As an NBA basketball team, winning two thirds of your games, coming off a summer in which one of the best basketball players in the world abandoned you for the palm trees of Los Angeles, and accounting for the fact that six of your top seven players have each missed nine games, the circumstances don’t beg for roster changes. At least, that’s what the status quo would say.
The Toronto Raptors are this basketball team, and Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster are the captain and co-captain of the ship. With NBA trade season having begun a couple of weeks ago, the front office duo are now faced with some decisions prior to the NBA’s trade deadline on February 6th – exactly one month away.
Headed into this season, many thought that the Raptors would surely be sellers around the trade deadline – looking to offload the expiring contracts of Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Kyle Lowry, who would be set to take a combined $82.2M off the Raptors books on July 1st, 2020.
In the heat of a preseason mini-saga, Ujiri chose to extend Kyle Lowry’s contract through the 2020-2021 season, locking up the perennial All-Star North of the border for one additional year. The extension didn’t extinguish the public idea that Lowry would still be on the tradeblock in early February though – in fact, it only strengthened that belief. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, Kyle Lowry’s extension made him an even more appealing asset to contenders hoping to add him as their floor general, given how weak the 2020 free agent class looks, and given Lowry’s value compared to any alternative candidate available.
Unequivocally, Toronto’s fire sale would only have materialized if the Raptors performed poorly, and saw no real shot of defending their title. The Raptors flopping – as most teams do immediately after they lose a superstar player for nothing – was the expectation around the league, and was the consensus prediction of the general media prior to the start of the season. For the Raptors to have any hope of making it back to The Finals, it would take an aging core of Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka to find the fountain of youth and take on a bigger role, just one year after they had to take a step back to Kawhi Leonard. The team would require drastic improvements from Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby if they wanted to avoid becoming the bottom-end of the Eastern Conference’s mediocre pack. The Raps forgotten-about free agent flyers and undrafted rookies would have to fit together as perfectly as the poles upholding a tipi to form even the faintest shadow of a legitimate bench. Ultimately, the Raptors chances of becoming legit contenders were slim, and if they weren’t in contention, they were going to be trade deadline sellers.
That’s not how things work in Canada – Canadians beat the odds. The Raptors, and Nick Nurse, were able to make all of the aforementioned come together, and more. At 34 years old, Kyle Lowry is becoming just the 6th player in NBA history to post averages of at least 20 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. Now on the wrong side of 30 as well, Serge Ibaka is providing a consistent 14.5 points and 8.2 rebounds off the bench. Remarkably, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are combining to post 43.1 points, 10.6 assists, and 11.9 rebounds per game, making them one of the best young duos in the league. Everything that had to come together in order for the Raptors to find success, has done so perfectly, and now any flickering thought of the Raptors blowing up their team midseason has vanquished. The Raptors are another player or two (and some full health) away from being back in legitimate contention to open the new decade with another NBA Championship. Masai and Bobby understand just that, and they haven’t taken long to get the ball rolling.
Similarly to how the Raptors were heavily rumoured to be kicking the tires on shipping out their veteran trio midseason, it’s long been rumoured that the Detroit Pistons may look to do the same with Andre Drummond, who is expected to decline his $28M player option for the 2020-2021 season this summer, and become an unrestricted free agent, whom the Pistons would risk losing for nothing. Unfortunately for Dwane Casey and his team, they haven’t fared as well as the Raptors have. They’ve won a mere 13 of their 36 games, and it seems reasonable to think that Drummond will have a new home by Valentine’s Day this year.
On Saturday afternoon, Wojnarowski reported that the Pistons were engaged with several teams regarding Andre Drummond trade talks, most heavily, the Atlanta Hawks, though nothing was reportedly imminent between the two sides. Later on in the afternoon, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported that the Raptors, along with the Boston Celtics, and Dallas Mavericks, were also among these ‘several teams’ who were looking into getting involved in the Drummond sweepstakes.
It’s no surprise that Masai Ujiri must have made a phone call to Ed Stefanski to poke around, given the prowess of a player like Andre Drummond.
Standing at an enormous 6’11 and weighing 280 pounds, Drummond has one of the largest frames among all NBA players. Such size has made it look easy for him to become arguably the best rebounder of his generation. After Drummond’s rookie campaign, he has never averaged fewer than 13.2 rebounds per contest, and per 100 possessions, he hasn’t averaged below 19.4 rebounds in his young NBA career. Formerly known as the clear cut worst free throw shooter in the league, stroking a mere 35.5% from the free throw line in the 2015-2016 campaign, the big man has worked diligently to keep himself playable. Over the past three seasons, he’s managed to hover around the 60% mark from the free throw line, on over five attempts per game over that stretch, which most importantly, has eradicated the “hack-a-Drummond” strategy, which has led to a nearly four game increase in the All-Star big’s win shares.
