Detroit Pistons in NBA play-in tournament isn’t as far-fetched as you think

Detroit Free Press

Is this the season the Detroit Pistons end the NBA’s longest playoff losing streak at 14 games?

It might seem far-fetched, considering they went 20-52 last season, worst in the Eastern Conference and second-worst in the NBA.

With the addition of No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, the Pistons enter Year 2 of the rebuild on general manager Troy Weaver with expectations to improve on the glimpses of excitement from Year 1. The young roster is a year older and perhaps better fitting after swapping veteran centers with Kelly Olynyk in and Mason Plumlee out.

And after the smashing debut of the play-in tournament last season, the NBA is retaining its new postseason format, which gives more incentive to teams in the middle and back of the standings to chase a playoff berth — like the Pistons.

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Now, the top 10 of 15 teams in each conference have a shot at the postseason after the 82-game regular season is complete.

A refresher on how the play-in tournament works:

• Seeds 1-6 automatically qualify for the postseason.

• Seeds 7-10 in play-in tournament; Seeds 9-10 must win twice to qualify for playoffs.

• No. 7 hosts No. 8; No. 9 hosts No. 10.

• Winner of No. 7 vs. No. 8 makes playoffs as 7 seed; loser hosts winner of No. 9 vs. No. 10 for the eighth and final playoff spot.

So after another hectic NBA offseason, how do the Pistons stack up in the race for the 2022 play-in tournament and playoffs?

With preseason games one month away, let’s take a look at the improved East ahead of training camps opening at the end of September.

THE DEAL: Pistons trade Sekou Doumbouya for 4 second-round picks, eat contract

Playoff locks

The Nets, Bucks, 76ers, Hawks, Heat and Celtics should be postseason locks, barring injuries. And Vegas’ win total over/under lines draw a clear line after these six teams: All six have over/unders set at 47.5 wins or higher. The next highest line for an East team is 43.5.

The Nets are the championship favorites, after adding proven depth (Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge) to the Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The defending champion Bucks will once again be title contenders, but they’re a clear level below the Nets.

The 76ers, by way of MVP runner-up Joel Embiid, could be a tough out, as long as GM Daryl Morey gets a few helpful contributors in the impending Ben Simmons trade.

The return of a healthy De’Andre Hunter should make East finalist Atlanta a more versatile, complete roster.

Miami added Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker to complement the young-old dichotomy of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro.

And Boston has two young All-Star forwards in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading a cast of new depth pieces (Dennis Schroder, Al Horford, Josh Richardson), and a new voice at head coach (Ime Udoka).

That means the Pistons are competing with eight other teams for four spots in a conference that suddenly looks a lot deeper than it has been in years:

Play-in tournament hierarchy

Pacers

Win total over/under: 43.5.

Additions: Torrey Craig.

Subtractions: Doug McDermott, Aaron Holiday.

The word: Lost to the Wizards in the play-in tournament finale last season. Remade the roster with the Caris LeVert-for-Victor Oladipo swap as part of the Harden blockbuster, but full lineup never materialized and first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren was fired. In is Rick Carlisle, one of the league’s most respected coaches, who coached Indiana for four seasons in the mid-2000s, before leading Dallas to a championship and nine playoff berths over 13 seasons.

The return of T.J. Warren could be a boon, after the 2020 All-Bubble First Teamer — he averaged 31 points in eight Orlando bubble seeding games — played in just four games last season, before foot surgery. A starting or closing lineup of Malcolm Brogdon, LeVert, Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner could certainly be fearsome. The question of their fit — more three-point sharpshooting needed, so perhaps Justin Holiday retains his starting job — will be one to watch early in the season.

Knicks

Win total over/under: 40.5.

Additions: Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker.

Subtractions: Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton.

The word: The Knicks were the conference’s biggest surprise last season, going 41-31 to earn the No. 4 seed in the first season under coach Tom Thibodeau and agent-turned-president Leon Rose. They did it on the back of the league’s fourth-best defense, but the offense was 22nd. Added firepower in the backcourt, but the continued development of former No. 3 pick RJ Barrett (17.6 points, 40.1% on 3s) is the key as the 21-year-old enters his third season.

Bulls

Win total over/under: 39.5.

Additions: Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso.

Subtractions: Lauri Markkanen, Thaddeus Young.

The word: The biggest makeover in the East was pulled by Chicago, and that’s not including the midseason trade for All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. Ball has made himself into a valuable two-way player, and DeRozan remains a dangerous scorer inside the arc with improved playmaking. Chicago’s timeline has ratcheted up to playoffs or bust, ahead of Zach LaVine’s 2022 unrestricted free agency. The talent is there, but they’ll need to outscore opponents, and the fit of DeRozan — a non three-point shooter who needs the ball to succeed — and LaVine is a question.

