Lakers beat Magic while waiting for Andre Drummond to arrive

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) dunks past Orlando Magic forward James Ennis III (11) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma dunks past Magic forward James Ennis III for two of his 21 points on Sunday night in a win over Orlando. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Andre Drummond posted a photo of himself in a gold Lakers jersey, the signal that he was on his way to a team that needs his help in the worst way.

Later Sunday, the Lakers made his signing official, the first team announcement in months that didn’t include bad news about an injury.

“Andre Drummond gives us powerful, anchor-point skills on both ends of the court,” general manager Rob Pelinka said in a statement. “We feel extremely fortunate to add a player of his caliber and magnitude to our core group at this stage of our journey to defend the NBA title.”

This stage of the Lakers’ journey is about to get interesting if not just flat-out dangerous, the team beating the recently detonated Orlando Magic 96-93 on Sunday night at Staples Center before facing the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. From there, they get into the teeth of their second-half schedule, with games at the Clippers, Miami, Brooklyn, New York and Charlotte all in the next two weeks.

Having Drummond will help. “The list is long of how he’s going to contribute to our group,” coach Frank Vogel said in a postgame videoconference.

The Lakers beat out a handful of suitors to land the 27-year-old, 6-foot-10 center, with the Boston Celtics perhaps the most serious threat to scoop him up. But the Lakers’ desperation — anyone even a little capable of scoring probably has a chance to make an impact — paired with their high goals once healthy gave Drummond a best-of-both-worlds opportunity to showcase his value ahead of free agency this summer while playing for a contender.

“It’s kind of perfect,” forward Markieff Morris said of getting Drummond.

In the short term, Drummond will give the offense a needed boost. He averaged 17.5 points in 25 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season before they bought him out. The Lakers pursued him aggressively, with players including LeBron James and Anthony Davis in on his recruitment.

Big picture, Drummond gives them athleticism and physicality they haven’t had since they let go of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee after last season in favor of Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell. Vogel said he’s spoken with both players about Drummond joining the team.

“We always make sure we overdo communication and be respectful to our players so they know where we’re coming from in everything that we do,” Vogel said in a videoconference before Sunday’s game. “That is the case in this situation, and we’ll keep the nature of those conversations private. But for sure, we’re making sure we’re overcommunicating.”

While Harrell has found his footing as a big-time scorer off the Lakers’ bench — Sunday he had 18 points and 11 rebounds — Gasol has struggled to find rhythm offensively.

Even before contracting COVID-19 and missing nine games, Gasol was having the worst offensive season of a decorated NBA career that’s included three All-Star selections, two All-NBA teams and an NBA championship.

Still, the Lakers have the best defensive rating in the NBA even if things have slipped with Davis and James both out of the lineup, and Gasol’s smarts have played a part in that.

But with so much talent out of the lineup, intangibles have become less valuable as the Lakers simply need production — on Sunday, it came mainly from Dennis Schroder (24 points) and Kyle Kuzma (21) — and Gasol hasn’t given them much. In what could be his final start as he makes way for Drummond, Gasol scored seven points on two-for-seven shooting, making one of five from deep to go with two rebounds and three assists.

And it’s not like Drummond is a mess on defense — he’ll be the Lakers’ best rim protector as soon as he takes the court and he’s always had active hands to get steals.

“We’re going to need them all,” Vogel said of his three centers.

The team likely will practice Tuesday, a chance for him to begin to acclimate before the Lakers’ tough stretch. And the sooner he gets up to speed, the better because it hasn’t been easy against the bad teams lately.

The Lakers have needed two lockdown defensive performances to get their last two wins, with Sunday’s coming thanks to a combination of their defensive pressure and the fact that the Magic’s best players are all on different teams after the trade deadline.

It was a win, which the Lakers needed, but it was harder than it needed to be. And the hope is Drummond can make the hard stuff a little bit easier.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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