Back in November, the Lakers signed their presumable starting center for the next two seasons in veteran big man, Marc Gasol. The Spaniard was a departure from the team's previous center rotation in that he was not the lob target or shot blocker that JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard were, but rather, a stout positional defender with the ability to both space the floor and facilitate for others.
Although the Lakers played well with Gasol in the starting lineup, rumblings quickly began spouting up of the team being in the market for a more athletic option at the position after far too many dunks were being given up to the opposition, and a general lack of athleticism with the group was displayed.
With injuries starting to pile up, backup Montrezl Harrell performing better off the bench, and Gasol contracting COVID-19, the team gave the then released Damian Jones a chance in the spot.
Despite proving to be a bouncy target during his stint with the team, Jones ended up simply being a precursor to the organization's interest in former all-star Andre Drummond, once his previous team was unable to move him at the trade deadline.
Drummond was reportedly promised the starting center spot by the Lakers to secure his talents away from several other teams who also had an interest in the 27-year-old. He would ultimately only play 21 games for Los Angeles in the regular season, and six more in the postseason, but that period would turn out to be enough for him to become a lightning rod amongst the team's fanbase.
Those who were his biggest detractors were quick to bring up Gasol's success with the group before the deluge of injuries, as well as souring at the notion that Drummond was simply given the role rather than earning it. Many would also point to his issues with finishing around the rim, clunky spacing fit next to Anthony Davis, and his occasional flub on the floor.
In the case for his supporters, Drummond never really got a shot to thrive in the role given the injuries to his frontcourt partner in Davis, and central dish feeder in LeBron James. Even despite this, Drummond flashed glimpses of what the front office envisioned: a load on the offensive glass, ability to catch lobs, and had impressive moments on defense where his athleticism shined.
The truth to how Drummond performed and fit in with the Lakers is likely somewhere in the middle. Or more apt, viewed as incomplete. While he had both struggled and succeeded in the role, the sample was small enough to think there is enough surface still to be scratched.
“I think overall this year, I had an incredible time in this short stint that I was here," Drummond told reporters during the team's exit interviews. "There was a lot put on me when I first got here. There was a lot for me to learn, a lot to catch up on, and a lot to make up for you know with the two of the best players hurt, and just trying to figure out an entire team with little time to help get us to a playoff run."
"I think I learned so much being around the coaching staff, being around my teammates, just an incredible group of guys we have here, looking forward to building more with them.”
Although this is often the case in the NBA when players join new teams late into the season, Drummond's experience of being thrown into the deep end without the life preservers in Davis and James should not be overlooked.
During the regular season, Drummond and Davis would appear in just 13 games together. When including James, the trio would only tally four games overall (74 minutes) ahead of being hoisted into the playoffs.
The Davis and Drummond frontcourt in particular did not light the world on fire in their brief time. However, the challenge that now awaits the front office will be how much of the clunkiness came from sheer lack of time or poor fit.
"I mean there were glimpses, I mean we all seen there were bright spots throughout the year where we did play together and great things happened," Drummond said when asked about the duo's potential.
"But you can't expect two guys who play in the paint to get adjusted in six weeks. So it’s something that is going to take some time, we have to have a training camp together, preseason, and even the regular season to work on things like that too to build that kind of chemistry. I think he and I did a great job of adjusting well to each other with the time that we had.”
Although the tandem did not get enough reps together heading into the playoffs, the frontcourt did perform well during their minutes against the Phoenix Suns. According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups that contained Davis and Drummond had a net rating of +2.4, and when James joined his bigs, those groups were an impressive +12.2 over 139 possessions in the first round.
After securing a 2-1 lead in the series, Davis would once again be hobbled and eventually out completely in game five and just minutes into the deciding game six. This emphatically put the pairing on hold, potentially for good depending on the status of Drummond's free agency.
It is safe to say that how effective Drummond ultimately could have been within the team's central core would have been more clearly displayed if the Lakers were able to advance and a larger sample was obtained. But due to the disappointing early exit, the narrative surrounding the big man still feels like it landed on a negative note. Which is likely unfair.
To be clear, Drummond is not a player without his warts. He is not the cleanest fit next to Davis (who himself is the team's best option at center), he has his limitations on both ends at times, needs to be in a simplified role, and likely will cost more than the minimum deal he was on when he signed with the team during the season.
But with that said, he was not the failure many made him out to be during his time with the team, instead, played relatively well all things considered in a reduced role. And given the other options in the buyout market, is difficult to truly fault the team for kicking the tires.
It will be difficult to gauge what exactly was, and was not a result of the injury-ridden season Drummond was thrust in. His performance and future with the team, are some of those decisions that the front office and coaching staff will have to make with that context in the back of their minds.
From the initial sounds of it, those in those deciding positions are still enthused with what he can potentially provide going forward with a clean slate.
“Dre was great for us,” head coach Frank Vogel, said when asked for his evaluation of the center. "We’re hopeful that he’s a Laker for a long time. He played well for us and was a good culture fit. He fit in well with the guys and was very well-liked...we just didn’t have that time to build the cohesiveness that we wanted."
With the season now over, the Drummond experiment in Los Angeles ultimately feels like just yet another 'what if' in a season chock-full of them. Whether a reunion is something both sides are mutually receptive to at this point remains to be seen.
That decision, may ultimately be in the center's hands, who for during his cup of coffee in the city found himself typecast as the scapegoat when he deserved it, and more often than not, when he did not.