The NBA is in an age of parity.
Five different teams have won the NBA championship over the past five seasons — notable considering the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs won all but four of the championships in the seasons between Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls run, which ended in 1999, and 2008.
The 2023 playoffs reflected the small gap between the NBA’s middle and elite. The eighth-seeded Miami Heat pulled off three upsets to make the Finals, and the top-seeded Denver Nuggets defeated a No. 4 seed and No. 7 seed en route to the NBA Finals, and eventually the franchise's first title.
More than a dozen teams have a legitimate chance to win the 2024 title. And there’s a smaller group of teams — including the Detroit Pistons — positioning themselves to enter that conversation soon.
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After winning just 17 games in 2022-23 following four solid years of rebuilding, this season will be pivotal for Detroit. Cade Cunningham is healthy and back after missing 72 games last season, Monty Williams is the new (highly-paid) head coach and the lead decision-makers are optimistic that the team will finally make meaningful strides.
“We’re ready to take a step forward,” general manager Troy Weaver said at Williams’ introductory press conference in July. “We had a lot of injuries last year that derailed us and slowed us down, but we’re ready to take a step forward. That’s no different from anything else. We’re ready to go.”
It would take tremendous bad luck for the Pistons to lose more games than they did last year, but it’s unclear if they’ll improve enough to enter the play-in — or playoff — conversation.
The Pistons will navigate a difficult Eastern Conference that saw nine teams finish at .500 or better last season. Like any year, several teams at the bottom or middle of the pack will make a leap forward. Here’s what Detroit will be up against.
Six contenders, then an open field
Six of the East’s top seven teams last season — the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat — are clear-cut contenders. The remaining four teams that made the postseason — the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls — are wild cards. To crack the play-in, the Pistons will likely need at least two of them to decline.
The Nets, who opted to retool on the fly last season after trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, are led by Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Ben Simmons. Barring a leap from the first two (or a healthy season from Simmons), they appear to be safely in the middle of the pack. Bridges averaged 26.1 points in Brooklyn with strong efficiency and may establish himself as a true lead option.
The Hawks are also safely in the middle. They hired Quin Snyder in February, and extended star guard Dejounte Murray in July. They also traded John Collins to the Utah Jazz, opening up a $25.3 trade exception that can be used to add another difference-maker. With Murray and Trae Young, they have the roster to match last season’s 41-41 record and an avenue to surpass it.
The Bulls and Raptors, on the other hand, may be closer to blowing up their cores rather than maneuvering toward the postseason. Toronto lost point guard Fred VanVleet to the Houston Rockets in free agency, and two-time All-NBA selection Pascal Siakam will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024 — raising the possibility that they will trade him. The Bulls are in a similar scenario, as DeMar DeRozan will also enter unrestricted free agency next year.
Nonetheless, both teams have starpower and will be in the play-in race until they decide not to be.
That pushes the Pistons to the bottom group that includes the five Eastern teams left out at the end of the regular season — the Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. The Magic and Pacers are primed for improvement, boasting young cores that won 34 and 35 games last season, respectively. The other two teams may be better off tanking.
Where the Pistons fall in the pecking order will come down to several factors.
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A narrow path to the postseason
For the Pistons, we can expect some positive regression from last season. Cunningham’s return alone will significantly upgrade their talent level. The 2021 No. 1 overall pick is back after a shin injury, and subsequent surgery, limited him to just 10 games last season. A productive offseason gives him good odds to be next season’s most improved player.
If Cunningham emerges as a superstar, the Pistons will have stronger chances at matching or surpassing the Magic and Pacers. But their ceiling will also depend on the extent that their other core players — namely Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren — are able to build off of promising rookie seasons and contribute on both ends of the floor.
Orlando went 29-31 with Markelle Fultz in the lineup last season, and improvements from 2022 No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero and rising star Franz Wagner (Michigan) would give them a clear path to a postseason bid. The Pacers also went .500 — 28-28 — with guard Tyrese Haliburton, who made his first All-Star appearance this past February and is among the league’s fastest-rising stars. After adding Bruce Brown and Obi Toppin this offseason, they have improved depth and are well-positioned to be competitive.
Detroit may already have an advantage over the Washington Wizards — who moved on from Bradley Beal this summer and will be lead by Jordan Poole (Michigan) and Kyle Kuzma (Flint) next season — and the Charlotte Hornets, who added No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller this summer and largely played things safe — outside of welcoming back Miles Bridges. The Michigan State alumnus went unsigned last season after being charged with three felony counts, one for domestic violence and two for child abuse, and received a 30-game suspension from the league; credited with missing 20 games from 2022-23, Bridges will miss the Hornets' first 10 games of this season
The Pistons are on the right track, boasting one of the NBA’s most talented young rosters and maintaining financial flexibility after trading for Joe Harris and Monte Morris this summer. But they may have to wait at least one more season for a postseason appearance.
The East is deep and boasts as many as 12 teams who will push for the playoffs. It’ll be a difficult path for the Pistons, but breakout seasons from some of their young players could swing the odds back in their favor.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons' postseason odds depend on Cade Cunningham