SAN FRANCISCO — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ no-brainer decision to acquire Jarrett Allen last month signaled the end for Andre Drummond. Just a matter of how and when.
The same happened one year earlier with Tristan Thompson, who eventually left for Boston in free agency. No midseason trade. No buyout. Thompson finished the coronavirus-shortened campaign in Cleveland and then signed a two-year deal with the Celtics as an unrestricted free agent.
Drummond won’t last that long. Following a lengthy conversation between general manager Koby Altman, Drummond and agent Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports on Sunday afternoon, the sides mutually agreed to have Drummond sit while the front office looks for a trade. Drummond rested in Los Angeles and will do the same Monday night against the Golden State Warriors.
The NBA trade deadline is still more than a month away. Sources say the Cavs have actually received calls on all three of their centers. But only two — Drummond and JaVale McGee — are available. For the right price, of course.
Even before coming to this decision regarding Drummond, the Cavs had done their homework on potential suitors and are aware of which teams fit the general framework of a deal that could require some creativity — or a third team to help facilitate.
On one side: Teams with the contracts to make it work financially. On the other side: Teams who would be interested in the talented two-time All-Star who isn’t the easiest stylistic fit. Finding the intersection of those teams is key. It’s also tougher than some may realize.
Drummond makes a lot of money. His salary number for this season is $28.7 million. Per NBA rules, contracts essentially need to match, with a tiny bit of wiggle room when it comes to incoming and outgoing salaries. Most players around his cap number are either really good — and therefore aren’t available — or are overpaid and unappealing. The glut of the mammoth deals signed in the frenetic summer of 2016 have evaporated.
At one point this season, the Cavs weren’t fully committed to moving on from Drummond, believing it was possible to work through any issues and push for a playoff spot. But it became abundantly clear over the last few weeks that platooning two starter-quality centers wasn’t in the best interest of anyone. Cleveland’s play deteriorated, Drummond’s frustration built and teammates started believing one had to go. It wasn’t going to be Allen, the better-fitting center. He’s the future. And the future is now.
Drummond, an impending free agent, was always the most expendable piece — provided the Cavs didn’t feel he was needed to stay competitive.
Now the Cavs are faced with another question: Are they open to taking on future money? This answer could determine the kinds of offers they receive. Sources say the Cavs would prefer not to go into multiple years with bad contracts, keeping a cleaner cap sheet for the impending Collin Sexton and Allen extensions, but are open-minded to the possibility if the asset (draft pick or player) is tempting enough to justify a restricted future cap.
Perhaps there’s a situation where they like that high-priced piece. In the recent trade with Brooklyn, Taurean Prince was the “bad money.” Not only did the Cavs get a quality asset (Allen) in that maneuver, but they were also fine taking Prince’s dumped contract because he was going to slot into their rotation.
“If they’re open to taking on future money, they could get a good first-round pick,” an opposing executive told cleveland.com. “If they’re only targeting expirings, the compensation drops to maybe a late first or maybe multiple seconds. With such a large contract, the options will be limited but the talent is still worth something to a team that needs a big.”
In any hypothetical swap, start with teams that need frontcourt help. Contenders aren’t the only options either. A year ago, the Cavs — a rebuilding team headed for the lottery — pre-spent their cap space to acquire Drummond, believing he would opt into his contract for the 2020-21 season. The Atlanta Hawks, near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings at the time, sent a pair of first-round picks to Houston for building block Clint Capela. It’s possible a bad team wants to sign Drummond in free agency this coming summer and sees value to obtaining his Bird rights or bringing him in for a two-month trial period.
Nonetheless, given his contract situation, a team with playoff aspirations is most logical.
The Nets sending away Allen left them thin at center. Over the last two weeks, they’ve signed Norvel Pelle and Noah Vonleh, hoping one or both can be a viable short-term helper alongside starter DeAndre Jordan. Not likely. While the need is clear, Brooklyn doesn’t have the pieces to make a deal happen — unless it is willing to include sharpshooter Joe Harris, who isn’t eligible for a trade until March 2, and is a needed piece around Brooklyn’s Big Three.
Other than Harris, who would be appealing to Cleveland?
