Taking stock of how deadline buyouts are fitting in with new squads
How will buyout players like Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond impact their teams down the stretch?
The buyout market gave contenders a chance to grab a missing piece and players an opportunity for a second chance at basketball life, and maybe a first chance at winning big.
So … what’s the result so far, and how will it project in the near future?
Brooklyn was the biggest winner because the Nets had the most to offer: A chance to join a serious title contender and, as an added benefit, live in New York for the summer. It’s a good life if you can get it, to be able to cash out from your former team and maybe cash in with a championship ring.
One of the best buyout players was PJ Brown, who joined the 2008 Celtics just before their playoff run and contributed big in several games, even in The Finals, for the champs. But for the most part, buyout players don’t usually loom large because there’s a reason they were on the buyout market in the first place.
That said, we take stock of the three buyout players this year to examine where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Blake Griffin, Nets: After sacrificing millions to buy his freedom from Detroit, there was only one place and one situation for Griffin to go. Remember, he came up frustratingly short of a championship all those years with the Lob City Clippers, and never had the slightest whiff of a trophy with the Pistons. Therefore he packed his bags, pressed the gas pedal and … no sleep ’til Brooklyn.
Because at this point, what does Griffin lack? He has hundreds of millions in the bank (thank you, Steve Ballmer) and a potential career as a stand-up comic in his future (haven’t you heard?). But on the ring finger, nothing. While there’s no guarantee Griffin will get one with the Nets, being teammates with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving is perhaps his best shot.
Also, because he’s surrounded by those superstars in their prime, Griffin can work in relative silence, rare for a New York pro athlete. He will never be blamed for anything. Nobody will care if he doesn’t dunk with authority or regularity or misses a few games with injuries. The New York tabloids will pretend he doesn’t exist, unless he does something good, and then it’ll be overblown because nobody expects much of him at this stage in his career.
So: It’s the perfect spot.
With no burden to carry, Griffin is free to have fun, knowing that there won’t be any serious ramifications if he fails. Or, if the Nets fail collectively, at least he gave it a try. The good news for him and Brooklyn is Griffin, on occasions, can still deliver results. Not 2012 results. But enough to earn the confidence of his teammates and help the Nets. He still brings a superstar’s determination, which is probably his best asset now that his physical state remains tricky, but without the superstar’s ego. He can contribute defensively. And Griffin is a smart passer, another tool he can lean on with all the Nets’ shooters.
He’s already had a pair of six-assist games, an eight-rebound game and a 17-point game, all in spot duty. Again: Nothing big or flashy, but decent.
Andre Drummond, Lakers: Crazy how a double-digit rebounder who’s just 27 found himself on the open market without a significant rush to sign him. That’s after zero demand on the trade market prior to his buyout.
Such is life in today’s NBA, where low-post players are devalued, especially if they can’t make free throws or own a go-to offensive move or can be defensive liabilities, all of which describe Drummond.
But man, can he rebound. That alone should make him worth the trouble, right?
Evidently the Lakers thought so, and for good reason: Drummond can free Anthony Davis from the dirty work. Really, that’s the main reason, if not the only reason, why the Lakers pounced. AD hates playing center, at least regularly. Also, LeBron doesn’t need to constantly be a presence at the rim, either.
Drummond has yet to play next to those ailing stars, and as a result his flaws are apparent. He can’t shoot efficiently despite taking most shots from close range, or create his own offense. He’s averaging just 10.5 points since joining the Lakers, well below his 14.6 career mark — and again, the Lakers are without their superstars soaking up shots.
“Offensively, this is probably the worst I’ve played in my career,” Drummond said. “I’m still trying to figure it out here. I’m not allowing it to take me out of my game. I know why I’m here, which is to help this team defensively. Offensively, it will come for me.”
Not that anyone is worried. Once the Big Two return, Drummond can play his game and not worry about the rest.
“He’s handled it well,” Kyle Kuzma said, “and it’s an adjustment period, and I think once the two big dogs get back, it’s going to be much, much easier for him because it’s going to be a lot more simplified. And you’ll see some big impact games from him down the road.”
Drummond was also prized by the Lakers because they might see Nikola Jokic and/or Rudy Gobert in the playoffs, and Drummond is an extra body to throw in that direction.
Khem Birch, Raptors: Yes, here’s a strange product of the buyout market, which usually produces aging or declining former stars whose massive contracts are too problematic to keep around. Birch doesn’t fit that description at all.
Birch is a career backup center making the equivalent of loose change in the NBA but was no longer in the plans for the Magic. He’s 28, went undrafted in 2014 and his 5.4 points and 5.1 rebounds this season are career highs.
But life can bring unexpected twists, and it all fell in his favor. As a Canadian, is there any better place to be than Toronto, especially with a Raptors team that’s in transition and searching for new blood? The Raptors are among the worst rebounding teams in the league, and that, along with defense, is what Birch does best. Toronto received poor results from Aron Baynes after signing him to a free agent contract last offseason, and Birch should compete for playing time.
“This is a surreal moment,” he said.
(Editor’s note: This article originally included analysis on LaMarcus Aldridge’s fit in Brooklyn, but that has since been removed after the seven-time All-Star announced his retirement from the NBA.)
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.