Coming from behind: The teams most likely to chase Pistons for a playoff berth

Blake Griffin’s knee injury late in the season likely cost the Pistons a playoff seed or two in 2018-19.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons will enter training camp a deeper, more versatile and more formidable team than the one that broken even at 41-41 last season and grabbed the East’s final playoff berth despite Blake Griffin missing four key late-season games with a knee injury that probably cost them one or two seeds in the standings.

So they’ll be focused on picking off a few of the teams that finished ahead of them in the standings and challenge for a top-four seed in 2019-20.

But there will be two or three teams, at least, that finished behind them and start the season believing they can overtake the Pistons to crash the 2020 playoff field.

Here’s a look at the seven teams that finished in the 2019 lottery and how their prospects for 2019-20 were affected by off-season comings and goings:

READY TO POUNCE

  • Miami (39-43)
  • – After a run of injuries undermined last season’s playoff run, the Heat moved aggressively to add Jimmy Butler in free agency. It came at the cost of leading scorer Josh Richardson, who went back to Philadelphia in a sign and trade. The Heat cleared other cap room to squeeze in Butler by dumping Hassan Whiteside’s contract on Portland, assuring a broader role for 2017 No. 1 pick Bam Adebayo. One of the key injuries last season was to Goran Dragic – he missed 46 games – and a return to something near his 2018 All-Star form would go a long way toward elevating the Heat to playoff status. Miami also could get a boost from Dion Waiters, who struggled with conditioning after returning from injury last season. There were nights 37-year-old Dwyane Wade was Miami’s best player last season – he averaged 15 points over his 72 games – so don’t overlook his absence or the leadership and force of personality his presence lent to a Miami team which is never an easy out.

NEXT LEVEL

  • Atlanta (29-53)
  • – They’d be ahead of schedule if the Hawks went from 29 wins to the playoffs this early in their rebuild, but the Hawks were a different team after the All-Star break last season and have two potential stars in Trae Young and John Collins, the last two No. 1 picks. Young averaged 19.1 and Collins 19.5 points last season and another 2018 first-round rookie, Kevin Huerter, opened eyes before getting shut down over the final 20 games with an injury. Huerter appears destined to be one of the NBA’s elite shooters. The Hawks traded starter Taurean Prince to acquire more draft capital and let Dewayne Dedmon walk in free agency, so there is still roster work to do. But two top-10 picks – De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish – give the Hawks more size and athleticism on the wings to add to a roster built to play fast.

  • New York (17-65)
  • – It surely wasn’t the summer the Knicks envisioned when they did all in their power to lose games last season to up their odds at landing the No. 1 pick with Zion Williamson in mind and using up to $70 million in cap room to lure two elite free agents from among the field of Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. But the Knicks spent their money liberally – on short-term deals to give them the opportunity to try it again next summer – on seven productive veterans. Three of them – Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington – are former Pistons. They also signed Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Elfrid Payton to add to a young core of Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett. It’ll take some sorting out to figure out roster overlap – free agents Morris, Randle, Gibson and Portis are all best suited to power forward, where Knox also fits best – but the Knicks won’t be the pushover they were last year.

  • Chicago (22-60)
  • – The Bulls went all in on tanking last year, too, but got bumped down to seventh in the lottery and took North Carolina freshman point guard Coby White. The Bulls signaled their intent to compete this season, though, by spending at that position in free agency – signing Washington’s Tomas Satoransky – rather than turning the position over to White and taking their lumps again. The trade-deadline deal for Otto Porter gave the Bulls an immediate boost last season and he fits well alongside the two crown jewels of Chicago’s rebuild, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. Another free-agent signing that confirmed Chicago’s intent to compete in 2019-20: Indiana veteran forward Thaddeus Young.

WORK TO DO

  • Charlotte (39-43)
  • – The Hornets not only lost third team All-NBA guard Kemba Walker but also third-leading scorer Jeremy Lamb. That’s 41 points that walked out the door. The big addition – acquired in a sign and trade with Boston to replace Walker – is point guard Terry Rozier to a contract (three years, $57 million) that raised eyebrows. The Hornets remain hamstrung by their cap situation with five players – Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – all making between $13 million and $26 million next season. The development of the three most recent lottery picks – Malik Monk, Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington – will be the most important aspect of Charlotte’s season.

  • Washington (32-50)
  • – What Washington decides to do with Bradley Beal will be the most compelling issue on the Wizards’ 2019-20 agenda. John Wall’s supermax contract – four years, $171 million – kicks in this season but he is very unlikely to suit up after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the spring. Beal clearly doesn’t fit with a team whose projected starting lineup includes Thomas Bryant, No. 1 pick Rui Hachimura, 2018 lottery pick Troy Brown and ex-Pistons point guard Ish Smith. Washington also took a shot on Isaiah Thomas, who has struggled since undergoing hip surgery two years ago. The Wizards might be the safest bet to finish with the East’s worst record this season.

  • Cleveland (19-63) – Ex-Michigan coach John Beilein could probably take the team he’ll field in his NBA maiden voyage to the Final Four, but he’s not very likely to get them to the NBA playoffs. Colin Sexton closed his rookie season strongly and he joins 2019 lottery pick Darius Garland, another point guard, as the key cogs in life after LeBron James. Much like Beal and Washington, Cleveland and Kevin Love are an odd union given the Cavs’ current arc.
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