Second all-time in rebounds, first all-time in rebounds per game, and first all-time in rebound percentage. Fifth all-time in steals and third all-time in blocks. First all-time in field goal percentage. Seventh all-time in Win Shares.
These are the kinds of numbers that cement legacies. Especially when that player is only 26 years old with several more good years ahead of him. Especially for a blue-collar franchise like the Detroit Pistons that prides itself on this kind of dirty work.
But maybe not for Andre Drummond, now a former Detroit Piston. Traded for nothing but cap space and a second-round pick, it’s tough to imagine a more disappointing end to this disappointing era of Pistons basketball.
Looking back on his tenure with the Pistons, there’s no question the Drummond era was defined mostly by failure. The Pistons only had one winning season, two playoff berths, and zero postseason wins. Drummond has experienced not just losses, but also five different head coaches and three different executive management teams. There’s a beautiful new but mostly empty arena in downtown Detroit. Most fans are completely disinterested, and those who are interested tend to be deeply polarized about the cause of the failure and the right path forward.
Where does Drummond fall — is he the embodiment of failure or a scapegoat caught in the crossfire while the real issues go unaddressed?
Whatever the answer, the decision has been made that the first step toward reclaiming relevancy was to rid themselves of Drummond.
Personally, I’m not convinced Dre was actually the problem. I don’t believe Andre Drummond failed the Pistons. I believe the Pistons failed him.
Failed Leadership and Vision from the Top Down
When the Pistons drafted Drummond they were only two years removed from a player mutiny and spinning in circles on the coaching carousel. Joe Dumars, president of basketball operations, had lost the plot. Ownership flux and his legacy as both a player and executive gave Dumars plenty of runway to work with, but he had put the Pistons in a giant hole by 2012. The “reload” of 2008 had failed miserably, and Dumars couldn’t get the franchise back on track.
In a comically tragic move that the Pistons are literally paying for to this day, Dumars made Josh Smith the highest-paid player in franchise history and trotted out the jumbo lineup of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond to begin the 2013-2014 season. Dumars’ fate was sealed when the team matched the previous season’s 29 wins, leaving the franchise without clear direction, a mismatched and talent-deficient roster, and an ugly salary cap profile. Welcome to the Pistons, Andre Drummond.
The Stan Van Gundy era began with a wave of optimism that surged after Josh Smith was waived and a f*ing wall was formed. As SVG formed the roster in his image, the clearest vision and direction of Drummond’s career emerged – at least on paper – but injuries and poor free agent signings would undermine this vision and ultimately the team’s success.
Van Gundy the executive never gave Van Gundy the coach the right pieces or enough depth. The summer of 2016 is the clearest example of Van Gundy’s deficiency as an executive with Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, and Boban Marjanovic signed in free agency, and Henry Ellenson selected with the 18th overall pick in the draft. All three free agent signings represented overpays associated with an anxious coach and not the patience of a true executive. The draft selection a sign of getting enamored by a name player for a major program instead of thorough talent evaluation.
The dangerous pick-and-roll attack that led the Pistons to the playoffs never really got going again. Van Gundy never brought in enough shooting to give his playmakers space to operate or enough playmaking depth to mitigate injuries. The last-ditch effort to redeem his tenure was trading for Blake Griffin – arguably one of the franchise’s greatest raw talents, but accompanied by a contract to match and an injury history that should have scared him away from doing the deal.
Under Van Gundy, the Pistons failed to assemble a roster that capitalized on Drummond’s strengths and failed to define the correct trajectory for Drummond’s development. And in spite of raising the talent floor, Van Gundy left the franchise with bad contracts, an ill-fitting, injury riddled roster and extremely limited flexibility to improve.
The one constant through all of this, of course, is Tom Gores who is widely criticized for being a meddling owner. I’m not sure I share that sentiment, but it’s clear Gores cannot escape at least some of the blame. At best, he’s made some poor hires and had unrealistic expectations of success. At worst, he’s interfered with decision-making, preventing management from implementing its vision and instead imposed his own.
At every level, the Pistons’ leadership failed to cast a consistent vision, failed to implement whatever vision lived in the moment, and in so doing failed to set Drummond and his teams for success.
Failed Coaches, Failed Coaching, and Failed Development
Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks, and John Loyer were Drummond’s first three NBA coaches. If you were with us during those dark, dark times, I need say no more. If you weren’t, well, nothin’ you can do about that. Any development in Drummond’s game early in his career was in spite of, not because of, coaching.
As optimistic as I was about Van Gundy the coach, he never got it right with Drummond. The parallels to SVG’s success with Dwight Howard were obvious, and it was clear early on that SVG wanted to develop Drummond’s post-up game as he had Howard’s. I have always hated this decision and think it’s at least partially responsible for some of Drummond’s worst habits on offense. Game after game, SVG force-fed Drummond in the post, the origin story of Andre’s ineffective baby hooks.
