It’s snowing here in Chicago, snowing in a big upper midwest to northeast corridor, through Detroit and Cleveland, through Buffalo and Syracuse, all the way out to the fishing villages and touristy hamlets in Maine. If you live in a town of any scale, the snow functions as a highly temporary coat of paint. It covers up the crud that collects in the gutters, cigarette butts and fast food wrappers, dog poop in the grass by the sidewalk. It emphasizes the outlines of buildings and tree branches and everything becomes, for a few hours, a newer and more basic version of itself. The white reflects the dim light from the clouded-over sky; the day is at once dark and bright. And then the traffic churns the street-snow to muddy brown. The dogs piss the snowbanks yellow. You hope for another dusting, to clean up the imperfections, and sustain the illusion of newness for at least a little while longer.
Andre Drummond’s career has been a series of fresh starts, even though he hadn’t yet switched NBA teams until last Thursday. His single year at UConn set the template: he arrived as ESPN’s number two rated freshman recruit and departed as a curious disappointment. Diagnoses varied. He was, depending on who you asked, faint of heart or just slightly immature. His effort was inconsistent. He also suffered from the classic college big man problem, where some significant amount of his potential went untapped due to guards who couldn’t get him the ball where he wanted it. This was disastrous for UConn—Drummond posted two points and three rebounds of in their season-ending NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State—but didn’t impact his draft stock all that much. A great season with the Huskies might have made him the second or third overall pick in the 2012 draft. At the combine, he was telling coaches and executives that he saw himself as a bigger, stronger version of Kevin Durant. Whatever: an athlete as gifted as Drummond can only drop so far. He went ninth, to the Pistons.
Over his first two professional seasons, Drummond lacked the structure he clearly needed. He was dropped onto a mediocre mess of a Detroit squad, coached by Lawrence Frank, who was fired at the end of the season, and captained by Greg Monroe, the type of traditional, paint-clogging big that Drummond should never share a frontcourt with. His sophomore season was promising on an individual level—13.3 rebounds per night and 13.5 points on nothing but dunks—but my god, your 2013-14 Detroit Pistons: Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Monroe, and head coach Mo Cheeks, who lasted a little over half the year.
If anybody was going to figure out how to use Andre Drummond, it was probably going to be Stan Van Gundy, installed in the spring of 2014 as the Pistons’ all-powerful head coach and team president. SVG got the best out of Dwight Howard in Orlando by putting him in a ton of high pick-and-rolls and giving him just enough post-up opportunities that the big goofus occasionally grumbled in the press but didn’t openly disobey his coach’s instructions.
Van Gundy didn’t do Drummond any favors in terms of the players he put around him—it’s basically impossible to nail draft picks and free agency signings while staying up until three a.m. every night sweating how to slow down Paul George—but he did discover and sharpen aspects of Drummond’s game that not many other coaches would have. For instance, Drummond’s a better passer than anyone had realized until Van Gundy got to him. Some of the more interesting and effective sets Detroit ran under SVG placed Drummond at the elbow and let him operate in space, where he could perform a demi-drive to the rim or hit cutters sprinting in from the wing. This kind of stuff suggested a certain complexity to Drummond’s talent. He could contribute more to an offense than, say, DeAndre Jordan. Figuring out exactly what that meant—what he could be relied upon to do, and how often—was a tricky process. Stan Van got about two-thirds of the way there before he was shown the door in 2018.
Here’s something a relatively quick gloss on Drummond’s four seasons under SVG skips over: his improvement was fitfully uneven, and he has remained an uneven performer for a season-and-a-half under Dwane Casey, who’s also quite a smart coach. It’s very difficult to say anything definitive about Andre Drummond because his play and the general league-wide fan consensus about him is always in flux. He is always renewing himself, always turning a corner, and then returning to what he always was, always adding a wrinkle to his game that glimmers and disappears, always recommitting to the defensive end, always on the verge of breaking out, always debated like are we sure about him? are we sure he moves the needle? are we sure he isn’t pretty good, despite his faults?
He’s made a pair of All-Star teams and is a considerably better player now than he was six years ago. He also just got dumped by the Pistons for basically nothing, because they weren’t sure if he was going to pick up his $28.7 million player option next year, and they didn’t want to pay it. Now he’s in basketball nowhere, northeast Ohio, on a Cavs squad that added him simply because the price was so low. He’s 26, a perfectly indeterminate age: hardly old, hardly young.
If there’s going to be yet another Here Comes Andre Drummond moment, it’s likely not going to happen in Cleveland, where the roster makes no sense and the locker room is a mess. But the Cavs might only be a stopover for Drummond. He can enter free agency this summer and play for whoever will have him. He’d lose money in the deal but gain an opportunity for self-discovery, especially if he joined a decent team with a hole at the five. Whether he decides to do that or not depends on how sick he is of the impermanence that has defined his career, a continual cycle of optimism and discouragement. There’s something about Andre Drummond. We wouldn’t have bothered keeping up with his growth for this long if there wasn’t. But what are its precise dimensions? They stay hidden stubbornly beneath an edifice that’s changing all the time. With Detroit finally giving up on him, maybe that barrier will soon thaw.