AUBURN HILLS – The dust isn’t fully settled on the NBA off-season remodeling or, more accurately, there are still further modifications yet possible – likely, even – before the contractors bag up their tools and present the due bill.
But the Pistons have the roster they expect to take to training camp now and so do most of the East’s 14 other teams. Last week’s bombshell that Kyrie Irving wants out of Cleveland could tip the balance of power at the top of the conference. What New York does with Carmelo Anthony now that a new general manager is in place could have a domino effect that reshuffles the deck chairs for a few Pistons competitors in the East, but it’s unlikely to have a profound impact on the pecking order.
And that pecking order is what, exactly, as we head toward August – traditionally the quietest month on the NBA calendar?
Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference on paper as of today, from top to bottom, and where the Pistons fit:
Tier 1 – Cleveland – The Cavs didn’t do anything to get better over the off-season, but they began it with a 20-year lead in a 100-yard race. Whether they can smooth over the jagged feelings left by the outing of Irving’s trade request if he were to stay – or whether they can be made whole in trade if they accede to his wishes – will go a long way in determining if they can retain that cushion. As long as the Cavs get to the postseason with a healthy core of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Irving or his trade return, they’re going to be the presumptive and overwhelming favorite to get to the NBA Finals.
Tier 2 – Boston – Amid all the hype over the signing of Gordon Hayward and the young talent the Celtics have stuffing their pipeline – Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, most notably – there has to be some level of trepidation for what was lost. The Celtics sacrificed a major chunk of their rotation – and a corresponding piece of their chemistry, which seemed as critical to landing last season’s No. 1 seed as their depth of talent – in parting with Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk. It’s a tradeoff most teams would make, but it’s not a slam-dunk upgrade just yet.
Tier 3 – Washington and Toronto – Both have 50-win potential. Neither got better over the off-season, though. In fact, Toronto lost about as much as Boston in shedding Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker to keep Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka with C.J. Miles the only notable addition. Both are banking largely on internal improvement. The Wizards mostly need John Wall and Bradley Beal to stay healthy. If Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet aren’t ready, the Raptors are really going to miss Joseph.
Tier 4 – Milwaukee – The Bucks get their own tier. Too many questions to bunch them with the Wizards and Raptors, but there’s a lot of star power that starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo. We might not have a handle on where his ceiling is quite yet, but it’s … up there. Khris Middleton is really good. If Jabari Parker comes back at the All-Star break and looks like the guy he was before suffering his second ACL tear, there’s upward mobility from last season’s 42 wins.
Tier 5 – Detroit, Charlotte, Miami – Miami started 11-30, then went 30-11, missing the playoffs only via a tiebreaker with Chicago. The Heat appear to have a strong sense of who they are, which isn’t as common as you’d expect. Charlotte has a solid starting unit; how strong the bench is will be up to guys like Frank Kaminsky, rookie Malik Monk and Jeremy Lamb. If Reggie Jackson regains his 2015-16 form – and Jackson is confident in his physical status – then the Pistons are a solid playoff team in this year’s East.
Tier 6 – Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia, Orlando, New York – The 76ers are a chic pick to make the playoffs after adding J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson in free agency and anticipating the NBA debuts of the last two overall No. 1 picks, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Nothing will drive their success more, though, than a healthy Joel Embiid – and betting on the health of a guy limited to 31 games over three seasons due to injuries (back, feet, knee) that have decimated the careers of many big men seems risky. The Bulls, Pacers and Hawks have lost All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap and made moves that indicate patient rebuilds. Orlando just changed management teams and also talked patience over the summer. The Knicks…see above, re: Carmelo.
Tier 7 – Brooklyn is in debtors prison, paying off credit cards maxed out years ago by the foolhardy trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Nets tanked without having any light at the end of the tunnel. The new management and coaching staffs are doing their best, but it’s a long dig out of the rubble.