Pistons not only lottery team with eyes on ’15 playoffs

The Pistons are not the only team with their sights set on next year's postseason.
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Turn the clock back 12 months and put yourself in the position of fans of Toronto, Charlotte or Washington. Followers of those teams have combined to celebrate exactly zero NBA championships.

So if you think the Pistons are trying to crack a fan base skeptical about their odds of going from 29 wins to the playoffs, imagine trying to sell such a vision to Raptors, Bobcats or Wizards fans as the 2013 postseason rolled along without their participation – again.

Three of the eight Eastern Conference playoff berths turned over year to year. Toronto not only made the playoffs, but won its division and held home-court advantage over Brooklyn in the first round, ultimately losing in seven games. Washington, playing from the No. 5 seed, nearly swept the Chicago Bulls and already has served notice to top seed Indiana in round two. Charlotte wasn’t likely to beat Miami no matter the circumstances, but playing with a hobbled Al Jefferson robbed the Bobcats of generating real first-round intrigue.

I’d argue that the Pistons are starting from a place at least the equal of Washington a year ago and ahead of both Toronto and Charlotte at that time. That doesn’t mean the Pistons can assume a similar leap forward. It’ll take the same combination of shrewd moves and good fortune that found those franchises. And, at least for the first half of the equation, that will fall to the new chief basketball executive currently being sought.

But before the Pistons can focus on stealing a playoff spot from the teams ahead of them, they must also concern themselves with elbowing their way to the front of the pack with other lottery teams equally intent on playing into May and beyond next year.

Here are three teams that surely will go into the summer believing they’ll be solidly in the 2015 playoff mix:

  • New York Knicks – The Knicks didn’t wait for the season to end to shake things up, handing the franchise’s decision-making power over to Phil Jackson. Jackson has more rings than fingers, but all were won as a player or a coach. He’s a proven genius at melding the personalities provided him into a team, but new to the complexities of amassing that talent within the parameters of the salary cap and all that it entails.

    He’ll have no trouble putting the Knicks at the center of every high-profile free agent pursuit, but that’s not often been New York’s problem. It’s finding compatible parts and hiring the right coach to lead them. Pat Riley’s resume aside, there’s no overwhelming history to suggest that highly successful coaches have a greater chance to become highly successful GMs than those who’ve trained specifically to be such.

    All eyes will be on Carmelo Anthony, expected to opt out of his contract. He’ll surely have options, but it was New York’s allure that led him to force his way out of Denver. If Jackson wants him back – and that will be the first major decision on his plate – there’s a decent chance he stays.

    But then what? If Jackson lands Steve Kerr to be his coach, an intention widely reported, they’ll have two novices in critical positions and the NBA’s most withering media market waiting to parse their every utterance. The Knicks never lack for national media attention, even when they don’t merit it. They’ll be legitimately fascinating next year. Whether they’ll be playoff worthy is anybody’s guess.

    • Cleveland – The Cavs were just as disappointed in their season as the Pistons were in theirs. It really didn’t get any better for them after they parlayed a roll of the dice on Andrew Bynum into a mid-season addition of Luol Deng, leveraging Chicago’s desire to avoid paying luxury taxes into the free pickup of an All-Star.

      The Cavs, like the Pistons in the hunt for a new basketball chief executive, will face pressure like no other franchise – even the Knicks – to make the 2015 playoffs with Kyrie Irving’s free agency bearing down on them. They’ll go into the summer with perhaps $20 million in cap space – twice what the Pistons project to have after accounting for Greg Monroe’s $10 million cap hold.

      But Cleveland has always been a tough draw for free agents and it’s going to be a competitive marketplace this summer with as many as half the league’s teams having eight figures to spend, well more than typical. For all the high lottery picks the Cavs have pulled since LeBron James bolted, the nucleus is still not solidly in focus here.

    • Orlando – Boston doesn’t have cap space yet, Milwaukee won’t have much and Philadelphia – though potentially sitting on a whopping $30 million in space – doesn’t appear ready to mobilize its resources just yet. Orlando? Nobody’s quite sure which way the Magic will break after two desolate seasons in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure.

    The Magic have a couple of building blocks in Victor Oladipo and Nic Vucevic and a nice trade chip in Arron Afflalo. They’re more than a player away from contention, but the Magic go into the lottery in the No. 3 slot. If they wind up adding a potential No. 1 scoring option in Jabari Parker to go with their young core, then all of a sudden their projected $20 million in cap space puts the Magic in position to make a big leap forward. They also have New York’s lottery pick, currently No. 12.

    Check back tomorrow for another True Blue Pistons. We’ll look at three teams in the 2014 playoff field who could be vulnerable for leap-frogging by the Pistons.