Although he's also prospering under Stan Van Gundy, don't compare Andre Drummond to the Orlando Magic version of Dwight Howard.
Andre Drummond is not Dwight Howard.
It seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Sure, there are superficial similarities — size, strength, mobility, awkwardly robotic post moves, ferocious rebounding, and atrocious free throw shooting. But at this moment, separated in age by seven years, there are significant differences. Even if you travel back in time for a hypothetical comparison, young Dwight and young Drummond don’t quite line up.
This fact is important because of the roster construction and style of play of the Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard with the Orlando Magic for five seasons (including a Finals berth in 2009), is currently the general manager and head coach of Drummond’s Pistons. As Van Gundy has steadily made over the roster, swapping out bulk for shooting in the frontcourt, the implication is that he’s trying to create a carbon copy of his Magic teams that spread the floor with four shooters around Howard.
Early returns this season have been promising — a 106–94 win at the Atlanta Hawks on opening night, followed by a 92–87 home win against the Utah Jazz — and Drummond has been beastly, totaling 36 points and 29 rebounds through the two games. The shooters have been doing their jobs, as well; Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilysaova and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are a combined 13 of 27 on three-pointers. On the surface, everything has been, well, magic.
If you dig deeper, though, there are trends that undermine the comparison.
In their matchup with the Hawks, Detroit repeatedly pounded the ball in the post to Drummond, trying to leverage his size and strength advantage over Al Horford. As a result, according to NBA.com, the Pistons already have finished 14 possessions with Drummond in the low post. The bad news: they produced a grand total of four points (which partly explains Drummond’s 40.7 field goal percentage thus far).
That’s a terrible rate of return, but one that falls regrettably in line with the big man’s track record. Last season, Drummond averaged 0.69 points per possessions on post-ups, ranking in the 22nd percentile across the entire league. He shot 38% on those chances, turned it over on 10.5%of his opportunities, and went to the free throw line 11.5% of the time (where his 38.9 free throw percentage comes into play). Given that he totaled just 55 assists all of last season, it’s hard to argue that, at present, calling a straight post-up for Drummond is typically much more than a wasted opportunity.
This was not the case with Howard when he was at the center of Van Gundy’s offense in Orlando. Midway through the 2009–10 season (the year after they went to the Finals) Howard was averaging 0.97 points per possession on post-ups. As Zach Lowe noted in a 2013 piece at Grantland, Howard’s numbers eventually declined dramatically, but when he was the one in the middle of Van Gundy’s four-out masterpiece, he was a reliable option to score moderately efficiently and bend the defense. Drummond decidedly is not that and, as Jonathan Tjarks noted at RealGM, every time he is allowed to work in the post, Detroit likely is forgoing something that is better.
When you take away his post-up opportunities, Drummond becomes a hyper-efficient dunking and rebounding machine. It’s probably too soon in his career to put a ceiling on his game, but taking some of those shots away is an ace in the hole that Van Gundy can use at anytime to instantly increase the value of his best player.
There’s an interesting sidebar here, though. Drummond actually is much better in the post against a mismatch. Since his current post-up advantages center around size and strength rather than refined skill, the more those advantages are present the better off he is. At Nylon Calculus, Seth Partnow ran post-up numbers for big men, and found that Drummond shot 63.9% on post-ups against smaller players. Against other centers, he shot just 48.1%, the eighth-lowest mark in the sample.
Drummond is still just 22 years old, and part of the rationale for feeding him post-up opportunities is helping him develop that part of his skill set. But in terms of maximizing effectiveness for the playoff run the Pistons are pitching to themselves and their fans, Drummond probably should not be touching the ball unless he’s collecting it off the glass or about to put it in the basket. That means spending time lurking on the baseline, screening in the pick-and-roll, and only posting against obvious mismatches. Van Gundy’s Orlando teams had that extra wrinkle of being able to contort the defense with Howard on the low block when the situation called for it.
Those Magic were also elite defensive squads, in large part because of Howard’s rim protection. Right now, Drummond’s rim protection abilities rank as very good, but his overall defensive impact doesn’t appear dramatic by estimates like ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. We don’t have very good statistics for measuring Howard’s impact back then, but he did win Defensive Player of the Year for three consecutive years. Drummond is not on that tier yet.
Detroit’s defense has been very good so far, driven by strong performances on the defensive glass; they’ve given up a grand total of 11 offensive rebounds in two games. Still, their other metrics are decidedly average, and they’ve benefited from the Hawks and Jazz only making 25.6% of their three-point attempts in the two games against the Pistons — the eighth-lowest mark in the league. We’ll need more evidence before accepting that Detroit’s D is as good as it has looked thus far.
On the plus side, Drummond seems to be free of Howard’s desire to be considered a primary scoring option. So if and when Van Gundy decides to trade short-term interests for long-term ones — gaining efficiency by reducing Drummond’s opportunities to learn on the job in the post — it’s hard to imagine Drummond whining or pouting. Whatever he lacks in abilities as compared to Peak Howard, he seems to make up for in self-awareness. And whatever Detroit loses in versatility from their “one-in” is offset by they versatility they gain from their “four-out.” Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis were unique snowflakes, as are Ersan Ilyasova and Morris. Reggie Jackson appears to have far more in his bag of tricks than Jameer Nelson ever did.
Van Gundy has taken some structural elements from those Orlando teams, mirroring those rosters to some degree, but for this Pistons team to reach its ceiling, it also has to find the places it is different, and lean into them. Detroit has 80 games left to chase the playoffs and build its identity. Drummond is not Howard, and these Pistons are not those Magic. They do, though, have a chance to be something unique, and maybe even better.