Next season could be a deeply competitive season for the Eastern Conference. Last year’s top six teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Philadelphia Sixers — are all expected to be competitive next season. The Brooklyn Nets, a seventh seed in 2019-20, should make a major leap forward with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy. The Orlando Magic, or another of the seven non-playoff teams, could exceed expectations.
The Detroit Pistons could be in the mix, likely for one of those final playoff spots. And the landscape of the conference could change rapidly through the next four seasons as teams are better set up for success down the road than others.
So where do the Pistons rank among last year’s teams that missed the playoffs?
We ranked last year’s seven non-playoff teams based on their likelihood of contending for the NBA title by 2024. The following criteria was considered:
• The franchises’ core players, and how likely they’ll both be on the team and play at a high level through the next four seasons
• Future first-round picks
• Financial flexibility
• Front office reputation
While Detroit has some upside, they’re middle-of-the-pack when considering their situation compared to the competition.
1. Hawks (2019-20 record: 20-47)
The Hawks are far-and-away the best-positioned team on this list. Trae Young is arguably the East’s most electric player younger than 23 (apologies to Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum), and Atlanta has surrounded him with a strong core of developing young talent. February’s trade for center Clint Capela bolstered their frontcourt, and ideally, will help to improve their defense next season. They’re projected to have an excess of $40 million in cap space this fall, leading the NBA and positioning them to be a major player in free agency and the trade market. They also have the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, and all of their future first-round picks.
The Hawks have won fewer than 30 games for three consecutive seasons, and will need to see improvement from their young core to compete for the playoffs. Capela is the only projected starter with playoff experience, and the roster lacks depth. The latter can be addressed this offseason. Certain teams on this list will likely need to swing major trades within the next couple seasons if they want to be competitive. Atlanta’s best strategy is to be patient.
2. Bulls (2019-20 record: 22-43)
With a new executive vice president (former Denver Nuggets assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas), new head coach (former Thunder coach Billy Donovan) and the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, it’s more encouraging to buy Bulls stock today than it was when their season ended on March 11. Zach LaVine has emerged as one of the best scorers in the conference, and youngsters Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen should continue to improve. A bounce-back year from Otto Porter, who played just 14 games last season, would boost Chicago’s playoff odds next year and beyond.
Markkanen, who slumped last season, is set to enter restricted free agency next offseason, and LaVine’s deal expires in 2022. Both players are extension-eligible this offseason. The Bulls, who have won fewer than 30 games for three consecutive seasons, have to decide if it’s worthwhile to lock in a core that has yet to produce a playoff appearance.
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3. Wizards (2019-20 record: 25-47)
With former All-Star point guard John Wall set to return two years after injuring his left Achilles in December 2018, the Wizards appear to be entering a make-or-break stage. Bradley Beal is coming off of the best season of his career, averaging 30.5 points and 6.1 assists per game. After winning 40-plus games for five-straight seasons, the Wizards have been in the draft lottery two seasons without Wall. His ability to regain his All-Star form will dictate the course of the franchise through the next four seasons, considering his contract has nearly $133 million remaining. Wall and Beal both under contract until 2023, so Wizards are not projected to have cap space until then.
Davis Bertans, who became one of the league’s best shooters last season, is an unrestricted free agent. Washington has some young talent in Rui Hachimura, Moritz Wagner, Troy Brown and Thomas Bryant. They also have the ninth overall pick this year, and all of their future firsts. But if Wall can't return to his old self, his contract will hamstring any efforts to improve the roster. Trading Beal could improve the team’s asset and cap situation, but also push the team further away from playoff contention. Washington’s future hinges on Wall’s health.
4. Pistons (2019-20 record: 20-46)
The next four years could go several different directions. Like the Wizards, the Pistons’ future will be dictated by the health of one of their core players. After delivering what was arguably the most complete season of his career in 2018-19, Blake Griffin was limited by a knee injury to 18 games last season. If he’s healthy next season, the new Troy Weaver-led front office could put together a competitive team. The Pistons have the seventh overall pick in the draft and around $30 million in cap space this fall, which they could use to bring back Christian Wood (the third-best free agent on the market, according to ESPN) and make a run at a big-name free agent.
But while the Pistons have expressed interest in being competitive next season, they also have to plan for a future without Griffin. He will turn 32 in March and has more than $75 million remaining on his contract through two seasons. If he returns to form, would it be more worthwhile to ride out his contract and compete for a playoff bid, or trade him? Unlike Washington, Detroit doesn’t have a franchise player younger than 30 under contract. Not yet, at least.
Bringing Wood back would improve the Pistons’ overall talent level, but he’s an unrestricted free agent. Luke Kennard is Detroit’s only other player younger than 26 with an NBA track record. Improvement from Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk and Bruce Brown would help. A healthy Griffin could lead Detroit back to the playoffs in the near future, but without a proven young star on the roster, the franchise appears to be a ways away from truly contending.
5. Hornets (2019-20 record: 23-42)
Things are beginning to look up for Charlotte, which has the third pick in this year’s draft and cap space for the first time in four seasons. Devonte' Graham, a 2018 second-rounder, was a candidate for Most Improved Player last season and formed a solid backcourt alongside Terry Rozier. Nicolas Batum is entering the final season of his deal, and his $27 million remaining could be an important trade chip. The Hornets could also have more than $70 million in cap space next offseason. They’re in position to rapidly move up this list.
6. Knicks (2019-20 record: 21-45)
New York has new leadership in former agent Leon Rose, who was hired to lead basketball operations in March. The Knicks are well-positioned to rapidly remake their roster and snap a seven-year playoff drought. Their young players — RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Mitchell Robinson — have to prove that they can be core players worth building around. But with two first-round picks this year (Nos. 8 and 27), all of their future firsts, two future firsts from the Dallas Mavericks and financial flexibility this offseason and beyond, Rose could get New York on the right track in short order.
7. Cavaliers (2019-20 record: 19-46)
Two years after Lebron James’ departure, Cleveland appears to be a long way away from returning to the playoffs. Collin Sexton had a breakout sophomore season last year, but the roster is light on young talent. Kevin Love, 32, has $91.5 million remaining on his contract and has battled injuries in recent seasons. Former Piston Andre Drummond has a player option worth nearly $29 million that he’ll almost certainly take. Cleveland has the fifth pick in this year’s draft and all of their future firsts, and they’ll need to hit some of them to improve their four-year outlook.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons' future not as bright as a few other non-contenders