The last time the Pistons made the postseason was the forgettable Allen Iverson-led, eighth seed, 39-win team from 2009, which got trounced in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since then, the Pistons have been an afterthought on the NBA’s radar, only making national news when hiring a new coach (seemingly) every offseason.
Fortunately, the last coach the Pistons hired appears to be working out.
By any standard, Stan Van Gundy has done a remarkable job reforming this roster into a team that can compete for a spot in the playoffs. Although optimism is high entering the season, it’s going to take a lot more than happy thoughts to get back into the postseason mix. The Eastern Conference is going to be very competitive, especially for the last three playoff spots, the location of a best-case scenario Pistons team. If the Pistons perform the way we think they can, this season could be very fun and we want to follow the playoff chase all year.
Below is a quick introduction to the Eastern Conference, and each week there will be news and notes that could sway the playoff chase one way or another.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Yep, no shock here. The Cavs are the odds-on favorite to come out of the East despite injuries heading into the season to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and the (interesting? odd?) holdout from Tristan Thompson. Excluding a seismic free agency haul (i.e. Kevin Durant to the East), as long as employee No. 23 is on the Cavs payroll, they will continue to be the favorites in the East for the next three to four years. From the Pistons point of view, this isn’t necessarily bad news. It’s going to take time for the Pistons to gel but the growth of the Jackson-Johnson-KCP-Drummond core should coincide nicely with an aging LeBron James. It’s Van Gundy's job to make sure the Pistons are in the best possible position to capitalize on an Eastern Conference post-Lebron.
Chicago Bulls – It took all of one day in training camp before Derrick Rose found himself on the injury report with a fractured eye socket. 2011 MVP Rose was scary, but does that player exist anymore? Probably not, but with the emergence of two-way star Jimmy Butler, the Bulls are still a formidable contender. New coach Fred Hoiberg has his hands full with the Rose/Butler power struggle dynamic and finding a place for oft-injured big man Joakim Noah. If the stars align, the Bulls could make a run at the NBA Finals, but it's now or never for this roster.
Most intriguing team
Milwaukee Bucks - The Bucks' roster is filled with youth, length and athleticism that should successfully translate on the defensive side of the ball, but the other end of the floor is another question. In a league that puts a premium on shooting, the Bucks have little of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo is all arms and legs but supremely talented and trending upwards. Jabari Parker is recovering from a torn ACL that abbreviated his promising rookie year. Former Piston Greg Monroe adds a post threat while former Piston Khris Middleton looks to space the floor. The Bucks made an appearance in the playoffs last year and hope to build on that success. Finding the balance between offense and defense on this roster should be fun to follow.
Best glue guy no one is talking about
Having a stretch four is cool. Having a play-making four is even cooler. Hello Josh McRoberts. The borderline journeymen found a niche in Charlotte during the 2013-14 season and parlayed that into a free agent contract with the Miami Heat during the summer of 2014. He spent most of last season on the shelf with a bum knee, only participating in 17 games. McBob can do a little of everything, highlighted by his ability to pass. Playing facilitator for the Heat is going to be a key to their success and if needed, he can step beyond the arc to space the floor. The Heat are going to be fun to watch and Josh McRoberts is going to be a reason why.
Most intriguing rookie
Getting booed on draft day can't feel good, but Kristaps Porzingis handled it well. The boo birds were in full force after the Knicks took the 7'1 Latvian unknown with the fourth overall selection. Comparisons to Detroit Pistons draft day bust Darko Milicic are lazy, but inevitable as the need to compare lengthy, white Europeans is too easy to pass up. The Knicks have a long way to go before they reach respectability and the need to win now doesn't exist, which is why 'Zingis landed in the perfect spot. The triangle offense endears itself to unselfish bigs who aren't afraid to make decisions with the ball. The rook should expect to see 20 - 24 minutes per game. If he earns more, those boo birds will need to send an apology.
Faces in new places
DeMarre Carroll, Toronto – The Pistons made a run at the three-and-D specialist during the free agency period but eventually lost out to the Six. Carroll joins a team led by (suddenly svelte) Kyle Lowry that fizzled last year, losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. At this point in his career, DeMar DeRozan is what he is: An athletic volume shooter who has hit his ceiling (which isn’t a knock). The evolution of center Jonas Valanciunas continues as the pump fake specialist always seems to give the Pistons fits. Playing in the worst division in professional basketball, We the North should be playoff bound.
Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin, Charlotte – The
Hornets Bobcats Hornets took a step back last year and lost starting forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (torn labrum) for the season before it even started. Say what you want, but I like Jeremy Lin. He can get to the rack and score off the bounce. He’s not as good as he played during Linsanity, but he’s definitely not as bad as his time with the Los Angeles Lakers. Batum is sold as a five-tool player who is looking to up his stock heading into 2016 free agency. Al Jefferson is an old school, on the block post player who lumbers up and down the court. Take note Pistons fans, Charlotte should be in the lower seed playoff mix.
David Lee and Amir Johnson, Boston – Lee makes the cross-country trip from the Bay Area to the rebuilding Celtics. Johnson is a former Piston and was a Toronto fan favorite. Both players figure to play a role but with Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk already on the roster, the minutes at power forward could get dicey. Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas make for a speedy backcourt, but the star of this team is coach Brad Stevens. Boston was the eighth seed last year and should only improve.
Much has been made about Indiana Pacers forward Paul George moving to the four spot in an effort to maximize small ball. In the end, the fuss is going to be much ado about nothing. George is an elite perimeter defender and the Pacers are going to utilize that talent accordingly. Once in while he might have to bang down low but it is basketball. Such is life.
John Wall runs the show in Washington, but with the departure of Paul Pierce to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Wizards are banking on Otto Porter continuing his strong play late last year to fill the void. Rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. is probably a couple years away from contributing.
The Atlanta Hawks won 60 games last year. Considering the uptick of talent within the Eastern Conference, yeah, that’s not happening again. They’ll max out at around 52 wins. A solid team from top to bottom but they won't repeat as the number one seed. Backup PG Dennis Schroder should make a bigger name for himself this year.
Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta and Toronto all figure to be playoff teams. That leaves Washington, Milwaukee, Boston, Indiana, Charlotte, Detroit and even Orlando making a case for the final three spots. Yep, this is going to be tough. Heading into the 2015-16 season, the aim for the Pistons should be to simply make the playoffs. Any postseason play, even a first round sweep, would be a step in the right direction.
Unique to professional sports, the NBA typically employs a certain price to be paid for teams building organically before a team can truly be considered a championship contender. Team X makes the playoffs, gains playoff experience and builds off that experience until hopefully, they're crowned champions a couple seasons down the road. The Pistons should look to start that process this year.