The Pistons’ best player is 7'0" tall, a teenaged rookie who suits up for the games these days in Armani.
He’s wearing dress pants with razor sharp creases instead of warm-ups. His shoes are pointy and shiny instead of leather and high tops. His shirt is collared instead of a tank top. His role is now that of the NBA’s tallest cheerleader.
Andre Drummond isn’t your typical basketball Redwood. His back is screwed up, for one. And his value has shown the most when he hasn’t been on the floor.
The math has been painfully simple. The Pistons are suffering from subtraction by subtraction.
This is another basketball season wasted in Detroit.
Coach Lawrence Frank is finding out, in his second year on the job, that his father’s Pistons weren't these bums. The team is cruising down the home stretch, its engine turned off weeks ago. In a league where supposedly any team can beat any other on any given night, the Pistons are routed with shocking regularity.
Early last week, Frank—fresh off a brief hiatus while he tended to his ill wife back in New Jersey—played one of the cards of desperation that some coaches play in order to shake a moribund team. Call it a verbal shock to the heart.
It’s a card of desperation, right up there with “everyone has to look in the mirror.” It’s a plea to the base character of his players. And it’s falling on deaf, uncaring ears.
When Frank took the job of coaching the Pistons in the summer of 2011, he referred to the past. He spoke of championship banners won, a mystique forged. He fancied himself as the guy that could do what Flip Saunders could not in the end, what Michael Curry could not and what John Kuester could not.
Frank thought he could restore the Pistons back to the championship status they were in 2004 and 2005. It has proven to be folly.
But Coach Frank has a few pieces to work with. Whether he will have the time to use them remains to be seen. His boss, Joe Dumars, has a fetish for firing coaches after two seasons. The Pistons have shown no real improvement from the mess they were when Frank took over from a shell-shocked Kuester.
Those pieces are point guard Brandon Knight, big man Greg Monroe and Drummond—who has already achieved Best Piston status after just 50 games of his rookie season.
The Pistons drafted Monroe out of Georgetown in 2010, Knight out of Kentucky in 2011 and Drummond from Connecticut in 2012. You could do worse than be products of those three college programs.
Everyone else on the roster is expendable, except maybe veteran point guard Jose Calderon, who brings wisdom and experience.
Around this trio of recent first-round draft picks, Dumars—or his successor—has to construct a squad that is at least capable of not being run out of the gym on a regular basis. Whether Frank is the coach that will be around to work with Dumars’ new pieces is circumspect.
But it should all be built around Drummond. Even Monroe, a great player, plays second fiddle to the rookie.
Drummond is 19, but that’s irrelevant. He is the Pistons’ best player because he has that delightful basketball combination of size, athleticism and nastiness that serves all the good centers well. He defends the paint like a king does his castle. He swats shots away with disdain. Rebounds find their way into his big hands. He runs up and down the court with such long, loping strides that you’d swear he can make it from foul line to foul line in no more than three of them.
Drummond doesn’t, yet, score like a proper big man should in the NBA. He has no low post moves, really. But he is not like Ben Wallace, the Pistons’ last dominant (defensively) big man, in that Drummond doesn’t have hands of granite. Big Ben didn’t develop any offensive moves because he physically couldn’t. Drummond has shown signs, even at his tender age, that he can be deft around the basket.
Frank worked Drummond into the rotation slowly early in the season, too slowly for many people’s taste. The coach stubbornly refused to play his prized rookie more than 20 minutes or so per night, even when Drummond’s extrapolated numbers proved him to be one of the best rookies in the NBA and probably the best rookie center.
But for all this praise, the best proof of Drummond’s worth is happening right now, as the kid misses game after game—almost 20 now—with a bad back.
In Drummond’s absence the Pistons have collapsed like a house of cards. They are shockingly inept with Drummond out of the lineup. They are pushovers in the paint, and lost everywhere else on the court defensively. The only rebounds they grab these days are the ones that fall directly into their hands.
The Pistons, with Drummond on the sidelines, have become a disinterested, wretched mess of a basketball team. They are unable, perhaps even unwilling, to play anyone tough right now.
Drummond’s absence and the Pistons’ subsequent freefall into oblivion are about as coincidental as cause and effect.
So it's not too much to say that Drummond, at 19 years old, is the Pistons’ best player right now. It was not too much to say back in 1981 about Isiah Thomas, when the 20-year-old rookie from Indiana University became the Pistons’ best player just a few minutes into his first game.
Thomas didn’t stop there; he became the franchise’s best player of all time.
He did so with no small help from Dumars, Thomas’s backcourt partner starting in 1985.
Now Dumars must help the young center Drummond by building a team around him, in Dumars’ role as GM.
It’s a task that is best done with Dumars watching in an Italian suit instead of Drummond.