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Sorry ESPN, Pistons now top contender to Cavs in East

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Following Cleveland's dismantling of the Toronto Raptors and LeBron James' 6th straight trip to the NBA Finals, the Pistons will be next in line to challenge the King for Eastern Conference supremacy.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the NBA playoffs are hitting the home stretch, we’re beginning to remember how super-talented teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers can take their game to another level in the postseason.

As much as I despise LeBron James and his minions (and as much as I loathe the NBA lottery luck that has afforded that franchise an embarrassment of riches), they’re playing amazing basketball. More significantly for Pistons fans, the Cavs are showing just how wide the gap is between the top dog in the East and everyone else.

With all due respect to the Toronto Raptors for winning two games against Cleveland, true contenders don’t find themselves down 65-34 at halftime in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals (although they do sometimes throw a bad inbounds pass that's intercepted by the opposing team's best player to blow it in the final seconds, but hey, at least it was close).

The Raptors lost four games to the Cavs by an average of 28.5 ppg. By contrast, the Pistons lost four to the Cavs by an average of 8.5 ppg.

There is currently no clear challenger to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference. Not this year. And perhaps not next year, either.

And while national "experts" may not yet be convinced that the Pistons are on the path to contention, there's good reason to suspect those writers are wrong once again.

Given what we’ve seen so far in the playoffs, it’s pretty hard not to be excited about the Detroit Pistons, or even to dream about an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against The LeBrons in 2017 or 2018.

[Cue the Kool-Aid memes]

2015-16 Gives More Reasons for Optimism

Last offseason, I made some bold predictions about the Pistons, but I’m proud to say that I laced my Kool-Aid with facts (along with a just a dash of unsupported speculation). While many on DBB were lamenting the Pistons missing out on free agents like DeMarre Carroll and Danny Green (not to mention allowing a mighty Moose to leave the reservation) and forecasting doom and gloom, I looked at the final third of the 2014-15 season and saw a lot of reasons for optimism.

So now, even before the NBA draft and free agency, I’m going to look at the final third of this past season and construct a case for more optimism in 2016-17.

But for some perspective, let’s first take a look at that Piston team before the Tobias Harris trade.

The Ghost Face Era and the Bench of Death

The pre-Tobias Pistons were 27-27. While they didn’t perform as well as I expected prior to the season, anyone who watched the games knew the primary reason they struggled - the bench (cue thunderstorm & witch-cackling sound fx). In fact, the starting five that included Ersan Ilyasova consistently posted one of the top plus/minus ratings in the entire NBA.

I noticed it during the very first game of the year against the Hawks. Watching from Philips Arena in Atlanta, I saw the Pistons build a nice lead before Reggie Jackson went to the bench, saw Dennis Schroder blow past Steve Blake like a statue at least 3-4 times for uncontested layups as the lead diminished, and then saw Jackson and the starters return to expand the lead before halftime.

The bench struggles were in large part due to the prolonged absence of Brandon Jennings and horrible early play by an aging, out of shape, post-concussion Blake. And while Blake’s play improved shortly before Jennings returned, the lack of playmaking on the second unit routinely cost the Pistons leads (and wins) during that first third of the season.

Also missing from the bench unit was key reserve Jodie Meeks. And in part because Anthony Tolliver and Reggie Bullock struggled (he damn near redefined the word "struggle") early, that second unit had an awful time scoring points. In Jennings and Meeks, the Pistons were without $14 million worth of talent. Add in the $5 million they were still paying to He Who Will Not Be Named and that’s almost $20 million of dead money. And it showed.

So while the team merely played .500 ball for two-thirds of the season, injuries (and the Ghost of Bad Decisions Past) were a primary reason they failed to rise in the standings. And while Meeks never returned and Jennings was traded, the upgrade from Ilyasova to Harris turned them into a much stronger team down the stretch.

The Tobias Harris Era

Much as with the post-deadline, Reggie Jackson-infused Pistons from the previous season, the most important statistics (when predicting future production) from this recent squad are those culled from the Tobias Harris-infused Pistons, and those numbers look good.

That team collectively put up a post-ASB line of 45/36/71 (yep, even with Drummond bringing down the FT%).

The starters all averaged between 14-18 points per game.

When the Pistons traded for Jackson, they sacrificed most of their outside shooting in Kyle Singler, D.J. Augustin and Jonas Jerebko (in the deal for Tayshaun Prince). Subsequently, they struggled to score until they were able to find true replacements for those players in the offseason.

Similarly, the Pistons sacrificed their best bench PG to bring in Harris, and then played the remainder of the season without a true backup for Jackson.

But even with a weak second unit that lacked a true backup PG or PF, and even with Stanley Johnson’s injury and shooting struggles after returning, the Pistons went 17-11 in the THE (Tobias Harris Era). If you want to get extra excited, remember that two of those losses took place before Harris became a starter (with Anthony Tolliver’s injury expediting that move), so that starting five was actually 17-9.

That team routinely had five starters in double figures and Harris seemed to fit perfectly, without the typical adjustment period that comes from integrating a new player into the starting lineup.

