Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond was one of the best players on the team as a rookie, exceeding all expectations, but he rarely saw the court at the end of close games.
He is expected to play a bigger role in his second season as the starting center. But with the addition of Josh Smith in free agency, Drummond may again be on the bench in crunch time as Smith and Greg Monroe share the court.
Leaving one of the three on the bench would allow the Pistons to keep an extra shooter on the floor at all times, and Drummond's skill set is the most limited of the three. But if he takes another step toward stardom this year, new coach Maurice Cheeks will have to leave him on the court.
When the Pistons Need to Score
Drummond was a key reserve for the Pistons last season, averaging over 20 minutes in the 60 games he played. He shot 60.8 percent from the field and his 21.7 PER was the highest on the team, but he didn't play much in crunch time, particularly early in the year.
According to 82games.com, he played in 31 percent of the possible minutes for the Pistons in 2012-13, tied for seventh on the team. But in "clutch" situations—defined as "fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points—he played just 26 percent of the possible minutes.
But the fifth? Charlie Villanueva at 41 percent, well up from 28 percent of the possible total minutes.
Why was a player who averaged just 15.8 minutes per game playing so much at the end of close games? Simply, to shoot the ball.
According to 82games, Villanueva shot the ball 19.5 times per 48 minutes in the clutch, more than any of their other top players in those times (Knight was second with 16.3 attempts). He was on the court to generate offense and stretch the floor, shooting 34.7 percent from three-point range for the year.
Smith may end up taking many of those minutes from Villanueva at the end of games, and these numbers came with Lawrence Frank as the Pistons coach. But the point is, players who can score the ball and stretch the court are valued in crunch time, and that does not describe Drummond.
Offensively, Drummond is limited to finishing at the rim and grabbing offensive rebounds. While those skills have value, Smith and Monroe are both more versatile scorers. They are also two of the better passing big men in the game.
So if Cheeks wants three shooters on the court at a time, it's inevitable that Drummond will be the odd man out unless he shows enormous strides in his offensive game.
When the Pistons Need a Stop
On the other hand, when the Pistons are ahead in close games, Drummond should get his share of chances to close games.
He was prone to making mistakes defensively as a rookie, but his sheer size and athleticism made him an asset on that end of the court. He averaged 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes according to Basketball-Reference.com, both team highs.
He's was also a solid post defender and can match up with top offensive big men. According to Synergy Sports (subscription), Drummond gave up .77 points per play defined as a "post up." Monroe gave up .93.
The hope is that Drummond gets even better in his second season as he learns the intricacies of NBA defense. Even small steps in that department will help him earn crunch-time minutes.
If the Pistons are playing with the lead, Drummond should supplant Monroe at the center position. If the game is tied or within two points, particularly in the final minute, Cheeks will likely choose to make offense-defense substitutions with the two bigs.
Free Throw Woes
One of the biggest arguments for leaving Drummond on the bench in crunch time is his woeful shooting from the free-throw line; he shot just 37 percent as a rookie and under 30 percent in his lone college season.
The thought is that the Pistons simply can't risk playing him at the end of games for risk of being fouled, and it's not without merit.
At 37 percent from the line, Drummond would average just .54 points per possession when shooting two free throws. The Pistons, who were a below average offensive team, scored 1.01 points per possession in the last five minutes of games within five points, per NBA.com.
That takes away so much of Drummond's value, particularly on the glass. He's the Pistons' best rebounder but also the guy opposing teams would like to send to the line the most.
If the Pistons are down two with a minute to go, which set of big men would you like on the court?
Drummond is such a liability at the free-throw line that it will be hard to justify playing him in the majority of minutes at the end of many games as long as Smith and Monroe are his teammates.
Right now he compares to DeAndre Jordan, who shot 36.8 percent from the line in 2012-13 and who has been benched at the end of games.
Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard both struggled from the line and played in crunch time, but they brought so much more to the court than Drummond does. To stay on the court he needs to shoot above 50 percent from the line or become one of the top centers in the league.
Until then, expect Smith and Monroe to play the bulk of the minutes in close games.