Entering Year 2 of their “restoring,” how good will the Detroit Pistons be in 2021-22?
They finished last season 20-52, the worst record in the Eastern Conference. They won the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft lottery, and drafted a player with superstar potential in Cade Cunningham. Now the hard part begins, as expectations will rise even though the roster remains young.
Much of the rest of the conference improved this summer, which further complicates Detroit’s bid to end its 13-year streak without a playoff win. But last season was successful in many aspects for the Pistons from a team-building standpoint, as they pulled off a coup in free agency by signing Jerami Grant, and drafted two All-Rookie selections in Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey.
The biggest goal for this season, more than anything, will be to keep the positive momentum rolling.
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Here’s a 30-team NBA power ranking, with the league roughly a month away from training camp opening.
1. Brooklyn Nets
It’s tough to see a healthy Nets team missing the Finals. They have the best star core in the league with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. And they had a solid offseason, fleshing out their bench with Patty Mills and Jevon Carter.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
The defending champs are an easy No. 2. They lost P.J. Tucker, to the Miami Heat this offseason. But Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest of the core rotation returns.
3. Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul transformed the Suns from a playoff hopeful to contender almost overnight. Continued improvement from Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, along with another age-defying season from Paul, could help them ascend to the top of the West and make a second straight trip to the Finals.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers made one of the biggest moves — and gambles — of the offseason by trading for Russell Westbrook. It’s unclear how the superstar guard will fit alongside LeBron James, but a James-Westbrook-Anthony Davis trio is too talented to fail. That’s assuming all three stay healthy, and James is able to fend off Father Time as he enters his 19th season and turns 37 in December.
5. Utah Jazz
Despite having the NBA’s best record last season, the Jazz fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in the West semifinals. They’ll run it back with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, flanked alongside key additions Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall.
6. Atlanta Hawks
The biggest surprise of the playoffs, Trae Young powered Atlanta to the East finals. They ended last season on a strong note and should be better this season. They retained Young and John Collins, and fortified their point guard depth with Delon Wright. A healthy De’Andre Hunter, who played 23 games last year and missed the final two playoff rounds, would be a big boost.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
The pending (?) Ben Simmons trade appears to be the last major domino to fall this offseason, as reports indicate the All-Star will be moved after a disappointing playoff showing. If Philadelphia keeps its roster intact, it returns a core that finished with the best record in the East. As long as the 76ers have a healthy Joel Embiid, they should be a playoff team.
8. Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson’s return from a torn ACL and torn Achilles will be one of the biggest story lines this season. It has been more than two years since he played an NBA game, and the extent that he’s able to regain his All-NBA form will define Golden State’s ceiling. This ranking gives him the benefit of the doubt, because a healthy Warriors team should contend for a championship.
9. Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray could miss most, if not all, of the regular season after suffering a torn ACL in April. The Nuggets initially stayed afloat by finishing last season 13-5 and defeating the Blazers in the opening round, but were then swept by the Suns. Denver’s core of Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon is good enough to keep the team afloat until Murray’s return.
10. Boston Celtics
The Celtics had a difficult season, battered by injuries and Jayson Tatum missing three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19. After underperforming and finishing with a .500 record, they should improve significantly if they can put their injury woes behind them. Former coach Brad Stevens is now the president of basketball operations, and Ime Udoka is a first-year head coach.
11. Miami Heat
By trading for Kyle Lowry, the Heat have made a push to get back to the Finals after their unexpected run in the Orlando bubble in 2020. They look like a playoff team again, but it’s unclear if Lowry, who is coming off of a strong season but will turn 36 in March, will dramatically increase their ceiling.
12. Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard may miss the entire season after suffering a partially torn ACL during the playoffs. Paul George, Reggie Jackson and the rest of the roster will attempt to keep the team in playoff contention after their first-ever West finals appearance last season.
13. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic has established himself as one of the NBA’s best players, but the Mavericks haven’t flanked him with a championship-caliber roster yet. They had a relatively quiet offseason, and won’t contend for a championship barring any midseason shake-ups.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
Thursday’s trade for Larry Nance gave the Blazers, who suffered a first-round exit and didn’t make notable offseason moves, a needed depth boost. They should be a playoff team for as long as Damian Lillard is on the roster, but it seems probable they will look much different this time next year.
