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Where do the Detroit Pistons rank in the Central Division now and in the future?

Assessing the Detroit Pistons will rank among its division rivals next season and beyond

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA central division has improved dramatically with the blockbuster trade between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Utah Jazz. With the Milwaukee Bucks already title contenders, and the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers retooling for long-term success, I decided to evaluate these teams from two different viewpoints: 1) How these teams may finish next season within the division 2) How the division standings may look two seasons from now.

Taking this approach has obvious flaws. While we know the assets each team has at its disposal, each team’s current cap space, and some general assumptions about what each team may do given their current roster construction, predicting what teams will do with their assets is guesswork at best. For example, did anyone think the Cavaliers were a serious threat to land Donovan Mitchell?

Predicting the NBA landscape is near impossible, especially with superstar players seemingly demanding trades by the hour. But that doesn’t mean we can’t glean valuable insights into each team’s prospects as things stand now.

I decided to use Spotrac’s cap space number to determine the liquidity of each team. This will give us a better idea of what each team is capable of doing with its money. If you’re curious about what goes into that number or want more details about a team’s current cap sheet, just click on the links on each team’s cap space.

Lastly, I will be assigning “team assumptions” to each team. This will help us predict how each team may utilize their money over the next two seasons. For this category, a team may fall into one of four categories: contender, pretender, aggressively rebuilding, or rebuilding.

These assumptions are defined below:

Contender—Team believes it has the star power to win and will utilize it’s assets to maximize its chances of winning

Pretender—Team’s actions indicate the desire to “win now” but doesn’t have the talent nor the flexibility to create a champion or win a championship.

Aggressively rebuilding—Team believes it has player(s) under contract who will develop into stars that can move them into a contender.

Rebuilding—Team will attempt to acquire draft capital and clear cap space. Team may trade its top-end talent to acquire more draft capital and cap space.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks

Essential Info

  • Last season's record: 51-31
  • Core players (and age): Giannis Antetokounmpo (27), Kris Middleton (31), Jrue Holiday (32)
  • Cap Space: $-66,529,403


  • Team Assumptions: Contender
  • Central Ranking next season: 1
  • Central Ranking two seasons from now: 2

Analysis: The Bucks have one of if not the best player in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Barring injury, Giannis will give the Bucks a chance to compete for a title for the foreseeable future. I expect the Bucks to be aggressive with their draft capital and willing to move on from younger assets for more proven talent. With Middleton and Holiday locked up for at least the next two years, there’s no reason to think that the Bucks won’t be vying for top spot in the central division and ultimately a top seed in the Eastern Conference.

However, The Bucks have the 27th-lowest amount of cap space, and with not a ton of options available without trading one of its core players, it’s unlikely this roster changes drastically over the next two seasons. Holiday and Middleton’s age is a concern, and the team’s lack of top-end draft capital and cap space leave the Bucks hoping that what its assembled will be enough to get back to the NBA finals.

Milwaukee Bucks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Cleveland Cavaliers

Essential Info

  • Last season's record: 44-38
  • Core players (and age): Donovan Mitchell (26), Evan Mobley (21), Darius Garland (23), Jarrett Allen (24), Isaac Okoro (21)
  • Cap Space: $-48,665,565


  • Team Assumptions: Contender
  • Central Ranking next season: 2
  • Central Ranking two seasons from now: 2

Analysis: The Cavaliers took a step forward last season reaching the play-in tournament. Then the team made a trade for Donovan Mitchell, one of the best shooting guards in the league. Post-trade, the Cavaliers have to think that the team is a contender moving forward, and it would be hard to disagree with that logic. The team features plenty of offense with Darius Garland and Mitchell manning the backcourt, and Isaac Okoro, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley all figure to be plus defenders. With a great mix of young talent and proven star power, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see this team finish first in the division as soon as this season.

I don’t expect radical changes to the roster over the next two seasons, and I don’t expect the team to fire on all cylinders to start the season. But I think the team has enough talent to be legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference as soon as this season. Evan Mobley’s development will play a strong role in how far this team can go. Mitchell is a supstar, but Mobley’s athletic gifts still afford him the opportunity for his star to shine the brightest on the roster.