Raptors

Win total over/under: 37.5.

Additions: Scottie Barnes, Goran Dragic, Precious Achiuwa.

Subtractions: Kyle Lowry.

The word: Two seasons removed from an NBA title, the Raptors still have playoff heroes Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, but moved on from Lowry, their longtime vocal leader. They will be competitive but lack the top-end talent to be anything other than a play-in contender. Their other big offseason move was the contract extension for GM Masai Ujiri, universally recognized as one of the best minds in the game. How will he retool his roster? Don’t be surprised if Siakam’s tenure ends in the next year or so.

Hornets

Win total over/under: 36.5.

Additions: Mason Plumlee, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ish Smith.

Subtractions: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Monk, Cody Zeller.

The word: Took a swing on LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 pick in 2020 and the early returns are special after a Rookie of the Year debut season (15.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 35.2% on 3s). The Hornets faltered down the stretch last season but did make the play-in tournament, and the four-year, $97-million extension for Terry Rozier shows faith in their backcourt pairing. Don’t forget Gordon Hayward is on this team and had a nice year but only played in 44 games. They’ll need Ball to take another step in Year 2 to continue their progression.

Wizards

Win total over/under: 34.5.

Additions: Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday.

Subtractions: Russell Westbrook, Ish Smith, Robin Lopez.

The word: I love what Washington did this offseason to replenish the roster. It turned Westbrook into a trio of good role players on efficient contracts, then acquired Dinwiddie to create a potent backcourt next to Bradley Beal. If Dinwiddie, who played in three games last season before tearing his ACL in late December, can become the same player he was (20.6 points, 6.8 assists in 2019-20), this team will be competitive. A bonus would be the return to form for Thomas Bryant, also coming off ACL surgery, who was morphing into a solid center before his season ended in January, and the continued development of recent lottery picks Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija.

Cavaliers

Win total over/under: 28.5.

Additions: Evan Mobley, Ricky Rubio, Lauri Markkanen.

Subtractions: Larry Nance Jr., Taurean Prince.

The word: The Cavs may field their best team since LeBron James left in 2018. That’s not saying much. Since then, they’ve once again been terrible: 19-63, 19-46, 22-50. But they’re looking more competent this season, led by the backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Mobley gives them an exciting two-way big they can build around.

Rubio brings a stable backup point guard. Nance is a loss, but a big rotation of Jarrett Allen, Mobley and Markkanen is an intriguing combination of skill sets. And yes, Kevin Love is still on this team. Don’t be surprised if they win 30 games and stay in the mix for the play-in tournament for much of the season.

Pistons

Win total over/under: 25.5.

Additions: Cade Cunningham, Kelly Olynyk, Trey Lyles.

Subtractions: Wayne Ellington, Mason Plumlee, Sekou Doumbouya.

ANALYSIS: Why Pistons should be happy with free agency moves

The word: The Pistons were rated as the sixth-worst team in the league last season, and the competitiveness showed despite the franchise’s worst season since 1993-94. They are likely a year away from making a run at the play-in, as their youth movement continues to synthesize and the roster gets molded. But they won’t be a walkover. They’ll have a new-look with Cunningham running the show alongside 2020 first-round picks Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, and Olympic gold medalist Jerami Grant. The story line to watch will be the pairing of Cunningham and Hayes, and the progression of each player. They’ll both be 20 years old this season. 

Though not known as a positive defender, Olynyk brings a dimension the Pistons lacked last season in a stretch-five; he’s a career 36.7% 3-point shooter.

The bench has athletes in Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson and Saben Lee, and a solid veteran point guard in Cory Joseph, but 3-point shooting remains a big question for a team that lost its best shooter in Ellington and was below average last season in 3-point makes (11.4), attempts (32.5) and percentage (35.1%). Might be relying too much on Frank Jackson to repeat his late-season surge (40.7% on 3.8 3s per game in 18.5 minutes over 40 games).

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Magic

Win total over/under: 24.

Additions: Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Robin Lopez.

Subtractions: None.

The word: Young teams don’t succeed in the NBA. And this roster is full of former first-round picks with less than five years of experience. ACL injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz beget a complete teardown at the 2020 trade deadline. A nucleus of five former top-8 draft picks in Fultz, Isaac, Wendell Carter Jr., Suggs and Wagner is intriguing if the first two get healthy. They go super young with depth pieces Chuma Okeke, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton and Mo Bamba. The only players over 25 who should see the floor are holdovers Terrence Ross and Gary Harris, and Lopez.

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