LeBron James caught the pass on his way to the basket Friday night, about to convert the Lakers’ dreams into reality. Yes, Andre Drummond’s short time with his new team has been up and down, but none of it truly mattered until he could slide in next to James.
That moment was now.
Early in the first quarter of their first start together, James wrapped a pass around a Sacramento defender into Drummond’s hands for an easy dunk. Except, when it comes to Drummond finishing around the basket, it’s never that easy.
This time, the Lakers’ starting center tried to fire home a one-handed dunk from the side, but threw it over the rim toward the Lakers bench instead of into the hoop.
With one airballed dunk, the challenges and realities of the Lakers’ immediate future came into clear focus — can this team come together and make one another better, or are their flaws doomed to follow them into the future?
While Drummond rebounded to finish with 17 points on seven-of-11 shooting, easy buckets need to be easy points, especially as the stakes get higher. With seconds left in the Lakers’ loss to Sacramento, James tried to win the game with a three-point shot. Had the Lakers had those two points from an uncontested dunk ….
Players miss shots over the course of a game, sometimes easy ones they should make. Friday, Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed all 10 of their three-point attempts. Drummond’s misses just happened to come close to the basket, where players of his size and position are usually proficient.
The good news is that since he joined the Lakers, Drummond’s been better than he was earlier this season, adding nearly six points to his field-goal percentage. Still, for this season only Zion Williamson is taking more shots within five feet of the basket than Drummond. Of the centers who take at least four close-range shot per game, no one makes them less frequently than Drummond.
The numbers, which have crept up in Drummond’s 12 games with the Lakers, are still pedestrian for centers. He’s making 57.7% from less than five feet since joining the Lakers. For context, Miami’s Bam Adebayo is making 69.2% over that same stretch and Rudy Gobert is converting 82.2%.
This couldn’t have been a surprise to the Lakers when they signed Drummond — it’s pretty high up on his scouting report. And despite the deficiency, he’s an elite rebounder with hands as active on defense as any big man in the league.
The bet was that by reducing Drummond’s role and giving him supreme talents in James and Anthony Davis around him, the Lakers could erase some of these shortcomings.
“He makes the game very easy for everybody,” Drummond said after his first game with James. “I feel like he sees everything. He’s like a quarterback, so having him out there’s been really fun — my first game being on the same side as him. It’s definitely been a great learning experience for me, I’m looking forward to being on the court with him more to do better things.”
Drummond mentioned to James about his pick-and-roll preferences during Friday’s game — a good sign about Drummond’s willingness to adjust and a grim reminder of just how little time he’s spent on the court with James.
Figuring out how to best use Drummond is just one of the questions the Lakers will have to handle in their final two weeks of the regular season, nine games that begin with the Toronto Raptors of Tampa Bay visiting Staples Center on Sunday.
Against the Kings, the Lakers showed that they have other options at center beyond Drummond. Marc Gasol, filling in for a shaken up Montrezl Harrell (he took an inadvertent elbow to the face), starred during a first-half stint where the Lakers outscored Sacramento by 12.
Coach Frank Vogel used his best option — Davis sliding over to play center — to close the game. Figuring this all out can muddle things quite a bit. Combined with stars shaking off rust, some of the over-passing that comes when players return with adjusted roles, all the changes resulted in a loss to the Kings — who played without point guard De’Aaron Fox and got just two points from Buddy Hield, who averages 16.5.
“We can learn a lot in our losses,” James said. “We got to continue to get better. We’re working in two new pieces in Drummond and Ben [McLemore] and we’re also working in two new pieces that were already here, in myself and AD, to the fold. So every opportunity … we got to get better from that.”
When: 7 p.m., Sunday
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, NBA TV; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: Every game is a big game for the Lakers with the possibility of the play-in tournament looming with every loss. Life, though, should be easier with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the court together for the second straight game and the Lakers’ roster nearing total availability. Toronto comes to Los Angeles on the second night of back-to-back games, having to deal with the Jazz in Utah on Saturday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.