, assuming that was what Casey wanted from his center.
That was also ridiculous. Drummond started posting Instagram videos of himself shooting threes while Van Gundy was still the coach, and once leaving the Pistons to the Cavs in 2020, Drummond went from averaging .4 three pointers per game to 1.8. And he shot 14 percent on those three pointers.
No one wants Andre Drummond to shoot three pointers except for Andre Drummond. He’s one of the worst free throw shooters in the history of the game. He’s never been effective outside of three feet of the rim. Since trying to add a three point shot in 2019, he’s taken 81. He’s shot 12 percent on them.
What Andre Drummond did so well in his first two years in the league, he was elite at them. He was a devastating roll man in the high PnR. He made players like Will Bynum and Brandon Jennings incredibly dangerous.
It was simple, seemingly easy. But effective.
And he was the greatest offensive rebounder since the days of Moses Malone. In his second year, the Pistons finished fourth in field goal attempts. Sixth in his third year. Fifth in his fourth. First in his fifth. And that’s despite the fact that the Pistons were almost always in the bottom 10 in pace.
So the Pistons would play slow as hell but still get way more shot attempts than you. Quite simply, due to his offensive rebounding, Andre Drummond was a walking competitive advantage. Ahem, let me repeat that: ANDRE DRUMMOND WAS A WALKING COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE.
It's tough to overstate what a difference getting more possessions than your opponent can potentially make, especially with Van Gundy's philosophy of defending without fouling. The Pistons averaged 2-3 more shots per game than their opponent, 4-5 more free throws. The only thing you need to do to be an elite offense is to be reasonably efficient at putting the ball through the hoop (which they weren't, we'll get to that).
He also was a solid playmaker defensively. If that’s it - be a badass pick and roll partner, the offensive rebounding GOAT, and play defense, you’re golden. The positives that you bring to the court are unique and fucking awesome.
But Drummond wanted to expand his game. He’s always wanted to expand his game. And we praise folks for wanting to do that. Rightfully so, usually. But those expansions require an element of self awareness. Is the expansion just for the sake of ego or for producing a better basketball outcome? For Drummond, it’s hard to argue that the latter was ever the case.
After his 2013-14 season, his shot attempts went from 14.8 per 100 possessions to 19.9 per 100 possessions. His true shooting percentage (which takes into account two point attempts, three point attempts, and free throws) went from an excellent 60 percent to an abysmal 50 percent.
There are few players in NBA history who managed to drop 10 percentage points in true shooting percentage from one year to the next while starting every game.
The decline of Drummond was clear and obvious for anyone who cared to look. He also started playing disinterested defense. His numbers earned him a max contract and positioned him as a franchise player, so he chased numbers.
But also through it all, there was an underlying personality thing. A person's personal life should be, well, personal. There were just...signs. Signs that Drummond probably isn't the guy to build your team around.
There was the thing with dating Jennette McCurdy, who was apparently the star of some show called iCarly. Then two Instagram models claimed to be pregnant from Drummond. He apparently denied one at the time, but now accepts both, I don't know and I don't really want to know.
We all make mistakes in our dating lives in our 20s, I'm sure being a budding NBA star only complicates that. But then there was the whole thing where he was acting like a Soundcloud rapper.
Remember that Rebecca Black "Friday" song? Totally shades of that.
It wouldn't be a problem if those maturity issues didn't seem to also stretch to his basketball career. But it definitely seems to.
After the 2016-17 season that saw both Drummond and the team take a step backwards, Drummond said, "I didn't do that bad. I still was an All-Star, I still was All-NBA." Except, he wasn't. He wasn't an All-Star, he wasn't All-NBA.
Even now, he's still doing the same thing. He blamed the Lakers coaching staff for not getting playing time in the Playoffs when Deandre Ayton shot 80 percent from the field against the Lakers.
Here is every shot Ayton took during that round. From what I can see, Drummond only managed to force one Ayton miss while getting scored on...a lot. His defense on Ayton was so bad that Drummond was literally unplayable.
This summer he also launched some NFT campaign that auctioned off a hologram of himself while promoting himself in a Lakers uniform with the word "Farewell" replacing the team's name. Before signing for the veteran minimum. The NFT campaign didn't go particularly well.
While none of this is inherently bad, it speaks to the mention of a lack of self awareness and delusions of grandeur that I mentioned earlier. I mean, the latest stuff came after being the franchise player for a team that couldn't win, then being traded for nothing, then being bought out because he couldn't get on the floor for one of the worst teams in the league, then not even being able to make it work playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Then he ends up going from a maximum contract to a minimum contract.
