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On Andre Drummond, Brook Lopez and player malleability

Not all player evolutions are the same.

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Brook Lopez that exists now — Splash Mountain, Defensive Player of the Year candidate, cornerstone of the Bucks — did not exist a few years ago. In his previous NBA life, Lopez was a lead on a Nets team that wasn’t a real contender. He was picked on by guards driving into the lane, couldn’t protect the rim and all of his offensive work inside the arc. For much of his career, he was an old-school center. But to his credit, Lopez changed and now he’s better than ever. Milwaukee is not Milwaukee without him.

There’s also another seven-footer — Andre Drummond — also wants to change. What he is isn’t exactly what Lopez was. For one, Drummond is a better rebounder and as at least as physically bruising. But, Lopez was also a much better free throw shooter than Drummond ever has been. But Drummond wants to follow the same template: start shooting three-pointers, add value to his game in the modern NBA and help secure a new deal. Remember: Drummond plans to pick up his player option for next year, per the man himself, and then can be a free agent in 2021. Lopez, for the record, went from making $3.3 million in 2018-19 to signing a little under $13 million this year and for the next few. Drummond wants more than that per year, even if he gets less per year than he’s making now, per league sources.

The optimist will say that this is what Drummond should be doing. He’s plateaued as he heads into his late 20s. There are flashes of an evolved Drummond — an athletic big who primarily rim runs and defends the rim, but also blitzes pick-and-rolls and switches — but it’s never there consistently. The area where his offensive game evolved most effective — creating from the elbow — has gone away since he was paired with Blake Griffin. In Cleveland, it could come back, but it’s unclear if it will or if it also comes with him taking three-pointers. There’s certainly an argument that it makes for the Cavs to let him facilitate from the elbow since it’s not really what Kevin Love does anymore and them is otherwise reliant on young guards to create everything.

But there’s a question of really how malleable Drummond is and how far the Cavs should push it. In the few games Drummond has played with the team so far, he freelanced more than he fit. His three-point shooting was on his terms, not within the structure of the Cavs’ offense. It’s not like Drummond was getting pick-and-pop threes in concert with action with Collin Sexton. He just took them when he wanted to.

Notably, Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been publicly indifferent to Drummond taking three-pointers and expanding his game. What expectations that Bickerstaff has Drummond come next season will say a lot about what Drummond the Cavs get. A key selling point of Bickerstaff has a head coach is his ability to relate to players — can he do that with Drummond and get him to do what is best for the Cavs vs. what Drummond wants to?

The numbers also don’t suggest that this particular metamorphosis is possible for Drummond. Lopez, despite never shooting three-pointers before, had always been a good free throw shooter. Good free throw shooting has historically been a good predictor of three-point shooting. Drummond has one season above 60%. And that was by a mere half-percent.

Defensively, Drummond also has a track record of not trying and not using his massive frame to deter shooters. Lopez isn’t the athlete Drummond is, but even the worst version of him moved his feet and tried. Now, he drops and keeps working to deter shooters and make their life harder. Drummond just sags. But, to be fair to Drummond, the Bucks have better defenders and overall structure. But that doesn’t explain all of Lopez’s success — he supports George Hill and Eric Bledsoe as much as they support him. The sample size is admittedly small in Cleveland, but there isn’t a track record for Drummond to work in that way with the Cavs’ young guards. (To be fair, only the elite of the elite rim protectors could solve some of the issues the Cavs have defensively. Even then, it’s hard to know how much.)

Another note: Lopez’s change was him fitting into an ideal role for himself alongside a superstar and on a good team. His role is additive to the Bucks’ identity.

The Cavs, despite Dan Gilbert’s wishes, face a hard path to respectability next season. What Drummond has indicated he wants to do is potentially subtractive, particularly if he launches three-pointers as a consistent part of his offense. Something where he gets to operate out of the elbow, though, could be additive while still allowing him to try and be more. Considering the Cavs are not contenders, some give and take is likely needed.

Generally, player malleability and them trying to expand their game is good. Every young player who wants to make a leap has to do it at some point. Older players need to do it to hang on and extend their careers. Even the elite of the elite add things to their game over time and as the game evolves. Sometimes, it leads to outright unexpected reinvention like Lopez. But it’s worth considering if the change is worth the effort.