Inside Andre Drummond's Cleveland Escape, Failed Trades and Buyout Recruitment

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IMarch 30, 2021

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Andre Drummond is now the Los Angeles Lakers' starting center, and the story all somehow leads back to James Harden

More specifically, Drummond's ultimate Hollywood destination is merely one ripple effect from the four-team swap that sent Harden to Brooklyn in January. And with the NBA's buzzy trade deadline having come and gone, impact players from Drummond to Victor Oladipo are now scattered across the league, seeming to stretch the tentacles of the Nets' Harden blockbuster even further through this weird season and its ever-contested championship. 


The Beginning of the End in Cleveland

Drummond would likely still be starting in Cleveland if the Cavaliers weren't surprisingly roped into the now-notorious megadeal with the Nets, Rockets and Pacers

By all accounts, Cavs general manager Koby Altman's front office had little inkling Jarrett Allen would become available to them at the start of this calendar year. Dating back to when Cleveland acquired Drummond before the 2020 deadline, the Cavs planned to spend little in free agency this past offseason. The plan was to continue growing the young backcourt duo of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton with an elite rebounding big man, introduce a potential swing piece on the wing in No. 5 pick Isaac Okoro, then enter 2021 free agency with a developing core plus some money to spend. 

Then Houston called. The Rockets never projected much interest in keeping Allen or Caris LeVert, league sources told Bleacher Report. Rafael Stone's new regime sought all along to find additional new homes for both former Nets players as the trade framework with Brooklyn materialized.

Instead of LeVert, Houston targeted Oladipo, curious if the former All-NBA star could recapture his previous magic. If the Oladipo experiment failed, they bet he'd still draw more before this deadline than LeVert.

The Rockets did not foresee Allen, meanwhile, as a viable long-term frontcourt counterpart to Christian Wood. Thus, Cleveland was able to essentially acquire Allen for the low price of Milwaukee's 2022 first-round pick. 

So as Brooklyn cemented a superteam by acquiring Harden, the Cavs tabbed the 22-year-old Allen as its starting center. Drummond had helped Cleveland to a competitive start in 2020-21, averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, but Cavs management nonetheless hoped he would be amenable to splitting time with Allen

However, Drummond was not interested in playing reserve minutes behind Allen, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. That sparked Cleveland's intent to sit Drummond until moving him. 


A Tricky Trade Market

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Cavaliers officials maintained an optimism they'd receive at least a second-round pick like they had given to Detroit for Drummond in the first place. "We're not looking for the moon and back," one Cleveland executive said at the time. 

The Cavaliers discussed a framework of sending Drummond to Toronto. Before those conversations fell apart, they showed significant interest in acquiring Norman Powell, sources said. 

Most playoff-bound teams inquired about Drummond. Dallas considered pairing Drummond with Kristaps Porzingis in the frontcourt. The Bulls weighed the benefits of landing Drummond, in need of a true pole of their interior offense, before they ultimately swung for Nikola Vucevic. The Clippers, Celtics, Heat, Hornets, Nets, Lakers and Knicks all showed ongoing interest, but most had difficulty matching Drummond's roughly $28 million salary. 

Acquiring Drummond would have forced his new team to likely move several contracts it had no interest in trading, creating a three-players-for-one concept that would have then forced Cleveland to waive players it didn't necessarily want to trade. Charlotte may have even needed to send five players. 

The Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Mavericks and Hornets all maintained a dialogue with Cleveland through Thursday's trade deadline, sources said. All teams received permission to speak with Drummond and his representatives well before the clock struck 3 p.m. ET.


The Mavs Miss

Dallas was quite active looking for more perimeter shooting right up to the deadline. The Mavericks searched far and wide, including a framework of James Johnson and two second-round picks for Evan Fournier. Word began to circle as early as Tuesday night that the Mavericks and Pelicans had come to terms on the eventual swap that landed JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli in Dallas for Johnson, Wes Iwundu and a 2021 second-round draft pick, league executives told B/R.

It seemed that option remained on the table as somewhat of a failsafe ahead of the deadline. The Mavericks also held conversations with the Rockets regarding Oladipo on Thursday, sources said, but with Redick already in the fold and the dust settling that afternoon, those talks stalled. It did not seem Dallas factored much into the buyout market that was already taking shape for Drummond. 


Hornets Not Done with Drummond? 

The Hornets were equally active exploring the trade landscape for a legit big man. Along with its Drummond overtures, Charlotte discussed a package of Cody Zeller's expiring contract plus P.J. Washington with Indiana for Myles Turner, sources said. The Hornets made an offer to Los Angeles for Montrezl Harrell while also pursuing Richaun Holmes from the Sacramento Kings, sources said.

Malik Monk's name was involved in both those conversations, but the Kings and Hornets were unable to find a combination of young players and draft assets for Holmes to head East before the deadline. Charlotte is expected to again pursue Holmes in free agency this summer, sources said, where Holmes could seek upward of $20 million in average annual value. 


Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Not landing Holmes also kept Charlotte in the running for Drummond, after Cleveland at last resigned to letting the center walk via buyout. That paperwork was filed to the league around noon ET on Friday, sources said, and Drummond did grant the Hornets an audience afterward.

