The Los Angeles Lakers had 15 active players for their season-ending Game 6 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, and 14 of them saw the court. Some, like LeBron James, played nearly the entire game. Others, like Jared Dudley, Ben McLemore and Alfonzo McKinnie, saw only a single minute of garbage-time action. Only one Laker was held out of the game entirely, and he was a starter for them as recently as Tuesday: Andre Drummond
It was a startling fall from grace for a player whom, as recently as a few days ago, the Lakers appeared devoted to not just for this playoff run, but beyond. "They've been so committed to him being the ceremonial starter, and obviously he gets more than just ceremonial minutes," ESPN's Dave McMenamin said on "The Lowe Post" podcast. "But that seems to be something that is important to Drummond, which makes it important to the Lakers front office because they have signaled to everyone listening that this isn't just a half a season buyout market rental. Andre Drummond's part of the future moving forward with this franchise."
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It's hard to imagine Drummond remaining as part of the future if Frank Vogel can't trust him with a single second of his present, though not for lack of trying. Drummond joined a team with two accomplished centers in place and was immediately force-fed 25.3 minutes per game. They weren't fully unwarranted. As recently as last week, Drummond was contributing positively to the Lakers. He averaged 10.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in Game 2 and 3 Lakers victories. The Lakers won his minutes in those games by 17 combined points. In the right settings, Drummond can be a productive NBA player. He just wasn't the sort that the Lakers ever particularly needed.
Those ceremonial starter minutes came at the expense of a lineup that dominated the early portion of the season. When Marc Gasol started alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. That lineup was broken up through no fault of its own. Davis got hurt. The Lakers panicked. They immediately promised Drummond a job that never should have been open and watched as Gasol slowly pried it back away from him. In an elimination game on Thursday, the Lakers finally reverted back to the unit they started the season with, but in big moments, the Lakers had been leaning on Gasol for weeks.
It was a sensible instinct. Gasol gave the starters sorely-needed spacing. His passing generated off-ball movement in ways that the stagnant dribbling of James and Schroder did not, and while he lacks Drummond's athleticism on defense, he was rarely if ever caught out of position. The team with the best power forward in the NBA needs very little in the way of raw center production, but it needs a complementary skill set out of the position. Drummond's was anything but.
Whether that was a source of friction between the coaching staff and front office is less clear, but Drummond's DNP has the trappings of controversy. The Lakers were outscored by 22 points in the first quarter, split exactly evenly into 11-point increments between Gasol and Montrezl Harrell, yet the Lakers wouldn't give Drummond a look to start the second quarter. Was the decision to keep him out of even garbage time meant to spare him the embarrassment of playing alongside benchwarmers like Dudley and McKinnie in meaningless minutes? It's hard to say, but common sense suggests that a coach who wants someone as his long-term starting center would actually use that player with his season on the line.
The tables have turned now. Drummond once used his leverage as a free agent on the buyout market to extract promised playing time out of the Lakers, but it is the centers whom the Lakers started the season with who are in control now. Harrell has a player option. Gasol, now 36, could simply retire. Neither would likely be too keen on returning if Drummond commands starters minutes again. The pre-Drummond arrangement suited both just fine: Harrell posted big numbers in a high-usage bench role, while the older Gasol was asked to do less playing with starters.
Any of the three centers could be back, but all three of them surely won't be. Harrell's $11 million option may make him the highest-paid of the three, but in terms of opportunity cost, Drummond would be the most expensive to keep. The Lakers have only non-Bird rights on him, and could therefore offer no more than 120 percent of his minimum salary before dipping into their mid-level exception. That's a resource that would be better spent on shooting.
By the end of the series, Vogel seemingly agreed. He started the shooter in Gasol while benching the more traditional Drummond. Whether that portends future changes in the Lakers' frontcourt is unclear, but any promises the team made to Drummond about his role in Los Angeles, now or later, have seemingly been broken. The Lakers doled out playing time on merit in Game 6, and fittingly for the player who was signed to fix a position that wasn't broken, that meant being the only player on the roster held out of their last game entirely.