If Frank Vogel could have his way, he’d have a roster of 15 star players. Really, that’s what every coach wants, right? Give me the most talent, and I’ll win every game. Vogel, like every other coach, knows this is not possible, of course. So, Vogel pivots to one of his favorite sayings: Be a star in your role. Give me the best of your ability in the thing we’re asking you to do and everyone benefits.
For LeBron James and Anthony Davis, this is straight forward enough. They’re 2 of the best handful of players in the entire league. Their ability to play to their immense talent level consistently is why they’re foundational players for this team and would be for any team they’d be on. For the rest of the players, things are not as straight forward. You see, most players do not come into the league as role players, rather they become that over time. The NBA isn’t always a meritocracy, but the cream does rise to the top. You prove yourself good enough and teams build around you. When it turns our you’re not at that top tier, it becomes about finding the things you will succeed at and slotting you into a role that, hopefully, highlights those attributes — particularly on teams whose goals include winning a championship.
You see this very clearly on the Lakers roster. Dennis Schröder isn’t AD or Bron, but his ball handling, shot creation, and scoring ability slot him into a fairly important role. If things get a bit messy with him sharing the floor with LeBron, it’s clearly been decided the team will live with that sloppiness because of his scoring punch offensively and the intensity he competes with defensively. Things are less complicated for role players like KCP, Caruso, Keef, Gasol, Trez, Wes, and even THT. They have clear strengths, and other things they’re not as good at. The Lakers ask them to do as much of the former as they can while trying to limit the latter. The hope, then, is that they will be a star in their role because the asks are smaller and align with their individual strengths.1Kuzma is a different case than these other role players and even Dennis, in my opinion. Kuz’s role is both simple — play hard defensively and be active and aggressive offensively, but there are moving targets with his offensive role depending on lineup construction and who is or is not available. Kuz is smart enough and has gained enough experience to just play hard and try to make the smart play, but the shifting nature of his role makes his job hard in a way that really is different than other guys on the team.
This brings me to Andre Drummond. Drummond, in his own way, reminds me of Schröder in that he’s an established veteran in this league with a certain pedigree and reputation as being a player who has had higher asks put on him before he played for the Lakers. Drummond’s made two All-Star teams in his career and has served in a role where he was a top-2 offensive option and a hub of his team’s attack.
The difference between him and Dennis, however, is pretty clear. Now that he’s a Laker, the asks for Drummond will be much different. When Drummond was an All-Star, the game flowed through him in ways that simply will not happen in Los Angeles playing with the guys he does now. The pecking order is too different and putting those same asks on him would mistake what his talent level is relative to the rest of the league with what his talent level is relative to his current teammates.
This change in asks is what concerns me most about Drummond and it goes back to the ideas I mentioned earlier about meritocracy, proving yourself, and the role born from it all. Drummond does not have a mastery of doing the little things well because, frankly, he’s never been asked to do the little things all that well. Drummond’s job was to do the big things and it’s been that way his entire career because he showed a proclivity to be able to do them. His teams then built around his talent and succeeded, in part because of them, and failed in part because he’s just not as well rounded as he could be considering his talent level.
Take this as an indictment if you want, but I do not know a a particularly kind way to say this. Sometimes you’re very good, but not great. There’s no shame in that. There’s only so many guys who sit atop the league and not being one of them doesn’t mean you suck. And this true even if your team and circumstances ask you to be someone that you’re not quite capable of being. Said another way, the league is full of players who make max salaries who are not capable of carrying their team in ways consummate with their pay. It is what it is.
(As a side note, Drummond’s also a classic player who was super talented in college, but fell a bit in the draft because of questions about his motor and an ability to play hard all the time. Those concerns have turned out to be well founded. Again, this doesn’t make him a bad player, but it makes him someone who, despite his talent, simply will not be a guy who will ever likely be an All-NBA guy or someone who serves as the best player on a team that will threaten to win a championship. This also describes about 95% of the league, so I don’t think this should be considered me throwing shade at the guy. Anyways. Side note over.)
When evaluating Drummond’s place on the Lakers, then, things get tricky. Because he’s as talented as he is, the want to try to “make it work” will be strong. Go back to the top of this post: every team wants more talent. That said, as I’ve explained, at some point if your talent does not establish you as an actual “star” you need to be able to pivot to being a “star in your role”. I have serious questions Drummond, in the short time he’ll have to do it, can effectively be that for these Lakers. Again, he is not a master of the little things and because of that there is an inherent discrepancy in what will be asked of him and what he will deliver. Not because he’s incapable, but because he does not have experience doing them night to night at a high level.
Contrast this with Dwight Howard, who I think can be an informative comparison when thinking of Drummond. Howard, by the time he came to the Lakers (the 2nd time), had a richer pedigree and history of success in this league than Drummond has had to this point in his. Dwight nearly won an MVP award, had won DPOY multiple times, and once led a team to the Finals. To reach that height, you not only do the big things very well, but you also do the little things well too.2Another side note, that’s what separates the stars from the superstars in this league. Stars can do the big things really well and impact the game that way. Superstars not only do the big things well, but also all the little things well too and it’s that mastery of the little things that leads to so many additional plays made over the course of a game and a season. Thus, your impact goes up in ways both tangible and intangible night to night. So, when Dwight came back to the Lakers last season, it was a matter of him buying into no longer being asked to do the big things and instead doing all those little things only. Dwight ultimately did buy-in and accessed that part of his game to be a valuable contributor. He was a star in his role.
Drummond, however, has never had to do the little things but is being asked to do those things now. Is he capable? Sure! He’s very talented! But I question if he has enough time to access those parts of his game because it will require a certain re-wiring of his approach in a very short period of time. In theory, if the ask is to set good screens, attack the backboards, defend at a high level, and score as a 3rd or 4th option type who has nearly every basket spoon-fed to him, that sounds totally plausible, right? Coaching and X’s and O’s contribute to how that looks on the floor, but Drummond is certainly capable of these things.
Fact is, though, that actually doing some of those things requires positioning yourself in different parts of the floor than you normally would, making in-play reads to best accomplish your end goal, and then playing hard all the time. I like Drummond as a player, but if I were to describe what he currently does well, those aren’t things that would necessarily be at the top of the list. As an example, there was a possession vs. the Kings where AD was posting up a smaller player on the right block, but was being fronted. Drummond was in the dunker’s spot on the left side of the floor. In that situation, Drummond’s read is to flash to the FT line in order to bring his defender with him to open up the over-the-defense pass to AD or to create a high/low chance between Drummond and AD. Drummond didn’t see the read and sat there until signaled by both AD and the ball handler to flash. By the time he did, the timing of the play broke down and Drummond took a bad floater that missed.
I bring up this play not to highlight Drummond’s mistake, really. I bring it up to highlight that Drummond isn’t used to making that read! Drummond is usually the guy in AD’s spot being fronted; he’s the guy who the offense is being run for! There’s an entirely different set of asks of Drummond right now and the Lakers are trying to give him time with his new teammates in this new role to figure it out. I get the sentiment, I just don’t think it’s going to be very successful. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but from my vantage point the issues of time and change are pretty big to believe things will practically improve to the level the team needs them to.
None of this makes Drummond a bad player. Read that sentence again, because it’s important to understand. What it does make him, though, is a bit of a square peg in a round hole. He’s being asked to be a star in his role when he’s used to simply being a star. And the adjustment required to make that transformation would be fine over the course of a full season, but feels forced over the course of weeks.