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Andre Drummond had something of a false start with the Los Angeles Lakers. His debut was marred by an injury when Brook Lopez stepped on his toe and knocked him out for the next three games. An NBA Finals rematch Thursday with the Miami Heat offered a sort of fresh start for Drummond. Mostly recovered, he stepped back into his role as starting center for the Lakers and put together a solid opening effort.
Drummond finished the 110-104 loss with 15 points and 12 rebounds. More important, he gave the Lakers 27 mostly incident-free minutes, and were it not for foul trouble, likely would have gotten to 30. That is the approximate total the Lakers warned fans to expect when Drummond was signed, and with his first game in the books, it's worth looking back on what went right, what went wrong, and how his presence affected the rest of his team in his first full game in purple and gold.
For better or worse, the Lakers prioritized skill over size, strength and speed when they chose their centers this offseason. The principle was sound. Anthony Davis is such an overwhelming physical force that pairing him with a traditional center is somewhat redundant. Marc Gasol's shooting and passing theoretically enhances him, and Montrezl Harrell's individual scoring fit on a bench that struggled to put the ball in the hoop last season. There were undeniable benefits. The healthy starting lineup featuring Gasol and Davis, for example, outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. But this year's team lacked the heft of last season's. The identity of physicality that made the 2020 Lakers special was gone.
In that vein, it's refreshing to see a Lakers center overpower an opponent physically like this.
It's a simple little play. The Lakers use the dribble handoff to get Bam Adebayo away from Drummond, and then let him bully Victor Oladipo and Jimmy Butler in the post. Ferocious jams like that are going to be frequent. If the team's raves about his hands and quickness are to be believed, so will steals like this.
Harrell isn't long enough to come away with that ball. Gasol is too slow to bother trying. None of this is to say that Drummond is definitively better than any of them, but rather, to reinforce Frank Vogel's point that all three of them are going to be necessary for the championship defense. There are things that each of them can do that the others can't. Drummond's strength is his overwhelming size and athleticism. He's their throwback to 2020. That team won a championship. It makes sense to have that style in their back pocket.
Drummond was allergic to passing in Cleveland. In 157 post possessions with the Cavaliers, Drummond passed only 21 times. That's a distressing figure on a number of levels. The Lakers weaponize post passing more aggressively than most teams, with LeBron James practically begging opponents to double him and create easy looks for his teammates. Drummond isn't James in skill, but he's also not LeBron's equal on the totem poll, either. The Lakers didn't sign him to be a ball stopper. The sort of empty post-up possessions that were allowable on a lottery-bound Cavs team won't be acceptable on a contender. Drummond's job offensively is to dunk, and when he can't, he needs to keep the ball moving.
Thursday offered some positive glimpses on that front. Drummond racked up three quick first-quarter assists, and these weren't exactly easy passes. It might have come off a broken post-up, but this is an impressive skip pass.
There's a Houdini element to this pass. How did Drummond manage to wrap this one around Tyler Herro to Alex Caruso?
It's much stronger court awareness than Drummond displayed in Cleveland, but it didn't last the entire game. Drummond had all three of his assists in the first seven minutes and change. Assists aren't the only measure of quality passing, though, and a more concerning element of this game for the Lakers is that they just added perhaps the best rebounder in basketball and didn't take advantage of that to score in transition. The Lakers mustered six points in transition all night. Not one of them came as a result of a Drummond rebound. When he did pull in defensive boards, he missed several chances to initiate the break. By the time he noticed Ben McLemore and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope streaking down the floor on this play, it was already too late.
Nobody's asking Drummond to be Gasol. He doesn't need to make plays, he needs to recognize them when they unfold in front of him. If he makes the easy plays his star teammates create for him and looks for them the moment he pulls in any defensive board, he's going to be just fine in that respect. We saw bits and pieces on Thursday. Let's hope we'll see more as he grows more comfortable in Los Angeles.
If the Lakers missed Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee in one specific offensive area, it was as finishers in pick-and-roll. Both were so long and could jump so high that James and Rajon Rondo frequently found them for lob dunks. Given their limited floor spacing, that vertical spacing was critically important. Drummond, in theory, was supposed to replicate that.
Well, he didn't attempt a single shot out of pick-and-roll against the Heat. That's not his fault. His guards didn't do a good enough job finding him. To some extent, Miami's aggressive doubling exacerbated that flaw. Dennis Schroder might have been able to fit a pocket pass into Drummond early on this pick-and-roll, but ultimately dribbles out of bounds with three Heat defenders on him.
Schroder isn't exactly a pick-and-roll maestro, and lob passes are tough at his size. James is far better suited to take advantage of Drummond's vertical spacing in this way. But it's worth noting that the Lakers have only 20 more regular-season games in which to acclimate Drummond within their system. If they plan to use Drummond as a pick-and-roll threat primarily on offense, it would make sense to run more of the play now and force the issue for the sake of adjusting.
Marc Gasol is truly out of the rotation
There was no shortage of opportunities to put Gasol in this game. Drummond left the floor due to foul trouble with around three minutes remaining in the first half, but rather than give Gasol any run, Vogel went back to Harrell. Then, when Harrell was getting roasted in pick-and-roll defensively by the Heat in the fourth quarter, Vogel rode out the storm with him before going back to Drummond to close the game.
Vogel has been adamant that the Lakers will need all three of their centers, and has even spoken about potentially using Gasol and Harrell together. Yet on Thursday, with James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all out, he couldn't get Gasol on the floor to add even a modicum of shot creation. If Gasol can't play under those circumstances, it's hard to imagine many situations in which the Lakers would go to him.
Gasol has reaffirmed his commitment to the team and sounds willing to wait out these DNP-CDs in order to contribute whenever possible. But if the Heat game was any indication, Vogel's suggestion that he plans to use all three of his centers doesn't necessarily mean that he'll do so equally. Gasol is the third center in the rotation right now, and when Davis returns, Gasol will fall to fourth in high-leverage situations. Harrell and Drummond appear to be locked in as the two Lakers centers, even when circumstance dictates that Gasol should play. That could change, but for now, it looks as though he's out of the rotation.