A hypothetical non-Harris deal would have to start with injured 27-year-old combo guard Spencer Dinwiddie and his $11.4 million contract. That leaves the Nets around $17 million short. The Cavs don’t have any interest in Jordan and the $30 million he’s owed through 2022-23. For them — or any other team — to take Brooklyn’s starting center, who is very close to Irving and Durant by the way, it would require an asset as a deal sweetener. Well, the Nets already unloaded a plethora of those in the James Harden blockbuster. It’s why Brooklyn is desperately hoping for a Drummond buyout — even though a source called the buyout notion “absolutely ridiculous” and said there have been no conversations about that.
The Raptors attempted to replace Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol with Aron Baynes and Alex Len — a pair of signings that have flopped. Len was released in early January. Given Toronto has raw but intriguing Chris Boucher, who has seen an uptick in minutes and production, it’s fair to wonder how much his recent rise could alter the Raptors’ view of their center spot.
Any deal would have to start with Baynes, who became trade eligible last weekend. Baynes plus starting swingman Norman Powell, old Cavalier Patrick McCaw and reclamation project Stanley Johnson gets there salary wise. One problem: A four-for-one deal means the Cavs would be waiving a player they like.
Baynes would fill backup center minutes. Powell slides into the open roster spot. McCaw and Johnson put them two above the max. The Cavs could cut Dean Wade, who is on a non-guaranteed deal, but their power forward position is currently dire. The number of players coming back makes this one complicated.
There’s also this: Even though a Powell trade seems inevitable given his contract (player option for the 2021-22 season) and expected pay raise, can’t the Raptors find a better trade? Powell is a 27-year-old swingman who is averaging career-highs in scoring (16.3 points) and 3-point percentage (42.4%).
“That’s a pipe dream,” a Western Conference executive said while laughing when the hypothetical Drummond-Powell deal was brought up.
Well, what if the Cavs try to sweeten the package with Cedi Osman, who sources say could also be had? That would give Toronto playable depth on the wing at a more reasonable salary number than what Powell will soon be looking at. Putting Osman’s $8.8 million in there would force the inclusion of another team.
A source with knowledge of the Mavericks’ thinking suggested Kevin Love as a much better fit given the team’s 3-point woes and desire to surround MVP candidate Luka Doncic with shooters. Love would also help boost Dallas’ problematic defensive rebounding metrics. Still, the Mavericks have two appealing expiring contracts — Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18 million) and James Johnson ($16 million) — that would help facilitate a deal.
San Antonio Spurs
The chances of the Spurs being interested in riding the Drummond rollercoaster are slim. They’re included on this list because they have five expiring contracts to make the salary match, have overachieved at the start of the season and LaMarcus Aldridge has been a disaster.
Drummond doesn’t fit into the massive $28.5 million trade exception. But Boston’s path to the NBA Finals is blocked by some talented bigs and they may need to bolster the interior. The smart Celtics could work cap gymnastics, acquiring a bulky salary with their trade exception before flipping that player to Cleveland in a separate deal for Drummond.
Sixth in the Eastern Conference, having already spent big money to acquire Gordon Hayward this past offseason, the Hornets could be in go-for-it mode. Drummond would fill a need at center, the weakest position on Charlotte’s roster. But does he fit alongside a team that already has ball-dominant, high-usage guards? If Charlotte wouldn’t be willing to part with Terry Rozier, it would have to attempt a quantity-based deal with Cody Zeller and his $15.4 million expiring deal as the linchpin.
Perhaps there’s an argument the Wizards aren’t nearly as bad as the record shows because of battles with COVID and postponements. If Washington feels that way, Drummond could slot in nicely on a team that lost Thomas Bryant to injury and has been piecing together the frontcourt since. The Cavs swallowing Davis Bertans’ regrettable deal that extends five years would put them into salary cap hell.
Any chance the Kings have buyer’s remorse with Buddy Hield, their highest-priced player who was given a contract extension last season and was once seen as a building block? That’s what a Hield-Drummond swap would be. The Kings could use Drummond to chase a postseason berth and let him walk as a free agent, clearing room to sign someone else this summer or in preparation for the De’Aaron Fox contract extension to kick in. The Cavs would get a 40% career 3-point shooter — a piece this team desperately needs, adding expensive Hield to the growing young core.
Chicago has Otto Porter Jr.’s expiring deal that aligns. Portland needs help at center too.
More than a year ago, the market for Drummond was chilly. The Detroit Pistons wanted a first-round pick. They ended up with two expiring contracts (Brandon Knight and John Henson) to go with a future second-rounder. Even though the circumstances are a bit different with Drummond heading into free agency, that kind of package may be Cleveland’s best hope.
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