Putting up a monstrous 17.4 points and 15.9 rebounds per game through his first 35 games of the season, Drummond should be looked at as a hot commodity for teams struggling to rebound the basketball, or with a gaping hole at the centre slot. While the Raptors do not struggle with the latter, they did rank #29 in the league in defensive rebounding, and #26 in the league in offensive rebounding 24 games into the season – both departments that Mr. Drummond would assist nicely in. The reason why I excluded rebounding from my piece on the Raptors team weaknsesses, is because since December 5th , the Raptors have outrebounded opponents by an average of 1.6 rebounds per game, even without both of their starting bigs for nine of those fifteen contests. Still, the rebounding struggles dissipating as of late doesn’t imply that the Raptors wouldn’t love to add one of the best rebounders in the league to their roster. With Drummond’s 4.3 additional offensive rebounds each game, the Raptors would be able to create a plethora of second chance points, and his paint presence on the other end would keep other teams from doing the same, while creating more opportunities for the Raptors to get out and run, and pile onto their 2nd ranked 17.7 fastbreak points per game.
Unfortunately, Drummond, like almost every player in the league, has his flaws. Despite the increase in free throw shooting percentage over the past few seasons, he still remains a complete non-threat with the ball anywhere remotely distant from the rim. Between 10-16 feet away from the basket, he’s shooting the ball at a 2.7% clip, and anywhere past that, he’s making less than 1% of his looks. In the NBA’s modern era of fast-paced, small-ball, spacing-oriented offense, players with Drummond’s skillset are quickly going extinct. After showing some promise for improvement last season, hitting 13.2% of his shots from beyond the arc, he has yet to nail a three-point shot this season on 19 attempts.
For a coach like Nick Nurse, who prides his team on their ability to shoot the ball, and has based his offensive style on the “if you have an open look, shoot it” mantra, Drummond’s game is a knife in the gut of the Raptors style. If, for reasons beyond gauging Drummond’s trade value as a benchmark for potentially making other deals, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster are willing to look beyond the big man’s flaws to potentially swing a deal and land him North of the border, it’s hard to believe that the price would be too steep.
Drummond’s incapability to shoot the ball, in combination with the fact that he’ll really only be a 2-4 month rental for the team that trades for him (unless they want to pay him big money to keep him past this season), means that the Pistons can’t expect to receive much more than one or two young assets in a return package.
Still, since the Raptors would have to match the incoming salary to stay under the NBA’s hard cap, Ujiri and Webster would have to piece together a package that includes one of Lowry, Ibaka, or Gasol. Given Drummond’s poor fit next to either Gasol or Ibaka, it’s unlikely that the Raptors would trade away Lowry and endeavor to keep all three centres on the roster together, thus one of the Raps veteran big men would have to be on their way out, if Drummond were to come in.
Due to Marc Gasol’s innate defensive abilities, and him essentially being the on-court father of Joel Embiid, who is set to pose one of the biggest threats to the Raptors should they go deep into The Playoffs, it’s likely that Ibaka would be the one to go, merely due to process of elimination. In order to satisfy Stefanski enough to close a deal, let’s say that the Raptors would have to part ways with Terence Davis Jr. as well.
Acquiring Drummond would then shift Gasol into a bench role on most nights, which would give the bench an anchor defensively next to Chris Boucher, and also someone whom Nurse can look to run the offense through, given Gasol’s great passing ability, and the bench’s offensive struggles at times. Losing Davis Jr. would be a big blow though – even with the return of Matt Thomas – as the bench would be without a true point guard aside from Patrick McCaw.
On a wider scale, giving up TD2 would also mean sacrificing a big, bright piece of the Raptors future. Through 36 appearances this season, the undrafted rookie is averaging 6.9 points, 1.8 assists, and 3.0 rebounds, in just 16.8 minutes per game.
Comparing Drummond and Ibaka directly – the bulk of the trade – Ibaka obviously wins the shooting contest, stroking the ball well from behind the arc at a 33.8% clip. Despite tearing down 7.7 fewer rebounds per game than Drummond, the per-36 stats would show that if both players were to play 36 minutes every game, Ibaka would average 11.6 rebounds per game, while Drummond would average 17.0. While it’s still a wide gap, it proves that Ibaka also excels as a rebounder, and Drummond isn’t as much greater, as traditional stats might state.
Looking at the rim protection aspect, Drummond does offer up 2.0 blocks per contest in comparison to Ibaka’s 1.0, however taking on Drummond also means swallowing the 3.8 turnovers he provides per game – double what Ibaka is currently averaging. Again, for the sake of even comparison, if both players were on the court for 36 minutes per contest, Ibaka would actually average just 0.6 blocks per game fewer than Drummond, and would still save the team 1.1 turnovers per game.
Realistically, it’s improbable that the Raptors’ expert front office would choose to look beyond the shortcomings in Drummond’s game, and break apart the core of the Raptors championship roster, in addition to giving up young assets – whether it be one of their budding young players, or another pick. In the end, Ibaka, who would almost certainly be headed the other way in any Drummond deal, has a strong case of being the better overall player between the two, and is certainly a better fit in Nick Nurse’s system than Drummond would be.
Big names are fun to chase, but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. If Masai Ujiri does make the decision to go all out at the trade deadline and be a buyer, there will definitely be better, more suitable pieces on the market who could bolster the Raptors more than Andre Drummond would. More than likely, the Raptors were simply calling to get a sense of what the Pistons were asking for Drummond. It never hurts to inquire, especially when you have as much respect as Masai Ujiri does, but the rumors presumably mean nothing. Drummond to the Raptors simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.