The inevitable Finals matchup happens – and yet there’s light at the end of the tunnel for Pistons, others in the chase

A roster built around a healthy Blake Griffin stands as a legitimate contender in an East without a clear kingpin.
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – The Finals matchups deemed inevitable before the 2017-18 season tipped off has eventuated. And yet for everybody chasing Golden State in the West and Cleveland in the East, there’s a little more light at the end of the tunnel than there’s been in a few years.

For those among the 28 other teams already fielding a playoff-capable roster, legitimate contention doesn’t seem as far down the road as it might have a few months ago. For those in rebuilding mode, the future doesn’t seem quite so distant as it might have with invulnerable champions sitting atop each conference.

Maybe the Cavs and Warriors aren’t so invulnerable, after all.

And a new Pistons management team that starts with last week’s naming of Ed Stefanski as senior adviser to owner Tom Gores might have a new perspective on the tweaks the roster it inherits might require to become an immediate and credible threat in the East – where the distance between the field and the top isn’t nearly as great as it appears in the West.

The East could be up for grabs as soon as next season. If you had to pick where LeBron James lands next season, Cleveland or the field, you’d take the field. If he opts in and stays with the Cavs, management would have a challenging path to build a better roster around him than the one that earned a No. 4 seed this season despite James playing 82 games for the first time.

Philadelphia and Boston would go off as conference favorites and they appear set up to contend for the foreseeable future. But they both face roster decisions over the summer just as likely to have a negative impact on chemistry and composition as a positive one. The Sixers don’t have Bird rights on four key free agents – J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, Amir Johnson and Ersan Ilyasova. Marcus Smart, at the heart of much of what Boston does, wants a big payday that would imperil Boston’s cap sheet. They don’t appear invulnerable, either, in other words.

Stan Van Gundy felt after the acquisition of Blake Griffin – and with a summer to scheme to fully exploit his ability and maybe add a few more complementary pieces around him – that the Pistons were not just a playoff contender but one that could push for at least middle-of-the-pack playoff status, perhaps a team that opens the playoffs at home.

Whether the new management team, once fully installed, views the roster similarly remains to be seen. Gores was unquestionably an enthusiastic supporter of the Griffin acquisition, though, and it’s reasonable to guess he’ll lean toward finding new leadership willing to give a lineup that suits his talents a fighting chance to prove itself.

Worth noting that in the four games Griffin played with both Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, the Pistons went 3-1 with the only loss coming in overtime at Houston – a Chris Paul hamstring injury removed, likely, from knocking off Golden State to get to the Finals. Small sample size, sure, but there was nothing in those four games that would dampen enthusiasm for that lineup’s potential.

The Pistons were 27-18 with Jackson and 12-25 without him. Sometimes numbers don’t tell the full story, but that’s a pretty compelling snap shot. The Pistons don’t need 82 games at full go from Jackson or Griffin next season, but if they can both give them 70-plus then it’s going to get pretty interesting the second time around at Little Caesars Arena.

The narrative that Griffin, especially, and Jackson are injury prone is tough to ignore, but it’s also overblown. Their injuries haven’t been chronic, degenerative or repeated. There’s no reason to believe any one was related to the next or the previous. For all the science employed in today’s game, no one’s come up with a way to prevent the random sprained ankle.

And so on top of everything else, maybe the Pistons are due for some random good luck on the injury front.

If they get it, they don’t appear to be starting the 2018-19 race from much behind those who’ll go off as favorites next season.