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2016-2017 Eastern Conference preview

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Where do the Pistons rank in the East? Here's a peek at every East team and how the standings should look at year's end.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Shortage of Pistons content bringing you down? Well, buckle your seatbelt and grab a tasty beverage, because this bad boy (no pun intended) is more than 3,000 words long.

I started writing this little enormous piece about three weeks ago, before ESPN started pumping out their Summer Forecast articles (which at this point are clearly designed to enrage rabid NBA fans who then unleash their fury in the comments), and CBS Sports released their lists of best starting fives and best benches in the league.

I was thinking "Why rush? It's the middle of July."

So I worked on videos of my daughter’s 3rd birthday instead. (#epic)

Wait, where was I?

Oh, yeah… after all the major free agent signings were complete, I started looking at the Eastern Conference, one team at a time. (This is what all hypnotists do in between curing phobias.)

I actually ranked each team by both starting five and bench (before I even knew CBS would steal my thunder), and then was able to compare my own rankings with CBS & ESPN.

I even read a few blog entries from other teams on SBN, including the Hornets, Celtics, Knicks, Bucks, Bulls and a few others. Wanted to make sure I wasn’t just seeing what I was looking for.

So I’m pledging to eliminate the Kool-Aid and replace it with an expensive bottle of scotch. Or at least a really good craft beer.

You see… when your favorite team has a good up-and-coming season and even the "experts" are picking them to be a top four playoff seed, predicting success no longer conjures up images of Jim Jones’ infamous crime.

The Detroit Pistons are one of only four East teams to return all five starters. They were one of the five youngest starting lineups in the entire NBA last season, and the only one to make the playoffs.

And they’re back. Closer to their prime.

And thanks to a solid offseason, they'll finally have some help.

Here’s the real headline: starting unit that went 17-9 returns, older and more cohesive, and with a much better bench.

There’s no doubt the Pistons are a playoff team, and as you’ll see in my breakdown of their opposition in the Eastern Conference, there’s little doubt they’re on track to rise in the standings.

A quick glimpse at end-of-season NBA standings over the past decade shows that 44-win teams usually landed the 5th or 6th playoff seed, while sometimes a bit higher or lower. So an improvement of a few wins (or more, should they keep up the Tobias Era pace) should land them in the top four in the East and have them hosting a playoff series.

Absent significant injury problems, I can’t see this team regressing from their 44-win total last season. And with a bench that can hold its own, I can’t see them even spending much time hovering around .500.

I’ll get a bit more in depth about the Pistons below as I plow through the East teams one-by-one. Scroll to the bottom if you just want to see how I think the standings will shake out.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston Celtics

  • STARTERS: Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Horford, Johnson
  • BENCH: Smart, Young/Hunter, Brown, Jerebko, Zeller, Olynyk

Well, they're not getting Russell Westbrook.

We have to assess Boston just like everyone else - as they are, and not as they might be if they swing a huge trade for a superstar. And as presently constructed, they’re good but not great. Horford will make them even better, but it’s not like the Warriors adding Durant. Their young wings will be fighting for minutes, but none of them is a sure bet to contribute. That said, I think we can safely say the current incarnation of the Celts is a top four team in the East.

Unlike the Central Division, which is filled top-to-bottom with actual NBA-quality teams, the Atlantic gives the Celts a regular dose of cupcake games against the 76ers and Nets all season. Even the Knicks could wind up a mini dumpster fire if age and injures catch up to them. That alone should put the Celts a few games ahead of our Pistons, who'll face tougher competition in the Bulls and Bucks at the bottom of their division.

The fellas at CelticsBlog are thinking 53+ wins are in the cards. They might be right. Brad Stevens can coach.

Brooklyn Nets

  • STARTERS: Lin, Hollis-Jefferson, Bogdanovic, Booker, Lopez
  • BENCH: Rec League All-Stars

There’s really no need to make a case here. This team is going to be very, very bad for a very, very long time. It's almost poetic justice that they have to play the Celtics so often and be reminded of their franchise's utter stupidity.

New York Knicks

  • STARTERS: Rose, Lee, Melo, Porzingis, Noah
  • BENCH: Jennings, Vujacic, Thomas, Hernangomez, O'Quinn

Derek Rose thinks the Knicks are a Super Team. It’s funny to see how many Knicks fans agree with him.