15. New York Knicks
Julius Randle had a breakout season and coach Tom Thibodeau transformed the Knicks into one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. They did well in free agency by signing Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, and RJ Barrett, who was one of the NBA’s most improved players, could emerge as a star and propel New York to greater heights.
16. Chicago Bulls
2021 has been a year of transformation for the Bulls. They made a big swing at the trade deadline by acquiring Nikola Vucevic, and then traded for Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan this summer. We’ll see how the pieces fit alongside Zach LaVine, but they’ve positioned themselves to make a significant leap forward after missing the playoffs four consecutive seasons.
17. Memphis Grizzlies
With Ja Morant as their centerpiece, the Grizzlies continue their steady rebuild. They have one of the NBA’s most intriguing young cores with Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and a handful of 2020 and 2021 draft picks. They qualified for the playoffs after knocking out the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors in the play-in tournament, and will look to build on that momentum.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves ended the season on a strong note after Anthony Edwards emerged as a potential star. Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are talented enough to put the Wolves in contention for the play-in tournament, at least.
19. Indiana Pacers
The biggest move the Pacers made this summer might’ve been hiring Rick Carlisle as coach. Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and Myles Turner are talented and should keep Indiana in the playoff race, but they’re still a ways away from truly contending. The return of T.J. Warren, who played four games last season due to a foot injury, should help their record.
20. Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte has quickly assembled an entertaining young core. LaMelo Ball is the reigning Rookie of the Year, and incoming rookie James Bouknight is an electric athlete. With Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges and newcomers Mason Plumlee and Kelly Oubre Jr., the Hornets are a candidate to make a leap forward.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson is one of the league’s best and most unique scorers, and Brandon Ingram has emerged as one of the best young scorers. To make the playoffs, they’ll need other members of their young cast to step up.
22. Washington Wizards
This offseason felt like a soft reset for the Wizards. They traded Westbrook and added Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. Bradley Beal is still on the roster, and they have young talent in Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. Are they a playoff team? I wouldn’t count them out.
23. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are a tough team to pin down. Last season was a difficult one, as they played the entire year in Tampa due to COVID-19 protocols. They moved on from Lowry. They have talent with Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby and drafted a talented rookie in Scottie Barnes fourth overall. They could be better than expected.
24. San Antonio Spurs
After moving on from DeRozan, the Spurs have fully embraced their youth movement. They currently lack a star, but they have a solid base of talent with Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker Jr. and Derrick White.
25. Sacramento Kings
This probably won’t be the season the Kings snap their 15-year playoff drought.
26. Detroit Pistons
This can only go upward for the Pistons, who last season refreshed nearly the entire roster after embracing a rebuild. There’s a lot to like about the roster. Grant is coming off of a breakout season, Bey and Stewart had nice seasons, and Killian Hayes looks like an NBA-level passer and defender. And of course, they added Cunningham, a do-everything point guard who should be in the Rookie of the Year race.
[ It’s too soon to call Killian Hayes anything other than a work in progress ]
How much better will the Pistons be, though? The East is stacked, and the Pistons are young and inexperienced. Rebuilds rarely follow a linear timeline. The roster will improve dramatically in some areas, and languish in others. Their playoff chances largely depend on how much better their core players will be, and how much value Cunningham is able to add from Day 1.
It’s tough to see Detroit being better than maybe a handful of teams in the conference, barring significant injuries from teams at the top.
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27. Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has established himself as one of the best under-24 players in the league. The cast surrounding him has some promising players, such as Theo Maledon, Lu Dort, Josh Giddey and Aleksej Pokuševski. Like the Pistons, they’re likely too young to make any notable noise.
28. Houston Rockets
Jalen Green will headline a fun roster that includes Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, Christian Wood and fellow rookies Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher. Until one of those players makes the leap to stardom, the Rockets will be a perennial lottery team.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
Evan Mobley headlines a young cast that includes a talented backcourt in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. They re-signed Jarrett Allen and recently traded for Lauri Markkanen. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff will have to figure out how to make all of the pieces fit, especially since Kevin Love is still on the roster.
30. Orlando Magic
Jalen Suggs fell into their laps on draft night after the Raptors passed on him, and he gives their rebuild a point guard with clear star potential. They have a lot of young pieces, but they’re in the beginning stages of a multi-year rebuild.
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.