Since the Kevin Love trade went down, it’s not surprising that preseason prognosticators have moved Cleveland to the head of the line in the Eastern Conference. Last week Rob Mahoney of SI.com weighed in with his rankings. His top eight teams are: Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, and New York. Mahoney puts Brooklyn and Indiana in spots nine and ten.
While his estimations of who will finish where all are worthy of discussion, for our purposes his most relevant rating relates to the Pistons:
11. Detroit Pistons – Stan Van Gundy has his work cut out for him in turning this fundamentally weird roster into a playoff contender. That said, it's not outside the range of possibility. Andre Drummond will thrive under the coach who helped make the similarly talented Dwight Howard a star, and there is talent around him even if it doesn't fit just so. There may be no clean resolution to the positional glut of Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, but Van Gundy will best put all involved in a position to succeed. Detroit's growing core of role players (including newcomers Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin) offer more perimeter support, perhaps to the point of better balancing the floor and the Pistons' rotation.
Bringing up the rear are Orlando, Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, according to Mahoney. Detroit finished 11th least season; at 29-53 the Pistons were four games behind the Cavaliers, eight games behind the Knicks, and nine games removed from the final playoff spot. So a fair question to ask is whether the addition of a top-rated new coach and "elite level" three-point shooting can move Motown up in the standings.
Looking at the competition, clearly Cleveland (LeBron James and Love) and Chicago (Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose) appear to have strengthened themselves the most this summer. Washington and Toronto are young teams on the rise. Atlanta will get Al Horford back and Charlotte has added Lance Stephenson. It’s hard to argue with anyone ranking those squads in the top six, though we might disagree on the order.
With the loss of James, everyone expects Miami to drop in the standings, although they added a competent replacement in Luol Deng. The uncertain state of Dwayne Wade’s health is another factor that is difficult to determine. New York lost the heart of its defense in Tyson Chandler, but finally has a competent point guard in Jose Calderon. Brooklyn will have Brook Lopez back. Indiana, reeling from Paul George’s injury and Stephenson’s defection, surely will be dramatically weaker. Can the Pistons move past any of those teams in 2014-15? As Mahoney said, "it's not outside the range of possibility."
The Pacers are the low-hanging fruit that’s ripe for the picking. They need to replace over 35 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists per game from last season’s 56-26 conference finalists. While C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey may help, an Indiana offense that was rated 23rd could easily plummet to the bottom. Their top-rated defense will also miss their two erstwhile starters. I think there is a strong possibility that the Pacers will fall to the 11th spot.
At 44-38, the Nets tied the Wizards for the fifth best record last year. A healthy Brook Lopez could work wonders for their aging roster, which added Jarrett Jack and lost Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston. If Lopez and Deron Williams remain productive and healthy, a modest improvement is foreseeable in Brooklyn. While it may be too much to hope that Detroit can leap past them, we can certainly expect the Nets to contend for the seventh playoff slot.
The Knicks barely missed the 2014 playoffs, but it took a furious 16-5 finish for them to reach 37-45. While many of those victories were over bottom-dwellers, they beat Toronto (twice), Brooklyn and Chicago to close the season. Mahoney believes a new coach (Derek Fisher) and the triangle offense will lead to improvements. But does adding Calderon compensate for subtracting Chandler? Maybe New York’s 11th ranked offense will improve, but their 24th rated defense will suffer. I expect them to be outside the playoff picture again.
The last time James left a contender in the lurch, they fell from 61-21 to 19-63 in a single year. But in Chris Bosh, Deng and Wade there is still a solid core. It’s hard to overestimate the value of a healthy Wade to the Heat’s prospects. He missed 28 games a year ago, averaged the fewest minutes ever in his NBA career, and scored under 20 ppg for the first time since his rookie season. This year’s squad will not be able to "save him" for the playoffs if they hope to make them. Assuming that Wade again misses significant time (he’s never played a full year), Erik Spoelstra will really have to earn his money to lead Miami to a seventh consecutive postseason berth.
The big question mark at the moment is still Monroe’s future, but even if he signs the Qualifying Offer he will remain in the Motor City this season. From all indications, Van Gundy will rotate his three bigs at the two power positions. This should make better use of their respective talents and allow him to make maximum use of new three-point marksmen D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Cartier Martin and Jody Meeks. Drummond could push his way to the head of the pack among the league’s centers, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shows promise in the backcourt. A proven coach like Van Gundy should be able to fashion the Pistons into a contender for a playoff spot, and at least move them up to the ninth spot in the standings.
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