Yeah… about that. The jokes have already been made. This in an awesome team… in 2011.

In 2016? They win the trophy for Name Recognition, but that's about it.

Imagine last year's Bulls. Now replace Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott and Pau Gasol with Courtney Lee, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Is it a better team?

Rose is a shell of his former self. Noah thrives on energy, and spent last season either injured or coming off the bench. Melo is not getting any younger.

If they enjoy good health and age like wine? Sure, they’re a playoff team. Maybe even a 5th or 6th seed. They should even be fun to watch (and will likely get 3-4 times as many nationally-televised games as the superior squad from Motown). But it’s more likely they’re a middling team that screws itself out of a high draft pick 2017 in an effort to appease Carmelo Anthony and stay relevant.

Philadelphia 76ers

  • STARTERS: McConnell, Henderson, Simmons, Okafor, Noel
  • BENCH: Rodriguez, Stauskas/Thompson, Covington, Landry, Saric, Embiid

Plenty of intriguing names on that roster, huh? Yeah, but they’re not even in the playoff discussion for another couple years. And many of those names will likely be on different rosters in the near future. They sure could use an actual NBA player in the back court, huh?

Toronto Raptors

  • STARTERS: Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Patterson, Valanciunas
  • BENCH: Joseph, Powell, Ross, Sullinger

I remain unimpressed with this team. They play consistently well during the regular season, but get trounced in the playoffs. The sad truth is that they’re too close in age with the Cavs, while clearly far behind in talent. Replacing Biyombo with Sullinger isn’t getting them past LeBron. DeMar DeRozan is now way overpaid.

The guys at Raptors HQ project 58 wins using fancy (and perhaps cherry-picked) analytics, but I'm not buying their reasoning. One commenter projects them with 58 and the Pistons with 42, and yeah... I'm just not so sure about that, because I actually watched both teams' playoff series against the Cavs. (#eyetest)

I get the argument that a healthy Carroll adds a couple wins to the total. If they can somehow deal for a big upgrade at PF, I could see them giving the Cavs a tougher series... but that's it.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago Bulls

  • STARTERS: Rondo, Wade, Butler, Gibson, Lopez
  • BENCH: Grant, Valentine, McDermott, Mirotic, Portis

"Hey, fellas… we really need to trade Derek Rose and start over. Let’s focus on developing our young guys and… wait, Rondo’s available? Sign him! What? Dwyane Wade will leave Miami if we pay him max money? Well, we can’t NOT sign Dwyane Wade! So what if we have zero 3PT shooters in the starting lineup and three guys who all need the ball in their hands to be effective? We have Rondo, Butler and Wade! That’s like… a Big Three or something! Moichandising! Moichandising!"

From the ESPN piece: "The Bulls' starting perimeter -- Rondo, Wade and Jimmy Butler -- combined to make 133 3-pointers last season on 31.7 percent shooting." By contrast, KCP made 114 3-pointers on 30.9% shooting. Rondo and Wade both had a lower TS% than KCP.

Sooo… not much long-distance shooting from those guys.

The boys at Blog A Bull aren't happy, either. Check out the comments for a good laugh.

Unless Mirotic and McDermott play big minutes and shoot well from downtown (without playing porous defense), it could get ugly. And of course Rondo has a bad attitude. And Wade usually misses a bunch of games.

Don’t let the big names fool you. A best-case scenario is a low playoff seed and early exit.

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • STARTERS: Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, Thompson
  • BENCH: Williams, Jones, Dunleavy, Frye, Andersen

While they have an excellent core with Kyrie, LeBron, Love and Thompson, that’s pretty much it. The cupboard looks pretty bare after that. Mo Williams, Mike Dunleavy, James Jones, Channing Frye and Chris Anderson have an average age of 34.8. It’ll be 35.8 when the playoffs roll around next year. That’s very, very old in the NBA. And those guys weren’t even stars in their primes.

I still think they get to the Finals, but the playoffs will test their depth. As well as the Pistons starters played against the Cavs starting five, I’m giddy about seeing Motown’s new & improved (and nearly a decade younger) bench take on the Grumpy Old Men who’ll be spelling LeBron & Friends next spring. If the Pistons can lock down a top 4 playoff seed, I see them pushing the Cavs to a six game series in the second round.

