Kevin Durant signed with Golden State this summer.
LeBron James signed with Cleveland the summer of 2014.
James signed with Miami the summer of 2010.
The movement of superstars to form "super teams" gets most of the attention from fans, analysts and blogs in professional basketball today. Given the fact that most NBA titles have been won by teams that featured two or more acknowledged elite players, this splashy reality should come as no surprise. Yet it does obscure the fact that championships have more often been won by teams that acquired great athletes via the traditional ways of drafting wisely and trading shrewdly.
Certainly, LeBron traipsing his talents from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland again has been the key transaction that led to three NBA titles (2012, 2013, 2016) over the past 10 years. Yet triumphing in the Finals due to landing a transcendent star in free agency is still the exception that proves the rule.
Pistons are building as most champs have done before
The Warriors’ team that won in 2015 was headlined by draft picks Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. The Spurs’ teams that won in 2014 and 2007 owed their success to homegrown stars like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. The Mavericks that won in 2011 were built almost entirely by trades surrounding their home-grown superstar, Dirk Nowitzki. The Lakers’ squads that won two consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010 were led by Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, none of whom were acquired in free agency. And the Celtics’ 2008 champs formed their "Big Three" of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce via trades and the draft.
So there is no reason to be concerned because Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower have been constructing the current model of the Pistons primarily through the draft and trades. While recent free agent acquisitions Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic and Ish Smith may become key contributors, Detroit’s future prospects will depend much more heavily on the players they have acquired through the draft (Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson) and trades (Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris).
Except for Aron Baynes and Caldwell-Pope, all of the Pistons key parts are under contract for at least the next three years. Baynes can opt out of his deal next summer, but Marjanovic and Leuer provide additional quality depth upfront. Caldwell-Pope will be a restricted free agent in 2017 if Detroit does not extend him this fall, but the odds remain great that he will remain in Motown for the foreseeable future.
Pistons prospects should be at their greatest in 2018-19
Given their combination of youth, depth and talent, it seems reasonable to hope that the Pistons will be fully prepared to battle for a return to the Finals by 2018-19. Assuming a nine-man rotation of Caldwell-Pope, Drummond, Harris, Jackson, Johnson, Leuer, Marjanovic, Morris and Smith, that core will average nearly six years of NBA experience entering that season. And the average age of this group will be 27.
Of course, anticipating that rate of ascent is no guarantee that it is achievable. Yet while the starting five that finished last season for Detroit was one of the NBA’s five youngest, it was also "the only one among them to make the playoffs." This group compiled a 17-11 record after the All-Star Break, a winning percentage that would record 50 wins over a full season. And 50-32 would have been the third seed in the Eastern Conference in 2015-16.
While the path to the East’s peak is currently blocked by Cleveland and Toronto, aging stars and salary cap constraints should make it increasingly difficult for them to hold off the young, maturing Pistons. LeBron will turn 34 in 2018-19 and the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll will both be 32. For Boston, Al Horford will be 32. Miami’s Chris Bosh will be 34 and Goran Dragic will be 32. Atlanta’s Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap will turn 33 and 34, respectively.
More than anyone else, Detroit’s rise will depend on continued improvement from the team’s All-Star center. But it is not a stretch to expect that a 23 year old who is already the league’s premier rebounder will become even more dominant. Neither is it improbable to think that his youthful teammates also have their best years ahead of them.
Continued contention could be constrained by cap
If the window opens widest for a return to the NBA finals by 2018-19, can we expect it to remain open for several seasons beyond? Projecting four or more years down the road becomes much more difficult, because at that point retaining talent and staying under the luxury tax level will be much more challenging for the Pistons. The contracts of Harris, Marjanovic, Morris, and Ish Smith will all come off the books in the summer of 2019, and Johnson will be due for his post-rookie deal. The following summer Jackson and Leuer will be unrestricted free agents, and Drummond will be able to opt out of the fifth year of his contract.
Van Gundy and Bower have done an admirable job of turning around in only two years a franchise that had floundered since its last playoff appearance in 2009. The future certainly looks brighter, and perhaps Detroit can return to the finals as early as 2018 with accelerated improvement by its young core or another shrewd trade. But as of now, 2019 looks like the year when the Pistons will have their best shot at bringing home a fourth NBA title.