Last winter, Knicks brass internally discussed trading for Detroit center Andre Drummond, who had an opt-out clause to become a free agent.
The Knicks weren’t too worried about retaining Drummond if he opted out. The Mount Vernon native, the Knicks believed, probably would want to re-sign with his hometown team.
In fact, then Knicks president Steve Mills is close to Drummond’s family.
Eventually, the Knicks decided against it, committed to a rebuild and center Mitchell Robinson. On Feb. 6, Drummond was dealt to the Cavaliers. He exercised his $28.7 million option for 2020-21, because of the shortened pandemic free agency, and remained in Cleveland.
Flash forward a year later, and the Cavaliers are trying to trade the former UConn star, too, as a rental. They benched the two-time All-Star this week until they commit to a deal.
The Raptors, sources confirm, are in the bidding. But it’s not an easy financial trade with Drummond’s sizable wages.
As Robinson leaves the Hospital for Special Surgery after the operation on his shooting hand, out until mid-to-late March, the Knicks should take a look at Drummond — not just as a rental but as a piece to build around with power forward Julius Randle.
Some members of the Knicks organization aren’t sure Randle and Drummond would make the right fit. Some in the league feel Robinson is a better long-term piece to build around, despite his lack of progress offensively.
Will Robinson continue to evolve into more than just a shot-blocker/rebounder/alley-oop master? The Knicks have a team option for Robinson for next season at $1.8 million, so they can find out on the cheap.
The Knicks still have $15 million of cap space to make a Drummond trade easier mathematically. They’ve stockpiled enough draft capital that some can be spared. There are also two youngsters out of the rotation whom the Cavaliers might have a hankering for — Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina.
If Drummond comes cheaply, what do the Knicks have to lose if they find he and Randle don’t mix?
Coach Tom Thibodeau has squeezed every ounce of talent out of this team. The Knicks were on the verge of the .500 mark in Orlando on Wednesday before their putrid 33-point second half in a 107-89 thrashing.
In truth, the Knicks have overachieved at 14-16, healthier than most clubs this season.
Robinson was the first important casualty and his absence finally hurt them in Orlando. No easy garbage buckets off offensive rebounds, alley-oop slams, momentum-turning blocked shots or key defensive rebounds. New starter Nerlens Noel is a poor man’s Robinson and does everything a little less efficiently.
Mind you, Robinson is not a sure thing as a full-blown starter on a legit playoff team. Rookie lottery pick and power forward Obi Toppin is not a sure thing as a future starter, plucked out of, as one scout said, “a historically bad draft.”
Robinson has been oft-injured because of the reckless — and wonderful — way he plays and battles. He flies around the court, blocking shots at the 3-point line. He broke his hand on a block attempt as he collided with Randle’s elbow on the way down Friday in Washington.
Robinson is an old-school center, and so is the wrecking-ball Drummond, though Drummond’s game is growing at age 27. Robinson’s offensive repertoire has not grown.
Drummond has been a double-double machine for a few years, but now he shoots free throws better (59.7 percent). Scouts say he is one of the few centers who can grab a rebound and push the ball up court. He has ball-handing skills and has become a good passer.
Drummond’s stout numbers have always seemed larger than the overall picture, but he’s averaging 17.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He’s also been very durable across his nine-year career.
According to sources, the Knicks are “sitting tight for now” regarding the center situation. They want to see the Noel-Taj Gibson center tandem play out as they fight for a playoff berth.
Before beating the Knicks, Orlando coach Steve Clifford paid them tribute, saying, “They’d be one of the teams people don’t want to play against. I don’t think there’s a bigger compliment in this league than being hard to play against.”
At some point, team president Leon Rose needs to upgrade their talent level. Orlando routed the Knicks without its best player, Aaron Gordon, key rotation guy James Ennis and starting point guard Markelle Fultz.
Even Jeff Van Gundy said recently that the Knicks “don’t have enough offensive talent.” Meanwhile, the 2021 free-agent class the Knicks were eyeing after a quiet signing period in November has dried up.
Thibodeau wants to win this season — and in the future. The kid from Mount Vernon can help the Knicks do both.