Detroit Pistons (saving the best for last)


Indiana Pacers

  • STARTERS: Teague, Ellis, George, Young, Turner
  • BENCH: Stuckey, Miles, Allen, Jefferson, Hill

I’m not sure about these guys. Their starting back court is quick as a cat, but just as thin and unreliable. Paul George is a tremendous stud capable of winning games all by himself. Thaddeus Young is a like an older version of Tobias Harris, but without an outside shot. Myles Turner is a great young big man… and roughly 35 pounds lighter than Andre Drummond.

This team will have to score in abundance, because on the defensive end of the floor, they’re going to get pushed around. They have one of the better benches in the East, with Rodney Stuckey and Al Jefferson both capable of putting up points consistently. But chalk them up as yet another East team without an abundance of 3PT shooters in what’s becoming The 3PT Era.

But don't underestimate Paul George, who is good enough to make this a top 4-6 team in the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks

  • STARTERS: MCW, Middleton, Giannis, Parker, Monroe
  • BENCH: Dellavedova, Vaughn, Henson, Teletovic, Plumlee, Maker

Man, this is a tough team to figure out, too. If I were a Bucks fan, I’d be optimistic. Middleton, Giannis and Parker are all great young prospects. Monroe is at least a nice trade asset. Delly, Henson and Teletovic would be rotation guys on many good teams in the league. Thon Maker looks like he might be good.

But wow, the "fit" is still a tremendous problem. Anyone still wish the Pistons grabbed MCW instead of KCP? Unless they start Dellavedova, Middleton is still the lone reliable threat from downtown in the starting five. If they start Teletovic or Plumlee, they lower Moose’s trade value. Will the Greek Freak or Jabari develop a reliable outside shot? If so, they’ll be pretty good.

But as-is, they remain a very talented team that needs to make some moves in order to find the right chemistry. In an improving Eastern Conference, that puts them on the outside of the playoff picture. Next season could be a different story.

-------

SOUTHEAST

Atlanta Hawks

  • STARTERS: Schroeder, Korver, Bazemore, Millsap, Howard
  • BENCH: Jack, Hardaway, Prince, Humphries, Splitter

Teague and Schroeder, or Schroeder and Jack? Millsap and Horford, or Millsap and Howard?

I’d choose last year’s option over this year’s every time. In spite of elevating Dennis Schroeder to the starting five, the Hawks are getting older when it’s clear they’ve hit their ceiling. This core is not going to challenge in the East, and it’s likely that key starters Korver and Howard are going to decline.

I could see Korver and Millsap being moved to contenders at the deadline if the Hawks hover around .500. They need more quality young guns who can grow with Schroeder and Bazemore.

They’re still good enough to make the playoffs, but oh how fun it will be when they try Hack-A-Dre and SVG counters with Hack-A-Dwight. Take that, Budenholzer… you strategically-wise cowardly lion, you.

Miami Heat

  • STARTERS: Dragic, Waiters, Winslow, McRoberts, Whiteside
  • BENCH: Johnson, Richardson, Ellington, Johnson, Williams, Haslem

Well, Dion Waiters is about the same size as Dwyane Wade. And Justise Winslow will still have plenty of friends who want to visit South Beach. Justise, Richardson, Whiteside and even Johnson are all good young players, but this is going to be a tough season for the Heat.

The dudes at Hot Hot Hoops are in denial. A much rec'd comment in this post says they're a top three team in the East if Bosh plays, and a top seven team even if he never sees the court. Poor Heat fans... they must've spent too much time in the sun.

Charlotte Hornets

  • STARTERS: Walker, Batum, MKG, Williams, Zeller
  • BENCH: Sessions, Bellinelli, Kaminski, Hawes, Hibbert

As a commenter said on Hornets blog At The Hive, "we have a 5th place in the East squad that just lost three of our top eight players."

Yep. Charlotte just lost 33 pts, 12 reb and 6 ast per game off the bench. Sessions, Bellinelli and Hibbert are all downgrades from Lin, Lee and Jefferson. And while they get MKG back (and hopefully he remains healthy), he’s a great defensive player who won’t help them put points on the board. Aside from Hibbert, I don’t see much defense on their bench.

The starters may be good enough to get them into the playoffs, but they're going to have to fight for it.