2022 NBA Summer League - Orlando Magic v Detroit Pistons Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Detroit Pistons

Essential Info

  • Last season’s record: 23-59
  • Core players (and age): Cade Cunningham (21), Jaden Ivey (20), Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart (21)
  • Cap Space: $26,086


  • Team Assumptions: Contender: Aggressively rebuilding
  • Central Ranking next season: 4
  • Central Ranking two seasons from now: 3

Analysis: This offseason has presented Pistons’ fans with optimism. Rightfully so, Jaden Ivey falling to pick no. 5 in the draft was unexpectedly fortuitous for the Pistons. Now Detroit has a backcourt in Ivey and Cunningham that could be electric in the future. Saddiq Bey has been much better than anyone could have imagined through two seasons, and Isaiah Stewart’s expanded range is tremendously exciting.

But to displace the Cavaliers or Bucks requires the Pistons' youthful talent to take multiple steps forward. As things stand now, Mitchell and Giannis are lightyears ahead of Cunningham and anyone else on the Pistons roster. If the Pistons expect to make a leap in the standings it will take the development of its core and nearly flawless utilization of its cap space—all within the realm of possibility, but by no means a certainty.

I could see Detroit vying for a play-in spot if everything went right for the Pistons. But it is still entirely possible the Pistons finish the season with an opportunity to land a top-5 pick, and that’s still a perfectly reasonable outcome. What we need to see from the Pistons is a couple of steps forward to maintain optimism, and we should not expect drastic leaps. As Troy Weaver says, no skipping steps.

Looking beyond this season the Pistons have cap space, and what the team decides to do with that space may ultimately determine if the team is able to make a similar leap as the Cavaliers. Weaver has to be looking at this division rival as the blueprint for his team.

Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Chicago Bulls

Essential Info

  • Last season's record: 46-36
  • Core players (and age): Zach LaVine (27), DeMar DeRozan (33), Patrick Williams (21), Nikola Vucevic (32), Lonzo Ball (25)
  • Cap Space: $-32,957,387


  • Team Assumptions: Contender
  • Central Ranking next season: 3
  • Central Ranking two seasons from now: 4

Analysis: I may receive pushback for calling the Bulls a “pretender,” but I don’t see how this core can feasibly win a division title, much less an NBA championship. The Cavaliers and Bucks are likely to finish as top Eastern Conference teams. The Pistons have cap space and better high-end youthful talent. While there are no guarantees the Pistons’ young talent will reach their potential in two seasons, it’s still entirely possible that the combination of internal growth and flexibility will allow the Pistons to surge about the time that players like Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan drop off.

I like Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine. Ball has made tremendous strides shooting the ball, and when LaVine gets hot, he can carry an offense by himself. But neither player is in the same conversation as Giannis, and I don’t think the Bulls collective sum is greater than the Cavaliers’. The Bulls have to be hoping that Patrick Williams reaches the potential he showed in the draft process, and that DeRozen and Vucevic can maintain their productivity from a season ago. Even if those things happen it’s hard to envision the team moving higher than third in the division in two seasons.

Despite the lack of cap space, the Bulls seem to be one of the teams always mentioned as a landing spot for top talent. So while I don’t feel optimistic about what the Bulls can do now, the power of the Bulls brand affords opportunities that few other teams possess.

Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Indiana Pacers

Essential Info

  • Last season record: 25-57
  • Core players (and age): Ben Mathurin (20), Myles Turner (26), Tyrese Haliburton (22)
  • Cap Space: $29,642,257


  • Team Assumptions: Rebuilding
  • Central Ranking next season: 5
  • Central Ranking two seasons from now: 5

Analysis: The Pacers’ moves this offseason indicate a clear direction. The team is in the asset acquisition and salary dump phase, and if the 2023 draft class lives up to its hype, it’s a good time to rebuild. If the Pacers land the projected top prospect in Victor Wembanyama, the team would change its outlook drastically. But as we all know, the NBA lottery is complete luck. I don’t expect any player on Indiana’s roster to be untouchable. If the team gets the right package of cap space or picks, I think the Pacers will jump at the opportunity.

Similar to the Pistons two years ago, the Pacers will position themselves for long-term success and hope the ping-pong balls bounce the right way for them. As we are seeing now with the Pistons, even if the Pacers land the top pick the work doesn’t stop there. The team will still have to make good use of all of its picks over the course of the next few seasons to reposition the team in the standings.