Making the playoffs is the ultimate zero-sum game. For every team outside the field looking to crash the party, another must be dislodged.
Two things can be true at once. The Pistons can be a better team in 2022-23 than they were a season ago but the playoffs aren’t necessarily any more accessible. There’s a path to the playoffs for the Pistons in the season ahead, but it won’t be by default. There are no obvious teams stepping out of their way to accommodate a great leap forward.
Look at the teams that made the playoffs in the East last season. Is there one that doesn’t expect to be at least as well positioned, if not better, than a season ago? Maybe Charlotte, which went 43-39 to secure the 10th and final spot in the play-in tournament, depending on what happens as Miles Bridges’ legal odyssey plays out, though year three of LaMelo Ball and the return of a healthy Gordon Hayward could make up the gap.
Other than that? Miami, Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia fully expect to open the playoffs on their home courts. Now that Kevin Durant has opted to remain in Brooklyn to team with Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, the Nets have every capability to oust one of them. Toronto, Chicago, Atlanta and Cleveland all see themselves as building off of 2022 win totals ranging from 43 to 48.
Of the four other conference franchises that didn’t participate in last spring’s postseason, New York and Washington are fully intent on changing that narrative. The Knicks traded for Jalen Brunson and seem the front-runners to add Donovan Mitchell as Utah continues to tear down its roster. Washington signed Bradley Beal, back from the injured list, to a massive contract extension with a no-trade clause that signals his team’s full intent to compete.
The Pistons have to leapfrog at least three of those teams to finish in the play-in tournament. They’d have to better their 23-win total from last season by 20 if 43 wins is again the magic number.
It’s not beyond their reach, for sure. Cleveland went from 22 wins (in a 72-game schedule) to 44 last season when the Cavaliers were in year four of rebuilding following LeBron James’ second tour of duty. A lot came together for Cleveland – Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland ascending to All-Star status, Evan Mobley teaming with Allen to transform its defense, Kevin Love finishing second in Sixth Man voting – but that can happen for rebuilding teams that have had three or four or five seasons to restock the pond.
The Pistons are in year three of Troy Weaver’s restoration and he’s done remarkable work, including somehow acquiring three extra first-round picks that have yielded Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Jalen Duren to stack atop Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. He found Isaiah Livers in the second round, took a low-cost flier on a high-end talent in Marvin Bagley III and has protected future assets in the process.
It’s conceivable enough of those young players surge in the season ahead to allow the Pistons to warp time as Cleveland did a year ago.
It starts with Cunningham. The enormity of the challenge he faced as a rookie can’t be overstated – the ankle injury to wipe out his first month, assuming primary playmaking duties before he’d taken a lap around the league, losing Jerami Grant to injury to focus even more defensive attention on him – and he did nothing but get better month over month. By season’s end, Cunningham had left no doubt he was a transcendent talent.
“When you’ve got a 6-7 point guard, that’s a good start,” no less an observer than Durant said of a bright Pistons future late last season, after Cunningham dropped 34 points on the Nets despite hobbling to the bench with a hip injury in the first half. “Somebody who can wreck a whole defensive game plan with his size, his talent, his skill. So that’s a great start. Then you go down the line and see Saddiq Bey, Marvin Bagley, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart … I mean, they have length and toughness down the line and a coaching staff that’s going to get the best out of their players.”
Subtract Grant from Durant’s list and add Ivey and Duren. It’s hard to argue that for the purposes of 2022-23 success, the Pistons wouldn’t have been better served by hanging on to Grant and his 20-point anchor and reliably stout defense than adding the draft pick that led to Duren. But it’s equally hard to deny that for the purposes of the type of sustained success Weaver strives to achieve, the future wasn’t better supported by adding the two players, Ivey and Duren, that Weaver said were at the very top of his seven-player list of targeted draft prospects.
Here’s how Durant concluded his unprompted endorsement of Weaver’s blueprint: “I could see this team being something of a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
Maybe that future arrives in 2022-23, maybe it takes a bit longer. Duren is 18, Ivey 19, Stewart, Cunningham and Hayes 21. That’s a young team if it’s suiting up in Ann Arbor or East Lansing, never mind amid the cauldron of the NBA. The important thing about the Pistons future is that it arrives with a strong wind at its back, whenever that comes.