If you're looking to pee in the Kool-Aid, you could point out (as David Mayo recently did) that a couple of those wins came against Thunder and Cavaliers teams that were resting their stars (although so did the Pistons against the Cavs). But even that doesn't dramatically change the outlook. Maybe they go 16-10 if Durant and Westbook play.

Poised to Rise in the East

As for how they compared with other teams after the ASB, five teams in the East posted better records - Cleveland (19-11), Toronto (21-9), Atlanta (17-10), Charlotte (21-8) and Miami (19-10). But all of those teams (except Cleveland) have very big questions to answer during free agency, and all could take a step back next year. Toronto could lose DeMar DeRozan, Atlanta could lose Al Horford, Charlotte could lose Nic Batum, Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and/or Marvin Williams, Miami could lose Hassan Whiteside and/or Dwyane Wade.

The average age of the Pistons' core players (the starters plus Stanley Johnson) is 23. To put that in perspective, Kyrie Irving (24) is the youngest player on the Cavs’ roster, and the average age of their top six guys (starters plus Matthew Dellavedova) is 27.

The average age of Toronto’s top six was 26. Every single East playoff team’s top six guys… Atlanta (28), Miami (31), Charlotte (28), Indiana (28) and even Boston (25)… they’re all significantly older than the Pistons, and all will face some sort of retooling this offseason. You might say that Boston isn’t much older, but a difference of two years works out to an additional 12 years of NBA experience overall.

To make it even more clear, who would you take in a series - this year’s Raptors, or the 2019 Pistons? This year’s Celtics, or the 2018 Pistons? This year’s Cavs, or the 2020 Pistons?

That just puts into perspective how young, competitive and talented this core group already is. They’re damn close to being a 50-win team right now. And they’re all going to get better during the next 3-5 years. If other franchises in the East aren’t scared now, they will be soon.

Because the Pistons have (or will soon have) their top guys locked in for several years, they have a huge advantage over teams that need to replace aging players with younger ones, sign or acquire additional starters or simply convince their own guys to re-sign.

More Improvement is Coming

While there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement with the starting unit (on both offense and defense), improvement is exactly what you’d expect given their youth and relative lack of familiarity with each other.  Remember, two of the five starters (Jackson and Marcus Morris) were playing their first full season as starters, and one other only played a third of the season with them. The two remaining guys - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Andre Drummond - are both young works-in-progress.

And yet the Pistons played the Cavs tougher than anyone else in the East. Every game was competitive into the fourth quarter, the Pistons held the lead much of the way (even on the road) and Cleveland needed (and made) some huge hero ball shots to put them away. They played the Cavs so tough, in fact, that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to watch these games while vacationing in France. I just couldn’t pull myself away from the iPad (or the wine and baguettes).

It looked to many like the most competitive sweep of an NBA playoff series in a very long time, and in my opinion that’s because the Pistons weren’t really an eighth seed.  Much like the Pistons who finished the previous season were better than their 32-50 record (they were 27-27 without you-know-who), the squad that finished out this season was better than its 44-38 record. In fact, a bit of simple math says the THE Pistons project as a 50-win team through a full season. And that’s with Steve Blake running the bench unit.

And as we’ve seen during the Cavs' subsequent stomping of Atlanta and Toronto, the Pistons played the Cavs more like a 50-win team (with no playoff experience, of course).

Aside from the expected improvement of their young core group due to experience and increased familiarity, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower are expected to use their boatload of cap space to sign a potent backup PG and draft or sign a big man who can play and defend at PF/C (maybe Domantas Sabonis will be our younger, healthier Donatas Motiejunas).

There’s always the possibility that the Pistons will trade their first round draft pick and/or a role player to add a significant player as well.

Given the strength of this past season’s starting unit, a bench that merely holds onto leads (let’s not yet dream of reserves who can build a lead of their own) should push the Pistons into the upper-tier of the Eastern Conference and help them win a playoff series or two.

And let’s not forget it’s becoming very likely that Adam Silver will change the Hack-A-Dre rule, which won’t end Andre’s FT struggles, but should at least help him stay on the court late in games and prevent opposing teams from exploiting his weakness to the extent we saw this past season. I see that adding a couple wins as well (I’m looking at you, J.J. Redick and Mike Budenholzer).

While I’ll wait for offseason trades and signings before making a firm projection, I’m already looking forward to seeing the Vegas over/under on season wins for next year’s Pistons. At this point, anything less than 45 wins would be very tempting.

Just imagine what that 17-9 record (with Harris as a starter) would have looked like with Jeremy Lin or Matthew Dellavedova running the second unit, passing to a healthy(!?!) Jodie Meeks (or Reggie Bullock), Stanley Johnson, Donuts-like PF and Aron Baynes during that stretch.

Think they’d have won a couple more games? 19-7, maybe? 20-6? Even an 18-8 record works out to a .692 winning percentage, which equals a 56 or 57-win season.

[chokes on Kool-Aid]

Just imagine what that Cavs series would have looked like with the bench described above (well, besides confusing, with Dellavedova playing for both teams). I’d see the Pistons realistically winning two games in that series.

