Nearing the final third of the 2020-21 regular season, anybody watching the Lakers could see that they were missing something from their championship run the previous season. Even while the NBA’s best defense kept the team’s record elite as long as the stars were healthy, the offense lacked the speed and dynamism it had the year before. Replacing the barrage of full-court slings and alley-oops to JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard were ponderous 3-point shots and elbow initiations by Marc Gasol.
As a result, the team sought to add a big capable of filling the void created by Howard and McGee’s departures in the previous offseason. They needed someone to shoulder the bulk of minutes at the 5, sparing Anthony Davis from unwarranted exposure to the bumping and bruising that goes on around the rim and someone who could provide a bit more muscle than the doughy, 36-year-old Gasol.
But without anything left to package in a trade, or even a viable candidate on the market, the Lakers directed their gaze to the former Piston playing in Cleveland, Andre Drummond. And despite cries of competitive imbalance from all around the league, LeBron James’ former team did him one more solid, buying out Drummond’s contract, enabling him to sign a new deal to play in Los Angeles.
Drummond arrived just when the Lakers needed him most. LeBron and AD were each in the midst of extended absences due to injuries, and the team hoped Drummond would be able to give them the jolt they needed to stop their slide down the standings.
However, Drummond hadn’t played in months, since the Cavs had decided to hand over playing time to their young core with plans of buying him out, and arrived in LA in mediocre shape. Making matters worse, James’ ankle sprain left the keys of the offense largely in the hands of a hot-and-cold, shoot-first lead guard in Dennis Schroder. When LeBron came back, he was a shell of himself, unable to collapse defenses off the dribble as convincingly as he had before, leaving Drummond somewhat high and dry. In his 21 games with the Lakers, Drummond averaged career-lows (excluding his rookie year) in minutes, points, rebounds, and assists. In the playoffs, his impact was minimal, as an injury to Anthony Davis saw the Lakers turn a 2-1 series lead into a six-game defeat.
Surely, Drummond had hoped for a championship with the Lakers to springboard him into free agency, where he could re-up on another massive contract. In nine seasons he’s made more than $135 million in salaried money, the 43rd most in NBA history. At 28 years old, Drummond should be still at the tail-end of his athletic prime, fit to earn as much money as ever. Even after starting every game in which he played last season, the best he could muster as an unrestricted free agent was the veteran’s minimum salary of around $2.5 million to be his former Eastern Conference rival’s backup, despite his own previous public objections to that salary level.
Alas, the board man was not paid.
On the flip side of a practical swap between Drummond’s new employer, the Sixers, and the Lakers, Los Angeles replaced The Big Penguin with the man whose old backup slot he took on two teams in a row: Dwight Howard. But although he’s undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer, Howard is a half-dozen years and a handful of surgeries removed from his own prime, having been reduced to a bench role since his first turn in Los Angeles. The 35-year-old Howard, in a vacuum, shouldn’t be able to fill an Andre Drummond-sized hole.
Fortunately for the Lakers, NBA basketball is still played on earth, where true vacuums are virtually impossible, and Dwight Howard is better than Andre Drummond.
However, the inverse seems to be fairly universally agreed upon in the basketball-covering media. In their free agency recap podcast, Nekias Duncan and Steve Jones Jr. of BasketballNews.com’s The Dunker Spot readily agreed that Andre Drummond is better than Dwight Howard at each player’s respective stage in his career. NBA.com listed Andre Drummond as one of their top 26 free agents but left Howard off their list entirely. Hoopsrumors.com had Drummond in their top 35 but also didn’t name Dwight at all. Some Sixers fans are even higher on the “upgrade.”
Standing opposite the idea that Howard will be an upgrade over Drummond is not a straw man, but instead a preponderance of very real people who happen to disagree. It’s not hard to see why they’ve come to that conclusion. Drummond is undoubtedly one of the best rebounders in modern basketball history. Since 2012, Drummond’s rookie year, he’s been the game’s most prolific rebounder by more than 500 boards. During that stretch, Dwight is merely fourth. However, as a screen-setter, rim-runner, and shot-blocker (i.e. the most necessary skills for a traditional center in the modern NBA) old man Dwight out-classes the younger and more recently expensive Drummond.
When Dwight Howard was a member of the 2019-20 championship-winning Lakers, he filled all three of the aforementioned roles effectively. During that season, Howard played almost a third of his minutes next to Anthony Davis, alleviating some of the wear and tear on the Lakers’ most valuable big over the course of the regular season. The Lakers thrived in those minutes, with a +5.0 net rating, close enough to their +5.6 net rating as a team, the fifth-best in the NBA that season.
And in five-man lineups Howard on the floor and Davis off, the Lakers trounced teams.
