AUBURN HILLS – Golden State and Cleveland meet in the NBA Finals for a third straight season and – judging by their combined 24-1 playoff record, a tidy .960 winning percentage – the trend line doesn’t bode well for the title chances of the league’s 28 idled teams for next season.
There has been a low buzz, in fact, that some front offices have resisted going all in for the foreseeable future, awaiting Father Time’s inevitable assault on the Warriors and Cavaliers.
You don’t have to be a fly on the wall at the 6 Championship Drive headquarters of the Pistons to guess this is not an enunciated policy of Stan Van Gundy’s administration. In fairness to whichever teams have adopted that tack, if any, the Pistons that Van Gundy inherited were in no position to go “all in” and, frankly, still aren’t.
But they’re closer than last season’s 37-45 record and return to the lottery would suggest. They’ve remade the roster enough, last season’s result to the contrary, to at least consider how they’d stack up in an East with a diminished Cleveland.
Boston, Toronto and Washington comprise the next tier in the East at present, at least based on last season’s evidence. Toronto could be in for a transformative summer with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka both headed for free agency. Washington’s strength rests in the East’s top backcourt, though both John Wall and Bradley Beal have had difficulty staying healthy over their careers.
Boston is the franchise with the greatest opportunity to close the gap on the Cavaliers over the summer. The Celtics own the No. 1 pick and probably will draft a playmaker, Washington’s Markelle Fultz the betting favorite. An even likelier avenue to taking a leap forward is free agency, where the Celtics have the wherewithal to offer a max contract and are believed to be poised for a strong run at Utah All-Star Gordon Hayward.
But the Celtics are no sure thing. They’ll likely lose two ex-Pistons who were regular contributors, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, and let’s see how the altered chemistry turns out for a team whose success appeared closely tied to a deep and interchangeably used bench. If Fultz is the pick, how will it affect Isaiah Thomas and the looming contract negotiations to come with him? Does an Avery Bradley have to be sacrificed to make room for a coming cap crunch after this summer’s spending spree?
As bitter as last season was to swallow for the Pistons, there’s a silver lining. Others had to spread their wings in the absence of Reggie Jackson and they figure to be the better for it. Van Gundy sensed a certain resolve among his core players to erase the sting of this season in exit interviews. They might not all be back – Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower led a frank self-assessment of the roster by the front office in the weeks after the season’s end – but no one will be crestfallen if the summer results in tweaking rather than seismic shifts.
The Pistons closed 2015-16 on a 16-9 rush after adding Tobias Harris, pushed Cleveland to the final minutes in all four playoff losses and then added two key bench pieces last summer. They justifiably anticipated internal improvement from a roster with no starter older than 27 and three under 25. So it isn’t delusional to believe the Pistons are much closer to the 44-win team of two seasons ago than last season’s 37-win bunch – assuming Jackson’s fifth gear returns, the full expectation.
Cleveland limped to the finish line this season, then flipped the switch and has resumed its reign on a perch two floors above anybody else’s ceiling in the East. How long can LeBron James – with an astounding 50,000 career minutes under his belt – remain the world’s best player? Will Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, both with a history of serious injuries, continue to dodge the injured list? Will the front office be able to fill out the roster with as many complementary shooters as it’s done the past two seasons?
It takes great talent and great fortune to sustain excellence in professional sports. A great individual player has more impact in the NBA than in any other sport, so the rare generational talent like James or Kevin Durant gives franchises an unusually wide window of opportunity. Cleveland and Golden State are doing admirable jobs of maximizing those windows.
The Pistons under Stan Van Gundy have resisted quick fixes. No first-round picks have been sacrificed to acquire starters Jackson, Harris and Marcus Morris in trade. They aren’t deluding themselves that they’re queued up behind the Cavs, first in line whenever time or misfortune diminishes Cleveland. So moves that put all their eggs in one shiny basket are unlikely.
But they aren’t twiddling their thumbs, either. If incremental gains are available to them, they won’t be passing based on a principle that any move short of something that makes them a threat to Cleveland – however tenuous, however briefly – isn’t worth pursuing.