Wojo: Wild, fresh-faced NBA playoffs are fun, and Pistons could find a way in

Detroit News

About every decade or so, the NBA goes through an identity crisis. Teams and stars stay in power, and the playoffs can become predictable and stale. Yes, LeBron James-versus-Golden State was riveting, right up until the players wore out.

Generally, the script doesn’t change much. Superstars bounce from one power to another and interlopers are treated like gum on a shoe. But the strangest thing has happened since the pandemic-altered playoff bubble, followed by this condensed season.

It produced a revelation, even a revolution, with a much-needed competitive twist: Nobody knows who’s going to win. Not in a series, not in a game, not even when a team has a 26-point lead late in the third quarter. This is competitive correction spurred by an influx of fresh, dynamic stars, and it’s wonderful. It should benefit many teams, including the Pistons. (Especially if they win the draft lottery Tuesday night and get a shot at Cade Cunningham, not that any tortured Detroit fan expects it.)

James’ Lakers were knocked out in the first round partly because of injuries. It’s unfortunate but that’s the deal when one superstar is 36 and Anthony Davis is injury-prone, felled by a groin strain. That’s the deal when you stack a team at the top and don’t have much in the middle, except for stray Pistons such as Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris.

The Nets were unbeatable, by all accounts, with Kevin Durant, 32, James Harden, 31, and Kyrie Irving. But their injury histories resurfaced at various times, and what was left at the end was Durant and a hobbled Harden failing to fend off the Bucks. Let’s call it punishment for precociousness — if you want a shortcut to the NBA Finals, you’d better hope your high-mileage stars don’t get achy.

New stars on rise

A new crop is arriving at the top. Regardless of the 76ers-Hawks Game 7 outcome, none of the five remaining teams has reached the NBA Finals since 1983, when Philadelphia won it. In the West, the Suns should be a slight favorite over the L.A. Clippers, as long as Chris Paul (COVID protocol) returns and Devin Booker continues his rapid ascent.

But wait, the Clippers could be favored if Kawhi Leonard shakes off his knee injury and Paul George shines. The Hawks have a freshly minted superstar in Trae Young and the 76ers have their own in Joel Embiid, who’s nursing a sore knee. Waiting in line is Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo is figuring out how this whole superstar thing works in the playoffs.

This is a new era in the NBA, not that James, Durant and Davis will fade away. But many young stars are jumping in — Booker, Young, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum. This is the way a professional league is supposed to work, but as long as the NBA had generational draws such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry and James, it was mesmerizing enough to overshadow the repetitiveness.

There are plenty of get-off-my-lawn people who lament the lack of defense, or how the NBA has become a 3-point shooting contest, 35 feet and in. Not me. I have room on the lawn for more. It’s been a refreshing changing of the guard, and the guards, and the forwards.

The NFL hasn’t been damaged by Tom Brady winning all those Super Bowls but football is so popular, it’s impervious to staleness. MLB is more troubled, enduring its own identity crisis with enormous disparities between high- and low-spending teams, and between offense and defense. That’s why the league is cracking down on pitchers’ use of foreign substances, to counter historically awful offensive numbers. Striking that balance between offense and defense is an enduring battle in every sport, including the NHL.

The NBA is at an all-time high in offensive efficiency, and while it can be breath-taking, it will reach a saturation point too. It has created wild swings in these playoffs — Philadelphia blew 26- and 18-point leads against Atlanta, and the Clippers wiped out a 22-point halftime deficit to beat Utah. With fans back in the packed stands, the noise ratchets, and so do the momentum swings.

TV ratings have dropped over the years but they shot up 46% early in these playoffs, compared to the antiseptic playoff “bubble” predictably won by the Lakers. The numbers also are up 3% over the 2019 playoffs, won in stunning fashion by Toronto.

Building a winner

Outliers are rare, and historically, one of the best outlier-buyers is Detroit. Of the 37 NBA champions since 1983, the top three franchises are obvious: Lakers (nine titles), Bulls (six), Spurs (five). The next group with three each: Celtics, Warriors, Heat, Pistons. The Pistons won the same amount of championships as the gaudy Warriors, despite the absence of a superstar, other than Isiah Thomas.

The Pistons always have been forced to build from the bottom up and the middle out, and that’s what GM Troy Weaver and coach Dwane Casey are trying to do. In his first year here, two of Weaver’s draft picks — Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey — made the 10-player all-rookie team. Notably, neither was a lottery pick.

Next season returns to a normal schedule and that might stabilize things. James and others complained injuries would be a significant problem, and they have been. After the Lakers won last Oct. 11, this season began Dec. 22, and a lot of toil was packed into less time, with more “load management.”

Injuries created more unpredictability, not the ideal way to achieve it but entertaining nevertheless.

Most seasons, you think four or five teams can win it all. This season, there were arguably eight or nine. Getting a superstar is paramount, but you need more than that with the rash-like spread of super teams.

And here’s Detroit’s cautionary tale: Given a prime chance, you cannot screw it up. Stan Van Gundy recently got fired by New Orleans after one fateful season coaching Zion Williamson. Van Gundy was fired by the Pistons after four fateful seasons as coach and president of basketball operations. Watch these playoffs and all the former Pistons and you wonder how he even made it to four seasons.

More: Beard: New roles suit former Pistons thriving in NBA playoffs

Reggie Jackson has become a key piece for the Clippers. So has Luke Kennard. Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown found roles with the Nets, while Tobias Harris has been good with the 76ers. At one time, Van Gundy coveted all of them for the wrong reasons, and then in the draft, chose the wrong people.

The Pistons blew a chance at a quicker rebuild because of two huge gaffes. In 2015, they took Stanley Johnson at No. 8 over the popular (and logical) choice of Booker, who slipped to 13. Van Gundy wanted a strong, athletic defender to battle James’ Cavs, but Johnson simply couldn’t shoot. So in 2017, Van Gundy tried to correct his mistake and made another one, taking a shooter in Kennard at No. 12. Louisville’s Mitchell was an athletic slasher and a perfect fit for the Pistons, and he went on the next pick.

It’s been a revelatory and rollicking playoff so far, although probably painful for Pistons fans. You’ve seen the Suns roll with Booker and the Jazz grab the top seed in the West with the dominant Mitchell. The rise of so many stars at the same time is virtually unprecedented, but there’s always room on the lawn for more. If the Pistons pick the right one, they could join the fun sooner than you expect.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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