For his own sake, you've got to hope that at some point Drummond gets it.
He's 28 and still has much of the same ability that made him such a success during his first two years in the league.
And it's still possible. JaVale McGee has gone from being a player no one really wanted to a three-time NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist. His journey looked similar to Drummond, with early delusions of grandeur. Back in 2012, his mother said, "My son is the future of the NBA," defending him against being called a "knucklehead."
Well, JaVale wasn't the future of the NBA and probably was something of a knucklehead. After a humbling experience of not really being wanted anywhere and signing a flurry of minimum contracts, McGee finally accepted his gifts and maximized his role to be an actual contributor. He's still not breaking bank (or the future of the NBA), but he signed with the Phoenix Suns this offseason and is actually wanted as a contributor for winning teams.
The NBA got too good for McGee's early shenanigans or Drummond's ridiculousness. The league average true shooting percentage last year was 57 percent, compared to 52 percent 10 years ago. There's no room for wasted possessions. No room for Drummond's flailing hook shots, attempts to thread a pass between three defenders, or abandonments of defensive assignments.
It's not too late for Drummond.
Back in 2016, I wrote:
Improving his offensive efficiency and effectiveness on the defensive end are critical for Andre Drummond to truly reach star status. As much as I hate to say it, a 50 percent true shooting percentage, mediocre defense, combined with extraordinary work on the boards...well, that kinda describes Reggie Evans.
That line was heavily criticized - although it turned out to be too generous. It'd be a super high usage Reggie Evans, one that shot 13 times and turned the ball over 3 times a game.
For years, I've felt kinda like the voice crying in the wilderness, that Drummond needed to change his approach to the game - to the extent that he could be out of the league by the age of 30.
He does. He does need to change his approach to the game. If he committed to doing what he does best and nothing else - no post ups, no three pointers, no isolations, no dumb defensive gambles - he can be a successful NBA player. And there's still time. But not much.
As a player, it's a critical time for him. He needs to cut out the bullshit, be the best offensive rebounder in the world, a reliable defensive player, and only take shots or use possessions that he knows is going to end in a bucket.
If he doesn't and stays on the trajectory he's on? It's out-of-the-league-by-30 territory.
That was the case for prior Piston Josh Smith. It'd be a shame for it to be Drummond's fate as well.
So what's to learn from all of this?
For the fan perspective, it's about when to give up on a player.
With Drummond, the stakes for the franchise were extremely high. Yet in spite of that, and perhaps because of it, Pistons fans and media mostly glossed over the major red flags. I'm not talking about his personal life, but in his game. The 50 percent true shooting percentages, the turnovers, the ineffective defense.
Instead, each step of the way the Pistons doubled down and the fans blamed someone else. That was a mistake.
As a fanbase, we should learn to not cheer ineffective stuff. Drummond's post ups were always a bad idea and should have never been lauded when it was a high volume thing.
For comparison, Isaiah Stewart shooting three pointers would be a bad thing - except he was a good free throw shooter in college, has always been solid from midrange, and shot 33 percent from on them as a rookie. In this case, a young big man expanding his game is a good thing.
But what about the giving up part? We lament giving up too early on the likes of Khris Middleton and Spencer Dinwiddie. The problem with giving up on them was that they were cheap, still on their rookie deals. There was room to let them grow internally.
The lesson for our current team applies to guys like Killian Hayes and Sekou Doumbouya. Both are incredibly young. They seem like young, decent guys. Perhaps they thought they'd be a bit better in the NBA than they are and have taken an ego blow. But it's too early to give up on them.
But if we start talking key roles and big extensions? Yeah, move on along. They're probably replacable enough.
Also, even though the Pistons are such a long-suffering franchise, we shouldn't be too quick to anoint franchise saviors. Yes, even Cade Cunningham.
It doesn't seem that Cade suffers from Andre Drummond Syndrome. His mental approach seems great. But whereas Drummond was a phenom athletically, Cunningham may struggle there.
For the LeBron James types, it takes the whole package - and even that is rarely perfect. After all, LeBron only brought Cleveland a ring on his second stint there.
Cade probably isn't the whole package. That just means he'll need some help. Which is fine. The East seems stacked, the Pistons probably will get another good pick next year, and the core around him is promising.
But let's not make excuses for a lack of improvement. Let's not blame others for a player's bad decisions. Rose colored glasses are fine - we're fans after all - but blinders aren't.
Hopefully Drummond figures it all out. And hopefully us, as fans, do too.