The premise of playing with a pass-first floor general like LaMelo Ball was a particularly intriguing opportunity for Drummond, sources said. Charlotte brass maintain a hope Ball will return this season from his fractured wrist, and the Hornets could have paired Drummond with the Rookie of the Year favorite for a postseason run before determining whether or how much they'd like to pay Drummond when he reaches free agency this summer. 

He could still end up in Charlotte this summer, when league executives polled by B/R expect the maximum range of Drummond's next deal to be somewhere around Clint Capela's $18 million average annual salary, but perhaps more likely on a contract length similar to Steven Adams' two-year, $35 million extension with New Orleans. 

But Drummond always seemed destined for Los Angeles in the short term (it was as repeated in conversations with league personnel as any rumor ahead of this trade deadline).


The Knicks' Play

New York was also linked ad nauseam to Drummond for its ability to pay the center upward of four years, $64 million right away, rather than the veteran minimum Los Angeles or Boston was offering. Albeit, the Lakers and Celtics presented starting roles on more serious playoff contenders than Tom Thibodeau's upstart at Madison Square Garden. 

There was a faction of New York's front office that wanted to obtain Drummond. But the Knicks ultimately remained focused on maintaining draft capital rather than trading future draft picks for a player they could seemingly add in free agency this offseason. That calculus played a key factor in New York never making an aggressive bid for Victor Oladipo and others, sources said.

Now the question in Manhattan shifts to a potential Knicks playoff push, and what impact that would have on a potential MSG spending spree this summer. There won't be many rivals with significant cap space, and New York is suddenly billing as a true playoff team, with ample marquee room next to Julius Randle. 


Celtics at the Scrap Yard

The Celtics still have an ongoing need to bolster their frontcourt, and Boston showed sustained interest in Drummond during trade conversations with Cleveland. 

Boston did draw Drummond's eye as the center reached waivers at 5 p.m. on Friday. While the Lakers were long considered the favorite to land him on the buyout circuit, skeptics around the league pointed to Los Angeles' crowded rotation as inertia that may have pushed the center to Boston. Drummond even spoke with Celtics guard and fellow UConn product Kemba Walker, whose own name was thrown around in trade conversations prior to the deadline.

Along with Boston's early efforts to land Aaron Gordon, management attempted to trade for Nikola Vucevic alongside Evan Fournier, sources confirmed to B/R.

But as deadline week progressed and the smoke cleared, it seems the Celtics' wavering openness to include Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III in any outgoing package muddied their conversations with the Magic


What It All Means: This Season and Beyond

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

As much as Marc Gasol's subpar contributions helped lead Los Angeles to pursue Drummond, Gasol remains under contract. There remains some speculation from rival executives that he could now come to a buyout agreement with the Lakers.

Harrell already plays an energizer-rebounding role. Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma are typically maximized at the 4 spot. "When they get fully healthy, it's gonna be a logjam," said one assistant general manager. 

But as Cleveland officials can attest, Drummond maintained a keen interest in getting back on the court and seeing a large quantity of minutes. "Drummond wants to play right away," said one executive with knowledge of the situation.

The Lakers are in dire need of Drummond's offensive output as James and Davis linger on the sidelines, and he's prepared to log 30 minutes per night, even after missing over a month of live game action. "His timing might be a little off, but he keeps himself in really good shape," said the aforementioned exec.  

There appears to be a level of transparency on both sides. Drummond's marriage with the Lakers will likely be short-lived. Los Angeles can provide him a platform to contribute for the reigning champions' title defense before he reaches unrestricted free agency. That's a stage that Boston, staring up at Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, seems one or two levels behind.

Players up and down the Lakers roster reached out expressing their want to team with Drummond.

There's still a fair amount of doubt among league personnel whether Drummond can truly impact the Lakers winning games. He's reached only two postseasons, and for all his impressive rebounding accomplishments, the data has always suggested Drummond's bark might be louder than the bite of his numbers.

The 2016-17 Pistons, for example, had a plus-10.5-point differential swing with Aron Baynes on the court compared to a minus-11.6-point swing with Drummond. He has been a net positive on the floor with a 0.3-point swing in 2021, although his doubters in the analytics community are quick to point out metrics that suggest his teams may be better at rebounding when Drummond is on the bench. 

But Drummond has never played in such a contending environment, and the same fit questions apply across the map of this year's other title contenders. Aaron Gordon's experiment in Denver may push the Nuggets to another echelon, or it could disrupt the blooming chemistry Michael Porter Jr. has found alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. The Sixers chose to acquire George Hill rather than pay Toronto's price for Kyle Lowry, although Hill hasn't played since Jan. 24 as he's nursed an ailing right thumb injury.  

Brooklyn famously continues compiling former All-Stars to join its starry triumvirate, and the Nets are being billed as the odds-on favorite for the championship, even with Kevin Durant still sidelined. 

But at this juncture, Brooklyn's strong title chances, and this subsequent arms race around the league—from Drummond in Los Angeles to, lest we forget, Milwaukee adding P.J. Tucker and more reinforcements seeming on the way—all thanks to a certain bearded individual.


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.