The Pistons were the textbook definition of a middle-of-the-road team in 2018-19. They won as many as they lost, finishing 41-41, and they finished smack dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. Seven teams finished ahead of the Pistons – the No. 8 seed in the playoffs – and seven finished behind them in the draft lottery.
Teams give up playoff spots grudgingly. The Pistons were one of three Eastern Conference teams to go from the 2018 lottery to the 2019 playoffs. Of the three who fell out, Cleveland’s exit was precipitated by LeBron James’ free-agent departure and Washington’s was tied closely to John Wall missing 50 games. Even Miami, the third 2018 playoff team to regress, was pinched by ’18 All-Star Goran Dragic missing 46 games.
Here’s a look at the seven teams that finished ahead of the Pistons and how off-season changes have altered their outlook for 2019-20.
HEAD OF THE PACK
Milwaukee (60-22) – The Bucks, aware of the 2021 ticking clock that makes Giannis Antetokounmpo a free agent, did what they had to do in giving Khris Middleton a five-year, $178 million contract. Doing so meant hard choices elsewhere, triggering a sign-and-trade of Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks also lost Nikola Mirotic, who left money on the table to return to Europe. The biggest additions are Wesley Matthews, the likely starter in Brogdon’s spot, and Robin Lopez to back up twin brother Brook in the middle. The Bucks suffer for the Brogdon-Matthews exchange, though maybe a leap for 2018 No. 1 pick Donte DiVincenzo can narrow the gap. They also picked up elite sniper Kyle Korver, who at 38 is likely due for a more limited role.
Philadelphia (51-31) – Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick are out, Al Horford and Josh Richardson are in. Those moves give the 76ers an oversized likely starting five with Tobias Harris at small forward next to Horford and Joel Embiid. It wouldn’t be a shocker – given Embiid’s injury history and Horford’s age (33) – if the 76ers play a significant number of their games with one or the other taking the night off. That will make for fewer awkward defensive matchups for both Horford and Harris but also give Brett Brown enough of a feel for how the bigger lineup fits with an eye toward maximizing playoff versatility and efficiency. With Butler gone, the ball should again be in Simmons’ hands most often; how he matures will dictate Philadelphia’s ceiling. The 76ers had to patch together a second unit to accommodate the big contracts going to starters, so depth could be an Achilles heel.
ON THEIR HEELS
Toronto (58-24) – The Raptors won the NBA title and then watched Kawhi Leonard – and Danny Green, it shouldn’t be forgotten – exit in free agency. If that makes them long shots to defend their title, it doesn’t mean they aren’t a solid bet to again finish in the top four in the conference. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet all played major roles in winning the title. O.G. Anunoby, entering his third season, could have a Siakam-level breakout after missing the playoffs while recovering from an appendectomy. Pistons 2015 lottery pick Stanley Johnson landed with the Raptors, looking for a career reboot, as did his former Arizona teammate, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The wild card is whether the Raptors will go all in for a title defense or start selling off pieces as the trade deadline nears – veterans Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka are all on the final years of their contracts – to better position themselves for a shorter rebuild.
Boston (49-33) – Danny Ainge’s grand vision – focused for the last few seasons, at least, on bringing in Anthony Davis – might not have come to pass. But the Celtics still could bounce back from last season’s relative disappointment even after losing Horford and Kyrie Irving. Kemba Walker’s production replaces Irving’s and he’ll almost surely be a better chemistry fit. Gordon Hayward will be two years removed from his devastating leg injury and perhaps closer to the All-Star who signed with the Celtics in 2017. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should be ready to take on more with Marcus Morris and Horford out. Enes Kanter, added in free agency, puts up big numbers, whatever his defensive deficiencies. And Ainge used his draft capital to bring in two players who could defy the notion that contenders don’t have room for rookies in ultraproductive juniors Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards.
THE NEXT WAVE
Indiana (48-34) – The Pacers lost three productive starters (Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic) and three other rotation pieces (Wes Matthews, signed off the buyout market to replace Victor Oladipo, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans) but there’s a case to be made that there won’t be much of a dropoff – and especially not if Oladipo, who suffered a ruptured quad in late January, comes back at something close to All-Star form whenever he makes it back. Brogdon is an upgrade over Collison and Jeremy Lamb is a reasonable replacement for Bogdanovic. The Pacers drafted 7-footer Goga Bitadze three picks after the Pistons took Sekou Doumbouya and expect him to slide into the rotation behind Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, expected to replace Young as the starter and give the Pacers, like Philadelphia, an oversized frontcourt. T.J. Warren came via trade from Phoenix in a salary dump and T.J. McConnell signed on for more depth at point guard. They also still have T.J. Leaf, giving the Pacers the NBA’s T.J. monopoly.
Brooklyn (42-40) – The Nets grabbed the headlines as free agency dawned, immediately coming to agreements with both Irving and Kevin Durant. But Durant won’t play in 2019-20 and Irving is slotting into the spot vacated by 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell. In other words: The future is cloudier than the headlines would have you believe. The Nets also lost a number of role players – DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, Jared Dudley, Allen Crabbe – that contributed to a chemistry often cited as key to their playoff run. DeAndre Jordan joined forces with Durant and Irving and he’ll team with Jarrett Allen to give the Nets elite rim protection. Caris LeVert, entering his fourth year, will be expected to help Irving carry the scoring load. Ex-Piston Spencer Dinwiddie has turned himself into a valuable player whether starting or coming off the bench. And Joe Harris, an elite 3-point shooter, is back to resume his role.
Orlando (42-40) – If you liked the 2018-19 Orlando Magic, you’ll … like this group pretty much the same? Not much has changed. The Magic spent big to retain Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million) and Terrence Ross (four years, $54 million). All nine of the players who comprised Steve Clifford’s primary playoff rotation as the Magic lost to Toronto in the first round return. The only addition of consequence was Al-Farouq Aminu, a starter in Portland who figures to come off the bench behind Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, who emerged over the second half of his second season as the player the Magic envisioned when they used a 2017 lottery pick on him. A similar step forward for 2018 lottery pick Mo Bamba would give Clifford a little more lineup flexibility and depth up front.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the seven teams that finished behind the Pistons in the conference standings to see which ones made changes to give them the best shot at challenging for a playoff berth.