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Pistons right on schedule to contend in East

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While everyone lauds the Celtics for landing Al Horford in free agency, the Detroit Pistons are best positioned to dethrone LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the craziness of NBA Free Agency has settled down and all the key players have found a home, one thing has become clear.

Stan Van Gundy has 'em right where he wants ‘em.

The Pistons are in prime position to emerge as the heir to LeBron’s Eastern Conference crown, and will likely reach their peak just when The King is ready to step down from his throne.

And no, I haven’t forgotten that Al Horford joined the Boston Celtics.

Here are the main reasons that I’m even more drunk on Kool-Aid than the rest of you loyal DBB readers. I’ll be explaining in detail the following points:

  • The Pistons, as currently constructed, are the best young team in the East.
  • They will hit their peak just as Cleveland is expected to decline.
  • They have pieces in place to continue to upgrade their roster via trades.
  • They’re as good as the Boston Celtics, right now, and should be better three years from now.

Let’s begin with the last bullet point by looking at what Boston will likely run with this fall:

Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder, Al Horford, Amir Johnson

Average age of starting five: 27.4

Now compare that to the Pistons lineup:

Reggie JacksonKentavious Caldwell-PopeMarcus MorrisTobias HarrisAndre Drummond

Average age of starting five: 24.0

We’ll get more into why that age is so important, but first let’s look at what we expect from these historic Eastern Conference rivals this coming season.

With Horford, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projects the Celtics to win 53 games next season. With another star, he thinks they could be closer to a 60-win team. (Psst… so could the Pistons.)

But what's easy to forget and important to remember is that the Pistons have the youngest and most stable core group of players in the Eastern Conference. Their top six guys are all under 26, and are all under team control for the next 3-5 years. Their "window" is quite large, so there’s no urgency to win the championship within the next couple years.

Their starting five including Harris went 17-9 during their end-of-season playoff run, and did so despite having the least productive bench in the NBA. (By contrast, the Celtics had the second most productive bench in the NBA, scoring roughly 12 ppg more than the Pistons’ bench.)

That 17-9 record, projected over 82 games, puts the Pistons at… wait for it… 53.6 wins.

  • With Steve Blake logging heavy minutes.
  • With Jodie Meeks’ $6.5 million of production in street clothes.
  • With Stanley Johnson missing nine games due to injury.
  • With post-injury Stanley Johnson shooting bricks.
  • With KCP and Morris playing 36+ minutes per game.
  • With He Who Will Not Be Named still counting for $5 million against the cap.

While their bench was supposed to look like this: Jennings, Meeks, Stanley, Tolliver, Baynes… for a good chunk of the Tobias Harris Era, it looked like this: Old Man (Blake), Rookie (Hilliard), Unproven (Bullock), Drifter (Justin Harper), Baynes.

Yet they beat Portland by 20 with that bench.

They beat the Mavericks, in Dallas, with only Blake, Bullock and Baynes removing their warmups.

Strengthening that bench is all the Pistons really needed to accomplish this offseason in order to become a top team in the East. When evaluating the Pistons’ final record over the past two seasons, it’s important to keep in mind just how weak the bench has been down the stretch.

Stay Van Gundy gutted his depth and shooting to trade for Reggie Jackson, and it showed. They ran with John Lucas III, Shawne Williams and Tayshaun Prince during the final third of the season. I’m pretty sure all three of those guys are out of the league by now.

Last year, he traded his primary backup PG and top three-point shooter for another starter in Tobias Harris, and played most of the first half of the season without his top two (expected) bench scorers in Brandon Jennings and Jodie Meeks. The Pistons’ bench was then led by Old Man Blake during the final third of the season.

That’s right… even if we’re being conservative and just adding a couple wins due to having a competent bench that doesn’t cough up huge leads on a nightly basis, you could see the 2016-17 Pistons as a 55-win team.

And while Ish Smith may not be Jeremy Lin or Matthew Dellavedova, he is most certainly an upgrade over Steve Blake. His contract is an incredible bargain when compared to the silly money being thrown at average players these days.

Jon Leuer is absolutely an upgrade over Anthony Tolliver. And while he’s not a sexy FA signing, he’s absolutely perfect for this team and its needs.

And Boban! (I’ve learned that’s all you have to say about him. Ever.)

Absent long-term injuries (as with Brandon Jennings and Jodie Meeks last season), the Pistons' bench will absolutely be better. It won’t be routinely surrendering leads. You won’t have to watch Dennis Schroeder blow past Blake for layup after layup while screaming "put Reggie back in!"

[Steve Blake was a 36-year-old PG signed to be a third-string insurance policy. It really wasn’t his fault. Sorry, Steve.]

Ish Smith is a 27-year-old journeyman, but after playing starter minutes for a bad team, he’s more than capable of holding down the fort for 18-20 minutes on the second unit of a playoff team.

The Pistons' bench will look something like this:

  • Ish Smith/Lorenzo Brown/Mike Gbinije
  • Darrun Hilliard/Reggie Bullock
  • Stanley Johnson/Bullock
  • Jon Leuer/Henry Ellenson
  • Aron Baynes/Boban!

