AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons won the NBA title in their first year at The Palace. Next year, they move into another new arena. Wouldn’t that be a swell christening?
But it feels more like 2003 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference than 1988, the spring the Pistons left the Silverdome having conquered Boston for supremacy in the East before losing in seven – and, some would say, after winning in six – to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The Pistons won 50 games in 2002-03 and went into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. They were on the brink of elimination – down 3-1 to No. 8 seed Orlando – when a skinny rookie who didn’t play in half their games and finished 11th on the roster in minutes played over the regular season saved them. Remember how Rick Carlisle turned to Tayshaun Prince in desperation and he helped control Tracy McGrady over the final three games as the Pistons came back to avoid the upset?
Except it wouldn’t have been a huge upset, really. Orlando won just eight fewer games as the eighth seed and had a future Hall of Famer in McGrady at the peak of his physical powers.
Boston won 53 games this season to earn the No. 1 seed, but the Celtics find themselves down 2-0 to Chicago with the Bulls getting the next two games at United Center. The Celtics have a deep roster and Brad Stevens has mastered the difficult task of using a mix of 10 or 11 players regularly to find the right combinations on any given night to suit the opponent.
Yet nobody should be stunned if the Celtics get bounced in the first round, just as those 50-win Pistons 14 years ago were nobody’s lock to take down Orlando.
And that’s why there should be something between subdued optimism and – to borrow from Jim Harbaugh – enthusiasm unknown to mankind around 6 Championship Drive that the Pistons have every chance to make a significant leap forward from their 37 wins of 2016-17 to contention for the top of the East next season.
Cleveland is the only real dragon in the East and every year takes a little more tread off of LeBron James’ tires. He turns 33 next December and will approach 50,000 NBA minutes, regular season and playoffs, before he checks out of this, his 14th season.
The Cavs played with this season, perhaps a little too much, in order to preserve themselves for a playoff run, and ultimately wound up settling for the No. 2 seed. I don’t think they care much where they’ll start any particular playoff series, though it now appears there’s a decent chance they’d host Game 1 of the conference finals, anyway, unless Boston finds a way to win four of the next five after getting fairly dominated by the Bulls in games 1 and 2.
But Cleveland showed real chinks in the armor down the stretch of the season and their 3-0 lead over Indiana is every bit as deceiving as their sweep of the Pistons in the first round last season. It’s not so much the Cavs’ reliance on 3-point shooting – that’s the league these days – as their lack of defensive resistance. The Pistons wouldn’t know – the Cavs made their first 10 triples in a painfully unforgettable March 14 loss that sent the Pistons into a three-week swoon to doom their season – but Cleveland was eminently beatable after the All-Star break. Like, a 12-15 record and the NBA’s 29th-ranked defense – one-tenth of a point better than the Lakers – over that stretch.
When they make 3-point shots as they did that night against the Pistons, they’ll beat anybody. But they’ll need to make 3-point shots at rates close to unsustainable to remain a viable championship threat and might need to retool over the summer – without a lot of obvious means to accomplish it – to enter next season as the clear-cut Eastern favorite.
The Pistons won’t be alone in their belief they can close the gap on whichever teams wind up playing for the conference championship in another month. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagining for the Pistons to see their path to a significant jump forward. Reggie Jackson’s healthy return is the biggest key. The youth and stability of their roster are pluses.
They aren’t likely to stand pat over the summer. My guess is Stan Van Gundy will push for a move or two that adds certain scoring punch, putting more faith in his ability to mold team defense than manufacture offense in an era where too many teams can hang triple digits on the scoreboard even on mediocre shooting nights.
But he’s also going to expect – and reasonably so – individual improvement in the many young players on his roster with their best years ahead of them.
Those 2002-03 Pistons that won 50 games got bounced in the conference finals, made a few tweaks and won the NBA title in 2004 in an Eastern Conference field without a clear power. Their move to Little Caesars Arena makes it feel more like that era than the last time the Pistons switched homes.