Drummond’s post moves might have looked cleaner over time, but they were never effective or efficient enough to be a regular part of a modern NBA offense. Drummond’s most-effective offense was in tandem with Reggie Jackson, but aforementioned injuries and roster mismanagement made this the exception rather than the rule. Without a pick-and-roll partner and viable 3-point shooting, Van Gundy attempted to turn Drummond into... dribble handoff hub of the offense? What could possibly go wrong? Sure, this had its moments, but it was largely a novelty, and teams adjusted quickly. The turnover machine we’ve seen this season got its start right here – a misguided attempt to make Drummond something he could never be.
Additional examples abound. Dwane Casey has had limited options due to injuries, but he’s done nothing to reign in Drummond’s bad habits on offense. Like every coach before him, he’s failed to point Drummond in the right direction.
From early on, I envisioned two player archetypes for Drummond: Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler. He’s a dominant rebounder who can block shots, play passing lanes, and even harass perimeter ball handlers. His best offense is dunking lobs and crashing the offensive glass.
Yet his coaches have failed to recognize and cultivate those obvious strengths and have tried to turn him into something he’s not.
Failed Roster Building from Talent to Fit
Since drafting Drummond, the Pistons have been mostly dreadful. They’ve had one winning season and have made the playoffs (and been swept) twice. If Drummond is good, then why all this losing?
My theory is simple: Andre Drummond is not the reason the Pistons have been so dreadful the past eight seasons. It’s the fault of consistently failing to build a talented, coherent roster.
I looked at every Pistons’ roster for the past eight seasons and asked a simple question. How many of Drummond’s teammates could be considered legitimate starters on most NBA teams?
I could only come up with three players I felt confident about: Blake Griffin, Tobias Harris, and Reggie Jackson.
I came up with two players who would probably start for a lot of teams: Luke Kennard and Marcus Morris.
I came up with 10 guys who might start if the situation were right.
And remember those guard rotations of Ish Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Beno Udrih? Or Ish Smith, Avery Bradley, and Dwight Buycks? It’s awfully difficult for me to blame Drummond for the team’s anemic offense when Jose Calderon/Jameer Nelson/Steve Blake/John Lucas III are running the show.
Unsurprisingly, the Pistons’ worst seasons over the last eight years coincide with talent-free rosters, and their two playoff berths happened because they had two legitimate starters other than Drummond.
When the Pistons were winning, Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Tobias Harris were all key cogs and healthy for the entire season. Adding talented players to a roster wins games. Who knew?
The lack of talent was exacerbated by poor fit and limited depth. The recipe for success with Drummond seemed simple: pair him with a playmaker and surround that pair with shooters. That’s not rocket science. When you’ve got a dominant physical presence inside, that’s just what you do. Somehow, the Pistons failed to do both consistently, and never could pull off both complementary elements at the same time.
When the Pistons were winning, Reggie Jackson was healthy and initiated the bulk of the offense in the pick-and-roll. Or, the offense was flowing through point forward Blake Griffin. Importantly, having healthy, productive playmakers freed Drummond to be a beneficiary of others’ playmaking rather than attempting to be a playmaker himself.
Although injuries aren’t predictable, they can at least be mitigated with depth. That takes planning, talent evaluation and development. Detroit’s organization has consistently failed at all three. Without the necessary playmakers, Drummond has been thrust into larger playmaking roles, and he and his teams have struggled as a result. Drummond should almost never lead his team in shot attempts, but you can’t blame him when he’s the most efficient scorer on the floor.
And the shooting. The Pistons have finished 18th (twice), 29th, 22nd, 28th, and 23rd in 3-point field goal percentage. This is modern NBA basketball 101. Good 3-point shooting creates space, and space is good – especially for guys like Andre Drummond who can excel in the pick-and-roll.
Even when the Pistons were winning, they were among the league’s worst 3-point shooting teams, forcing their playmakers and finishers to deal with a clogged-up lane game after game, season after season.
That is failed roster building.
Moving on from Andre Drummond
There is no question that Andre Drummond bears some responsibility for the Pistons’ losing. He makes choices when he’s on the court, not his coaches. He’s at the point in his career where he should be mature enough to understand and own his limitations, but he seems to lack awareness. He hasn’t recognized how damaging his shot selection and turnovers are to his team’s offense. He has not fully capitalized on his athleticism and become a great team defender. And yes, his contract limits financial flexibility given the way the game is changing.
But the lion’s share of the losing falls on an organization that has failed to chart a clear course for success, coaches who have failed to recognize and cultivate Drummond’s unique talents, and executive management that failed to build a competitive, coherent roster.
Instead, though, many fans are blaming the guy they see on their TV screens every night — Andre Drummond. It’s an obvious, lazy choice.
Fans need to understand Andre Drummond didn’t fail the Pistons, and he didn’t the fans. The Pistons organization failed him, and in so doing, all of us.
If the next eight years are to look different than the previous, these failures must be recognized, and lessons must be learned.
Here’s hoping they are so that the next major talent the Pistons are able to draft doesn’t see his talents wasted, development stymied and reputation tarnished.
We all deserve better than that.