2019-11-07T11:00:04-05:00)

How excited can we actually be about Andre Drummond’s hot start?

The Pistons’ big man is having a career year. Can we trust it?

The NBA is littered with players who stifle their own talent. Plenty good enough to dominate their role, they misunderstand/outright reject who they are, and how they can best impact winning. Andre Drummond has been on this list for most of his career, but right now it’s worth wondering if he’s nearing off it.

Nine games into his eighth season, Drummond is averaging 22 points — a personal best by a significant margin — and has never been more efficient. He leads the league in minutes, and only Giannis Antetokounmpo has made more baskets. Drummond’s rebounding has always been comically dominant, but right now the gap between him and everybody else is over 50 boards. At 26 years old, he’s already the best rebounder of his generation, and it’s not particularly close.

All these stats are amazing, but it’s too early to call them a revelation, or use them to erase the myriad questions that still contaminate Drummond’s overall effect. Even if they sustain, there’s a harmful insecurity in Drummond’s game that has increasingly led him outside the lane any competitive team would prefer he stay in. The putbacks, one-dribble drop steps, and picks that peel defenders off teammates are all helpful.

But for every sign of progress — He’s shooting a career-best 67.3 percent from the free-throw line and the percentage of his possessions that end as a roll man are currently double what they’ve been over the past few years! — there lies a hideous push shot, unnecessary foul, or forced foray into a reminder that every player has their limit. Right now Drummond averages more seconds and dribbles per touch than every other center except Julius Randle — AKA more than Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis. This should not be.

“Every year, [Drummond] is going to bring something new to the table,” Pistons head coach Dwane Casey recently told reporters. On its face that’s not a bad thing. But just because he wants to moonlight as a point guard and shoot threes doesn’t mean he should. Take whatever it is Drummond tried to do here — which was followed by a booming and hilarious HELL NO from the Wizards bench — as an example. Sequences like this have not been rare this season:

Not all of this is his fault. Drummond is compelled by a roster that’s been ravaged by injuries to several important pieces, including Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, and Reggie Jackson. Last year, the Pistons fell apart on offense when Griffin played without Drummond; lineups featuring both were as efficient as the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, surrounded by Markieff Morris, Bruce Brown, and Tony Snell, opportune moments are unavoidable. It’s hard to get mad when he rumbles coast-to-coast for an and-one or pings a perfect bounce pass from the elbow. And there’s value in Drummond reminding defenses they aren’t facing Rudy Gobert:

Parsing productive growth from self-serving desire isn’t easy, though, especially in an NBA that’s trending towards generalists and away from niche skill-sets. Common sense would tell you that it’s beneficial to have Drummond explore different ways he can impact a game. But too much of what he does has the feel of a high-school student skipping their actual homework assignment to do extra credit.

When he sticks to what he’s great at, you can’t help but wonder how he’d do surrounded by players who fill in the areas he wants to occupy. Picture Drummond injected into a reality-check ecosystem that doesn’t let him test drive skills that belong in a garage. If he can ever self-simplify his responsibilities, opt to maximize what he already does well, and, you know, try harder, that’s a wrecking ball.

That expectation is a leap of faith against over 17,000 minutes of evidence; Drummond is -374 for his career. Context regardless, it’s OK to think he’ll never reach whatever ceiling many believed he had after his first couple seasons. At the same time, it’s also OK to believe the trajectory of his career will eventually tick up once he accepts who he is. That type of power is undeniably important.

Drummond sprints the floor when there’s a carrot at the end of a stick. He’ll outrun his man, seek contact for the seal, make himself a target, then finish strong at the rim. Hurray. Unfortunately, every compliment is accompanied by a catch. Beyond his impaired technical prowess, Drummond’s energy level fluctuates with infuriating regularity: It’s hard to embrace a defensive identity when your starting center refuses to sprint back in transition.

Drummond compounds the issue by spending a good chunk of his minutes in foul trouble, a habit that tampers down those fiery moments that are hard to forget. When active and committed, he’s a nightmare in the paint.

It’s all very tantalizing, and not seeing him play that way from possession to possession, let alone quarter to quarter or game to game is what makes Drummond such an exasperating figure. It also makes you wonder what he could do as the third wheel on a different team, one able to harness all his strengths the right way.

A trade feels highly unlikely anytime soon. Detroit’s owner Tom Gores loves Drummond. But when asked about the organization’s path one month ago, Gores also said “I think right now we feel really good about where we’re at. Obviously, we have to succeed and win, and judge by if we’re not winning. But right now we feel really good about it.”

The Pistons have tread water without Griffin, and if barely making/missing the playoffs is how they want their foreseeable future to go, they’ll sit tight with them both. But logic suggests a shakeup at some point. And if Drummond continues to produce at a rate unseen since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, will Gores sell high?

Chances are it won’t matter. Drummond can exercise a $28.5 million player option and become a free agent this summer. It’s hard to imagine any playoff team 1) believing he can push them over the top, while 2) sacrificing enough assets to make a trade worth Detroit’s while.

For fun, though, there are a few teams that should poke around, pending their own need to shake things up/prepare for a lengthy playoff run. Drummond makes conceivable sense on every team in Texas. It’s way too early for any one of them to bend over backwards in a negotiation, but perhaps Detroit will listen if the Houston Rockets ever feel desperate enough to offer Clint Capela. The Pistons do it to receive a cheaper big under team control through 2023 who has extensive playoff experience and can either be flipped down the line or seen as part of their inevitable rebuild. Future picks, of which Houston barely has, would need to be involved, but Drummond is a much better player; if the Rockets want to go all-in (again), this sort of talent upgrade makes sense.

What if the San Antonio Spurs push Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, Lonnie Walker IV, and their 2020 first towards the middle of the table? Their spacing would be even more cramped but assuming Gregg Popovich can turn Drummond into the consistent center his talent suggests he can still be, that’s an intimidating frontline. If the Spurs like what they see and can keep Drummond motivated, they can phase into their next era with him and Dejounte Murray leading the way.

It’s hard to see the Dallas Mavericks interrupt their momentum for someone who probably wouldn’t close games, but just picture Luka Doncic running a stagger pick-and-roll with Drummond and Kristaps Porzingis. One pops and the other rolls. How do you guard that? (Sadly, the Mavs also don’t have much to offer beyond Dwight Powell, an expiring contract, and Jalen Brunson.)

There are other teams that would have theoretical interest — like the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics — but none are realistic enough to write about. If Drummond chooses to text the market this summer, would the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, or Cleveland Cavaliers bite?

What it all comes down to is situation, fit, and how dominant Drummond can still be if he’s willing to embrace a specific role. Despite his jaw-dropping numbers right now, it’s impossible to say he’s part of any short or long-term solution where he is. Including this year, Detroit’s defense is annually not good when he plays, and in eight seasons he’s only appeared in eight playoff games.

Something has to eventually break. Until it does, the Pistons will take the good with the bad, even though change feels like it’d do both sides a world of good.

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