LeBron was able to develop consistent chemistry with Howard, turning him into a lob threat any time he was around the basket. According to the Basketball Index, Dwight graded out as a 95th percentile finisher at the rim. His elite ability to create and convert lob opportunities opened opportunities for one of the game’s greatest passers ever to exploit.
Despite his total inability to shoot jump shots (except for his comically efficient three makes on five 3-point attempts), Dwight was able to bend the defense without the ball as a screen setter and roller, posting an 88th percentile screen assist rate and 97th percentile rim gravity rate per 75 possessions (per The Basketball Index).
And even a decade removed from his back-to-back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards, Dwight’s quick bounce and long reach still often led to rejections and redirected drives at the basket. In 2019-20, Dwight blocked shots more often than 94% of the league and deterred shots around the rim more often than 97% of the league per The Basketball Index. Against bigger lineups beside Anthony Davis, the Lakers were able to form the type of wall Stan Van Gundy could only ever scream about to Drummond.
Dwight wasn’t just well above average as a defensive rebounder, either: He was almost unstoppable on the offensive glass. Per 75 possessions, (i.e. a starter’s run), Dwight averaged almost five offensive boards on top of his more than nine defensive rebounds. That season, the artist formerly known as D12 finished 11th in rebounds per 36 minutes. The man who finished first in that category? Andre Drummond.
With the Lakers, Drummond’s rebounding remained a constant, but it was his inability to match Dwight’s threatening presence around the rim on either end that undermined his production.
Drummond is undoubtedly large but lacks the hyper-quick first step and preternatural timing that typify the game’s best rim-protectors. While Drummond’s 90th percentile block rate approached that of Dwight’s, his lesser lateral mobility led to vastly inferior rim deterrence, ranking in the league’s 1st percentile. Instead of opponents taking almost 10% fewer shots around the rim than average — as they did against Dwight in ‘19-20 — attacking players got to the rim 1% less often than their normal averages in 2020-21 against Drummond, a rate worse than two-thirds of the league. He was even worse the year before, allowing 10% more shots at the rim than average as his defensive effort for anything other than rebounding waned on losing ball clubs.
Offensively, Drummond is a more versatile player than Dwight, but not in ways that especially impact winning. In the halfcourt, Drummond likes to catch the ball around the elbow and survey the floor before going to work. He’s a willing passer, but not a particularly keen one, as his Passing Versatility (61st percentile) and Passing Efficiency (8th percentile) effectively cancel each other out.
Drummond uses his massive frame to barrel his way into the rim as easily as anyone in the league (100th percentile getting to rim rating), but can’t make much of his opportunities once there, as he is literally one of the worst finishers in the league (1st percentile finishing at rim rating). Also, as one of the game’s best offensive rebounders, he created second chances on the glass at a rate better than 97% of players, and attempted putbacks more often than 90% of players when recording an offensive board, but rarely created any offensive value on those possessions with his miserable finishing ability. Far too often, his layup attempts looked more like a tip-drill than a genuine attempt to score. Combining his willingness to take on opportunities to create offense, but the inability to do much in those moments, it’s not entirely surprising Drummond’s best-known rack attack from last season looks like this:
According to the modern, heliocentric theory of superstar-driven team-building, the prioritization of talent over fit often holds an inverse correlation to success. Simply put, after placing the biggest, brightest star(s) possible at the center of a team’s system (pun intended), it’s much more important for the ancillary pieces to mesh well than for them to be as talented as possible in their own right.
For the Lakers, and any other contender (as currently constructed), Drummond’s specific talents are undermined by his obvious limitations, especially when situated in the outer orbit of a team’s construction. Conversely, Howard has reshaped his game to match the expectations for a marginal piece, extending his NBA viability by at least a couple of seasons.
To quote the philosopher LeBron James, the most important thing for players on the margins to do to help a championship cause is to find a way to “FIT-IN” rather than “FIT-OUT.” Howard has echoed this sentiment, doubling down on his relatively new approach to basketball this offseason.
Dwight Howard on knowing his role at this stage of his career:— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) August 6, 2021
"Rebounding, playing defense, catching lobs. That’s all I gotta focus on."
And despite his lesser age and superior reputation, Andre Drummond failed to match Dwight’s play in at least two of the three most relevant categories of production during his time in the purple and gold. Even with his waning athletic gifts and predilection for over-fouling, Dwight Howard is a player with the skills and team-first mentality to be a star in his role for the 2021-22 Lakers. Whereas Drummond walked into LA as a presumptive starter and publicly complained after that role evaporated in the playoffs, Dwight’s supportive attitude never fluctuated, even when his minutes did. He may in fact possess fewer skills and lesser overall athleticism than Drummond at this stage of his career, but Dwight’s return presents a welcome upgrade by bringing more of exactly what this Laker team needs to the table.