It might not be the biggest news of the day, but the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trade deadline acquisition of Andre Drummond is definitely among the most perplexing of today’s deals. As the deadline has come and gone at 3 PM we can now take a full look at this transaction and try to make sense of what it means. To recap:
Cavaliers receive: All-Star Center Andre Drummond
Pistons receive: Power Forward/Center John Henson, journeyman Guard Brandon Knight, the lesser of either Cleveland’s own 2nd Round Draft Pick in 2023 or Golden State’s which the Cavaliers had rights to.
The first thing that jumps out is that the rebuilding Cavaliers have traded for an All-Star. This alone is quite a valid surprise. Drummond is a 2-time former All-Star, his most recent appearance being in 2018. He is also a 3-time rebounding champion and whether you use the metric of Value Over Replacement Player, Box Plus Minus or Win Shares he would be rated as Detroit’s best player for this season to date. Comparatively, by eye test and traditional pecking order he would be considered their 2nd best behind star Power Forward Blake Griffin. The Cavaliers have dealt for what appears to be a proficient center.
On the other hand, in return they provided Henson, who hasn’t played more than 29 games in a season since 2017-2018 due to both injury and coaches’ decisions, along with Knight, who similarly hasn’t played more than 39 games in a season since 2016-2017 for similar reasons. Also included is that not very potent 2nd round pick to be administered 4 drafts from now.
On its face, this looks like an absolute steal from the Cavaliers perspective. So why would Detroit accept such an offer? Well, this season is the third where both Griffin and Drummond have appeared as the two best players on the Pistons’ roster (Griffin landed on Detroit in a mid-season trade during the 2017-2018 season). In this configuration the team has never finished better than 8th in the Eastern Conference, which occurred during the 2018-2019 season, and they were immediately swept in the first round of that year’s playoffs. This year they are in 10th in the East and 4 games out of any playoff spot. Not only do they seem to have peaked already in regards to this current conglomerate of players but they have a total of $61.3 million locked up between Griffin and Drummond just for this year, which equates to 56.2% of their salary cap. That’s over half of their cap tied up in just 2 players that haven’t gotten them a single playoff victory. Pair this with the fact that starting point guard Reggie Jackson is a free agent this summer and it is clear that a re-tooling is imminent, even with Griffin still likely on the squad.
To add onto matters, there have also been questions in the past about the consistency of Drummond’s effort level on the floor. The most glaring example of this problem came in the aforementioned 2018-2019 playoffs when Drummond looked visibly disinterested in Game 3 vs. Milwaukee. Drummond was seen during that game coasting from the painted area to the 3-point line and not even raising a hand in order to contest shots on defense; sometimes just simply standing around and not defending his man at all. He had built a reputation for these type of tendencies both before and after this game, but to make matters worse on this particular night Griffin scored 27 points and dished 6 assists while playing on an injured left knee that required surgery after the season… the contrast is startling.
Beyond the good or bad feelings that an alleged lack of effort can leave, this deal is really also about dollars and cents. Speaking even further on the money, Drummond was in the 4th year of a 5 year contract with the Pistons. That 5th year is tied to a player option that would allow Drummond to make $28.8 million next year. The Boston Celtics (stood pat), Miami Heat (added Andre Iguodala– not a center) and Dallas Mavericks (stood pat) are all possible championship contending teams that could have used a center of Drummond’s caliber. None of them decided he was worth dealing for, not even when the ultimate offer that the Pistons accepted was just Knight, Henson and a 2023 second round pick. That should tell you everything that you need to know about not only Drummond’s reputation in the league, but what he will do in regards to his player option. Teams aren’t that interested. He isn’t getting more than $28.8 million if he opts out and Detroit did not want to have him cash in at their expense, having him sputter out their effort to re-tool before it could even begin.
For Detroit this trade is ultimately to dump Drummond’s salary, make sure he doesn’t hurt their cap space next year as well as to jettison him off the team with possible bad feelings in mind. There’s a chance they think Henson could help mop up the minutes that will now need to be filled with Drummond off the roster. He did play solid, defensively-minded basketball in the few minutes he provided for the Cavs. Ultimately though, the Pistons likely just wanted to do away with Drummond.
So now that I have done my best to besmirch any pleasant feelings about what was seemingly a fairly positive trade, what really are the positive outcomes for the Cavs?
Well, its still true that Drummond was analytically Detroit’s best player this season and if you compare his numbers to the Cavs right now he would be their best rated player as well. He is again leading the league in rebounding and is scoring the most PPG he has in his entire career on efficiency that is in line with his previous 2 seasons, and above his career average. He is also immediately the best rim protector on a team heavily devoid of and seriously needing such talents. Drummond has led the league in Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Rating twice in his career. Young, defensively inept guards like Darius Garland and Collin Sexton immediately become better when they have a shot blocker of Drummond’s caliber behind them protecting the paint. You could argue he is automatically the best player of the Cavaliers right this minute.
In terms of money, the Cavs are flush with cap space going into next season and have no present requirement to run out this summer and sign any expensive free agents, as they are still in the early stages of their rebuild. Tying their money into Drummond for the next 2 seasons isn’t as troublesome as it would have been for the Pistons. Perhaps the change of scenery will do Drummond well and it can kick-start some forward movement for this young Cavaliers squad that has really struggled, especially lately, having dropped 12 of their last 13 games.
However, while Drummond does add certain much needed abilities to the Cavs, there is still a bit of a question about his fit. Its likely the Cavs strategy in pulling the trigger on this trade was to jump at the opportunity to acquire the best talent they could at best possible value regardless of position. Before the deadline occurred I wondered if this move was preemptive to a trade that would send a player like fellow center Tristan Thompson out of town. The Cavs had made him available before the deadline, but no such trade was made.
To that point, this is a team with a number of veteran big men on the roster that are all worthy of minutes: Kevin Love, Thompson and Nance among them. Adding Drummond does increase that log jam, and particularly at a time where teams are playing fewer and fewer big men the move seems curious in that regard. Its even more curious when you consider that Cavs’ coach John Beilein prefers centers that are able to shoot the three (item number 10, I also recently heard one of ESPN’s basketball writers mention this, but can’t find the source now). Thompson and Nance both rank in the top 6 in Minutes Played for the Cavaliers and get the majority of their minutes at center. I imagine they will be playing less, which is a shame for Nance especially, as an incredibly underrated talent on this squad who should probably be playing more minutes as opposed to less.
Ultimately though, the Cavaliers accumulated more talent than they had previously and, while I’m not expecting playoffs, they should be improved on the floor from the jump from this move alone. They also will now have more flexibility for future transactions. Assuming Drummond opts in, he could represent a trade-able expiring contract next season, and as long as the Cavs get a better haul than Knight, Henson and a 2nd round pick in 3 years, the move would be a win (definitely possible, but not a given). If Drummond really tears it up for the Cavs perhaps an extension would be in order- the type that Drummond has been asking for– and then a trade of Nance in the future is a real possibility as his talents become redundant. More talent is always good and the fact the Cavs paid so little in order to get it is a major benefit, even if the fit isn’t perfect.
Games down the stretch of a pretty lack-luster season might have just gotten a little more interesting. Drummond could be a big boost this team needs to get out of a funk… let’s just hope he has the effort and desire for the challenge.