Orlando Magic

  • STARTERS: Payton, Fournier, Gordon, Ibaka, Vujacic
  • BENCH: Augustin, Meeks, Green, Hezonja, Biyombo

Yet another schizophrenic Eastern Conference franchise that’s panicking and making short-sighted moves to try and appease a fanbase craving quick progress. They discarded Tobias Harris to create cap room, and then used that cap room to sign Jeff Green? They do have a lot of young talent and some guys who could make a big leap within the next year or two, but if they play to win, key young guys like Hezonja and Gordon could spend more time on the bench. If things don’t work out, Green and possibly Ibaka could skip town in 2017.

If they make it into the playoffs, they’ll be a "surprise team." More likely they miss out and grab a late lottery pick.

Washington Wizards

  • STARTERS: Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris, Gortat
  • BENCH: Burke, Thornton, Oubre, Smith, Nicholson, Mahinmi

John Wall is still a great player, but Bradley Beal is another huge overpay - a good player making Great Player money. They’re going to need continued improvement from Otto Porter and a better version of Markieff Morris if they’re going to make some noise this season. That bench isn’t scaring anyone, especially in the back court. Who’s your go-to guy on the second unit? They have 4-5 capable big men, but none inspire fear in opponents.

If Wall, Beal, Porter and Morris all have excellent seasons (and stay on the court), the Wizards could be better than expected.

AND... LAST BUT NOT LEAST

Detroit Pistons

  • STARTERS: Jackson, KCP, Morris, Harris, Drummond
  • BENCH: Smith, Bullock, Johnson, Leuer, Baynes, Boban

When considering the Pistons’ success in the coming year, I place very little faith in the possibility that key players will improve significantly. I begin with the assumption that the returning core players will play about the same as they did last year. And considering they’re all on the upswing of their careers, there’s no reason to expect a regression.

I expect Reggie Jackson to put up roughly the same numbers, while perhaps improving his decision-making a bit. I expect KCP to remain an inconsistent shooter from long range, and so on. So let me be very clear - I think this team wins 48 games even if no key players improve dramatically. I hear a lot of talk about Stanley Johnson becoming a star. While I share that enthusiasm, I expect him to improve moderately this coming season.

I see a starting unit that’s already elite and is now backed up by a second unit that’s deeper and vastly improved.

I think 45 wins (as ESPN’s Summer Forecast predicts) would actually be disappointing. 48 wins would be pretty good. My guess would be something in the neighborhood of 48-55 wins. And remember, when Tobias was in the starting lineup, they played at a 53.6-win pace. With that bench.

Even taking into account the home/road split, it stays the same. They won 7 of 12 on the road (a 24-win pace over 41 games) and 10 of 14 at home (a 29-win pace over 41) with that starting unit. Put that together and you’re still looking at about 53 wins. Even with that bench.

It’s not Kool-Aid. It’s not homerism. Predicting the Pistons to win about 53 games is just… logical.

Hell, Stan Van Gundy has averaged 49 wins as a head coach. And that includes the 32-50 season two years ago.

But one thing I will continue to emphasize is that this season’s numbers aren’t really the thing to get excited about. It’s the youth. The timeline. The Pistons' 2017-18 team will either look exactly the same as it does this year, or it will look better.

And even that’s not the team to be excited about.

The 2018-19 Pistons should not only have the same core players at 1-6 in the rotation, they will likely be the only NBA Eastern Conference team with that kind of youth, talent and continuity.

That's the team to be excited about. No matter how stacked the Celtics are by that time, our boys will be ready to hit them in the mouth.

As for this season, here's how I see the East shaking out.

PROJECTED EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Cleveland
  2. Boston
  3. Detroit
  4. Toronto
  5. Hawks
  6. Pacers
  7. Wizards
  8. Knicks
  9. Bulls
  10. Hornets
  11. Magic
  12. Bucks
  13. Heat
  14. 76ers
  15. Nets

That would put the Pistons in line for a second round playoff matchup with the Celtics, who'd have home court advantage. What a great series and beginning of a new rivalry that would be.

If the Pistons finish behind the Raptors, that would set them up for a rematch with the Cavs in the second round, which would conjure up memories of the Bad Boys' rivalry with the great 1980's Celtics teams... each year, going toe-to-toe with the big boys deeper into the playoffs, until finally overcoming them to reach the finals.

Either way, let's get it on.