In summary, here are the reasons our Pistons should be second only to the Cavs in the 2016-17 Eastern Conference:

  • Starting unit already proved successful for nearly 1/3 of a season
  • Six core players should all improve or maintain level of production
  • Team cohesion will improve due to familiarity with teammates and system (better defense and more efficient offense)
  • Offseason additions will greatly improve bench play and take pressure/minutes off starters
  • Hack-A-Dre will likely be eliminated or marginalized by rule change(s)
  • Other East teams are older and may lose key players to FA (*Boston a likely exception)

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Last year, I thought the Pistons had a ceiling of about 50 wins, but reaching that ceiling depended on some "ifs."  Namely, "if they stay healthy." Turns out the prolonged absence of Jennings and Meeks took too much punch out of the bench unit, and kept them from reaching their peak. Hack-A-Dre (and his terrible FT shooting) also cost them a few games.

This year, their continued improvement is naturally dependent on the good health of their starting five. If any of them miss significant time, all bets are off. And frankly, that’s why I didn’t (and won’t) bet the farm on the over/under in Vegas. All it takes is a season-ending injury to a key starter and the whole season could be derailed.

Injuries to minor or supporting players could keep them from breaking through that 50-win barrier, but shouldn’t prevent the team from becoming a part of the East’s elite.

One potential problem may be the Boston Celtics. While they don’t currently have the players to match the Pistons’ talent level, they do have a ton of assets. Whether the Pistons or Celtics eventually take the crown from the Cavaliers will likely depend on whether Danny Ainge or Van Bower is more skilled at trading two dimes for a quarter.

Ainge has a lot of dimes, but it always seems to take at least a couple quarters to get to the NBA Finals. Right now, the Pistons may already have their quarters (including All-NBA Third Team member Andre Drummond), so they should have an easier time making the leap into contention.

The "Experts" Are Wrong Again

As always seems to be the case with sports writers and analysts, Detroit has to earn love and praise the hard way - by repeatedly proving naysayers wrong. Last offseason, they were either ignored or ridiculed for signing Reggie Jackson and trading for Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, then projected to miss the playoffs and finish roughly 11th in the East. To the delight of my bank account, even Vegas was stupid enough to underestimate the Pistons.

Now, even following their strong showing against the Cavs, ESPN’s analysts predict the Pistons will win between 1-3 playoff series… get this… over the next three seasons.

To the question of "How many playoff series will the Pistons win during the next three seasons?"… I find this answer funniest (my emphasis):

Haberstroh: "Two. Between the youth, the coaching and the lack of stiff competition in the East, I'm big on Detroit's future."

Anyone else get a mental image of Haberstroh patting Andre Drummond on the head and handing him a participation trophy?

Thanks, Tom Haberstroh! You’re "big on Detroit’s future," yet think they’ll win a grand total of two playoff series during the next three years, when the Pistons' core will be entering their prime and Stan Van Gundy will be in his 3rd-5th seasons with the franchise. "I’m so big on Detroit's future that I think they still lose in the second round in 2019, when every single starter is better than he was this year and they’ve been playing together for four years."

Because that makes perfect sense.

Now look, I know I’m the Kool-Aid Man around here, but I would actually not be surprised if they win two playoff series next year. And if they haven’t made the East Finals by 2019, well… SVG may just tar and feather himself on his way out of town.

It gets worse.

ESPN's infamous Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton recently shared their Future Power Rankings, which they describe as "ESPN Insider's projection of the on-court success expected for each team in the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons."

They list the Pistons - wait for it - at #21.  Teams projected to do better than Detroit during the next three years include Houston, Utah, Washington, Orlando, Indiana, Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver... and the Philadelphia 76ers.

That's right. ESPN's Chief Statistical Geniuses actually believe the 76ers will experience more "on-court success" than the Detroit Pistons during the next three years.

Translation: "Hey Detroit, F#ck you. No, really, go f#ck yourself."

I may have to ask if they'd like to make a friendly wager on that projection... for like, I don't know...

It actually does make me smile just a bit, because just like last year, it's so wonderful to drink the tears of the haters... to share the links to their nonsense articles and projections... and to laugh at their analytical models.

Am I being a bit defensive? Am I somewhat biased toward my beloved Pistons?

Well, yes. But... unless the Celtics land Kevin Durant, I can’t see what East team other than Cleveland is better positioned to contend for the conference crown during the next 3-5 years. (By the way, Boston is ranked #3 by Ford and Pelton. Miami is ranked #6.)

It will all be clearer after free agency season comes to a close, but at the moment, the Pistons’ future looks very, very bright. And that’s even if SVG and Bower don’t trade a couple of their core six for a ready-made superstar to give Detroit a Big Three that can contend with the big boys.

If they strike gold in the offseason, I think they’ll surprise again and win maybe 54-55 games. If they have to settle for table scraps but remain reasonably healthy, 50 wins is still realistic.

Now let’s just get this lousy postseason over with so the real fun can begin.