Already this unit is far better and deeper than it was last year.

So let’s direct our attention back to the starting five.

BEST YOUNG CORE IN THE EAST

Only three teams got more production out of their starters last season than the Pistons: Oklahoma City, Golden State and Cleveland. So yes, the Pistons starters produced more offense than any other starting five in the entire NBA, aside from the best three teams in the league.

Let that sink in. All three of the teams above them on that list were title contenders.

Now that Kevin Durant has taken his talents to Golden State, the Pistons might just have the third-best starting five in the entire NBA.

Oh, and did I mention the Pistons now have exactly ZERO players over 30 on their team? Baynes will hit that mark in December, but even he may be on his way out of town next year. Maybe Stan has a new "NO PLAYERS OVER 30!" rule in place. Hence, Boban!

But seriously, nowhere outside of Detroit is there a starting five you’d expect to improve more as a unit. With three starters 23 and under and two who are 26, they are all likely to improve due to experience and maturity, or at least maintain their production from last year. Add in the value of continuity and familiarity and you’re looking at a much more cohesive unit as well. That should mean more efficient offense and less porous defense.

  • Reggie Jackson has a full season and playoff series as a starting PG under his belt. He’ll enter this season knowing his fellow starters much better than before.
  • I expect big things from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I hope to see the KCP who shot 44% from 3PT and put up 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals during that encouraging playoff series against the Cavs. Even if he can just shoot a respectable 34% from 3PT, it’ll make a huge difference.
  • Marcus Morris will likely see fewer minutes due to having more bench support. (That’s a good thing for Marcus.)
  • Tobias Harris (who turns 24 in July) and Andre Drummond can only improve with age and experience. Dre’s post game in particular should become more efficient if he’s putting in the hard work in the offseason. Tobias will have a full training camp to learn plays and schemes this time.
  • AND ADAM SILVER IS GOING TO ELIMINATE HACK-A-DRE. RIGHT, ADAM???

FORECASTING THE EAST

So after all this FA craziness, what East teams are clearly better than the Pistons?

  • Cavs? Yes. Absolutely. Congrats on your insane lottery luck and subsequent championship(s).
  • Raptors? Biyombo is gone. DeMar is much more expensive. Lowry is 30.
  • Celtics? Maybe. But hold your Horfords. (see below)
  • Hawks? After replacing Horford with D12? Nope.
  • Heat? Not without Wade, Bosh, Deng or Johnson. (But their friends will love to visit.)
  • Pacers? Candidate for Most Meh-mproved Team in the East.
  • Hornets? No Lin. No Jefferson. No Lee. But they signed Roy Hibbert!
  • Wizards? Oh, they got Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Nicholson. [shudders]
  • Knicks? Yes, if they discover a time machine or the fountain of youth.
  • Magic? WTF are they doing? Risking the future to be relevant in the present.
  • Bulls? Will Jimmy Butler ever get to dribble again? #suspense
  • Bucks? I count three guys who can shoot from distance. One will likely start.
  • Nets? Dumpster fire.
  • 76ers? Dumpster fire recently put out, but still smoldering.

So yeah… I’m being just a tad bit dismissive here. The East should be improved overall, as far more money has been spent by East teams than West so far. But does it look to anyone else like a lot of big names just changed teams?

Back to this whole Boston Celtics problem. Yes, they’ll be much better with Horford. Yes, they have the pieces to add another star at some point.

But so do the Pistons.

Every single player on the Pistons is playing on a reasonable contract - even those they signed during this ridiculous FA season. All could be easily moved in trades. Every single player is under 30. Most are under 26.

Stan Van Gundy is proving every bit the equal to Danny Ainge when it comes to managing a roster and assembling assets (but Ainge had a head start). The only question is which of them will strike gold next.

Pelton’s analytical models project the Horford-led Celtics to win 53 games. My completely unscientific projection puts the post-FA Pistons right around that same number. If I had to bet, I’d put money on the Celtics finishing a couple games better in the standings.

But the average age of the Pistons' starting five is currently a full three years younger.

The Celtics are a 48-win team that just added an All-Star and the Pistons are a 44-win team that just added a few journeyman backups.

Yep. And if their rosters remain as-is, they’ll likely be trading blows in the second round of the playoffs. And it’ll be a hell of a series.

BEYOND 2017 - PISTONS TITLE WINDOW

The average age of an NBA championship team is 28.234.

At least, that’s according to a very interesting formula called WAGE (Weighted Age) that accounts for minutes played and age.

If you click that link, you’ll see a list of the top 10 youngest and top 10 oldest champions in NBA history.

Here are the bullet points:

  • Of the 10 youngest teams ever to win an NBA championship, only one (2014-15 Warriors) has done so in the past 20 years.
  • Of the 10 oldest teams, nine have done so in the past 20 years.
  • Only nine teams have won a championship with an average age over 30. (96-98 Bulls; three Spurs teams since 99)
  • Only two teams over 31 have ever won a title.

The starters for the 2004 champion Pistons had an average age of 27. The 1989 Pistons starters? A ripe old 29.8 years. (Explains their rapid decline post-Hammertime.)

The 1986 champion Celtics were 29.6, and the same group was 30.6 when Bird stole that inbounds pass from Zeke in the 1987 ECF (#neverforget). But they couldn’t hold the fort in 1988 with a core of guys nearing 32 as a unit.

The 1988 Laker starters were 29.4 when they repeated, but their bodies broke down during the 1989 NBA Finals (Threepeat).

So what does all that mean for this core group of Pistons with an average age of 24?

Well, it means that barring a major trade, they won’t be contending for a championship for at least another three years. And even that only happens if they experience internal growth and improvement.

It also means that they should be ready to contend just as the Ultimate Warriors (currently 27.8) and Cleveland LeBrons (currently 27.4) are beginning to decline.

So if Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower continue to make smart decisions and upgrade this team year after year, and if the Pistons' core players continue to improve as one would expect, the top two dominant Super Teams in the NBA won’t be as dominant when our Motown boys reach the ripe old age of 27.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Pistons will walk the red carpet to a title. It just means their timeline works well with the current power structure in the NBA. Which is more than can be said for most other NBA teams.

The talent gap between the Warriors, Cavs and everyone else is so wide right now that it makes little sense to attempt a "win now" strategy. Because unless you have 3-4 All-Stars in your starting lineup, you’re not winning an NBA Championship in 2017.

Who knows when the next Super Team will emerge? My guess is the next collective bargaining agreement will address those issues. But if not, it most certainly could happen again and muck things up for our beloved Pistons’ title aspirations.

To put the Pistons’ roster situation in context, let’s take a look at the expected starting fives for Eastern Conference teams, ranked in descending order according to average age. I put 2016 playoff teams in BOLD.

Bulls: Rondo, Wade, Butler, Gibson, Lopez (29.8)

Hawks: Schroeder, Korver, Bazemore, Millsap, Howard (29)

Knicks: Rose, Lee, Melo, Kristaps, Noah (28)

Cavs: Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, Thompson (27.4)

Celtics: Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Horford, Johnson (27.4)

Raptors: Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Patterson, Valanciunas (27.2)

Pacers: Teague, Ellis, George, Young, Turner (26.4)

Heat: Dragic, Richardson, Winslow, Bosh?, Whiteside (26.2)

Wizards: Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris, Gortat (25.8)

Hornets: Walker, Batum, MKG, Williams, Zeller (25.6)

Magic: Payton, Fournier, Green, Ibaka, Vujecic (25)

Pistons: Reggie, KCP, Morris, Harris, Drummond (24)

Bucks: MCW, Middleton, Parker, Giannis, Monroe (23.2)

Nets & Sixers: oh, why even bother...

The Pistons are the youngest returning playoff team in the East, and it’s not even close.

The Hawks are peaking at the wrong time.

The Bulls and Knicks added big (aging & injury-plagued) names, yet have no real chance of contending. What’s the point? Maybe selling tickets.

The Celtics will need to add another star to contend with the Cavs before Horford starts to decline.

The Raptors have a couple years to compete at a high level, but won't beat LeBron with that core.

The Pacers appear well-constructed for mediocrity. Their tiny backcourt is going to get pushed around every night.

The Heat are now officially the top candidate to fall out of playoff contention.

The Wizards need a star in the front court to have any shot at being relevant. Ian Mahinmi is not that guy.

The Hornets have room for growth with a young core group. But who’s their superstar?

The Magic's key additions force their best young prospects to come off the bench, while both Green and Ibaka could skip town in 2017.

The Bucks’ pieces still don’t fit together.

Putting hometown bias aside, which Eastern Conference teams would you put money on to be true contenders three years from now?

The three teams older than the Cavs are filled with aging stars on the decline and have no chance at dethroning them. The two teams right there in age (Toronto and Boston) are nowhere near as talented.

If the Celtics don’t add another star alongside Horford, his addition will be a waste. They won’t win a championship with that lineup as long as LeBron is in Cleveland. Isaiah Thomas is three years older than Kyrie Irving. Al Horford is three years older than Kevin Love. Amir Johnson is four years older than Tristan Thompson. Who’s going to decline first?

The Bulls, Knicks, Heat and Wizards need to cross their fingers that key players with recurring injury problems stay healthy for an entire season or don’t decline due to age.

The Pistons don’t have a Bradley Beal, Derrick Rose or Chris Bosh… key players who are plagued by injury or health problems.

Aside from the Cavs, Celtics and Pistons, I see a bunch of huge question marks. All the other teams are either missing key pieces or are too young and raw to project with confidence.

I see the pressure being on the Celtics to win ASAP. And while they just might wind up in the Eastern Conference Finals sooner than the Pistons, they also might watch their prime years pass by as LeBron makes them bridesmaids on his way to the Finals.

And when both of those teams are ready to tap out, there just might be a team from Detroit that features a starting five of guys who’ve played together for 4-5 years, are all in their primes, and are backed up by a bench assembled masterfully by Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower.

A lot could happen between now and then, but it appears the Pistons are right on schedule.