Saturday, July 12, 2014

LeBron to Cleveland: How It Affects the Pistons

Through a letter to Sports Illustrated on Friday, LeBron James announced that he'll be returning home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. You know this by now, because you don't live under a rock. And if you do live under a rock, ESPN probably made sure to slip you a note telling you about it.  LeBron's return back home is as much about basketball as it is about the emotion and storyline of such a move. Yes, he has swallowed his pride over The Letter, and the burning of the jerseys and the raw anger brought on by The Decision.  Yes, he's coming home to the fans who have cursed his name for the last four years straight. But when you boil it all down, what's this all about?  Basketball; winning championships.  Dwyane Wade isn't aging well, and at 30 years old, Chris Bosh just isn't good enough to be the second banana on a title team.  These things became embarrassingly evident on national TV this past June.  LeBron's still good enough to win, if he has the team around him to provide the necessary support.  Miami couldn't give him that team; Cleveland potentially can. Hence the return to Cleveland. The return to play with Kyrie Irving, and the chance to play with Kevin Love and/or Andrew Wiggins (most likely "or", but we'll see). This is about basketball, and it greatly affects the Pistons.

For the sake of this post, I'll be assuming that Carmelo Anthony will go to the Chicago Bulls.  Why?  Well, to answer this, think about one thing, "Would I want to play for the Knicks in 2014-15, with Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire as my supporting cast?".  If you're having a hard time answering this with a resounding NOOOO MAKE IT STOP AHHHHH, reassess everything you know about basketball.  If Carmelo likes more of the money that he already has, he'll be back with the Knicks.  If he wants to win, and salvage whatever is left of his "legacy", then he'll play for the Bulls.  I don't know what he'll choose, but for the sake of my argument about how this offseason seriously impacts the Pistons, I'm going to assume Carmelo Anthony makes the smart basketball decision and signs with the Chicago Bulls.  At the very least, the Bulls replace Carlos Boozer's minutes with Pau Gasol.


THE PLAYOFF PICTURE

After today, there are a few conclusions you can make about the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference (again, going off of the assumption listed above).  There are three locks to make the Eastern Conference playoffs in the 2014-15 season: Cleveland, Chicago, Indiana; and yes, in that order.  Atlanta, Toronto, Brooklyn and Washington compose the next tier, and it's really hard to see any of those teams missing the playoffs next season, barring injuries for any of their major players.  That leaves one playoff spot to be tussled over between Miami, Detroit and Charlotte.  The newly-named Hornets made the playoffs last season, and the Heat appear to be returning Wade/Bosh and will possibly be adding Ariza or Deng.  To sum all of this up, the Pistons are going to need some help to be a playoff team in the 2014-15 season.  Let's just say off of a rough estimate that this is what the playoffs will look like.

1 v. 8: Cleveland v. Brooklyn; 4 v. 5: Atlanta v. Toronto; 
3 v. 6: Indiana v. Washington; 2 v. 7: Chicago v. Miami

1: Cleveland; 2: Chicago; 3: Indiana; 4: Atlanta; 5: Toronto; 6: Washington; 7: Miami; 8: Brookyln

First off, can you imagine the hype if Cleveland were to somehow play Miami in the first round of the playoffs?  Second, where do you see room for the Pistons in this scenario?  The only chance that Detroit has, is if one of the Toronto, Washington, Miami, Brookyln group suffers serious injuries, or Detroit experiences pure luck over the course of 82 games.  The Pistons roster as it is constructed now just doesn't have as much talent as these other teams.  Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana with LeBron, Kyrie, Melo, Rose and George speak for themselves.  The Hawks are a well-built, well-rounded team with Horford, Teague, Millsap, Korver and an awful lot of depth.  The Raptors are coming off of a 48-win season, with all of the major pieces returning, and they're likely to see improvments from Valanciunas, Ross and DeRozan.  Washington saw a flash of what John Wall can be, and can expect a level of improvement from the 23-year old Wall and 20-year old SG Bradley Beal.  The Wizards probably aren't going anywhere anytime soon.  Miami will have Bosh and Wade, which should be enough to see the playoffs, assuming Riley can put a supporting cast around them.  Not to mention what any extra additions (Deng and Ariza have been sought) will do for their teams.  The Pistons are in trouble unless their young talent grows up in a hurry, just as far as the general conference playoff picture goes.


As far as the Central Division goes, it surely seems like the Pistons have zero chance of even coming in second.  LeBron's Cavaliers won't be finishing in third in the division, let alone second.  The Bulls, with or without Melo pose a problem too.  So what's the upshot for a Pistons team that will have to possibly play 12 games against LeBron, Carmelo and Paul George?  It's hard to say.  If they can escape those 12 games against Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana with a .500 record, anything is possible.  But I can definitely see the Pistons, as they're constructed now, going 3-9 or 2-10 in that stretch.  At that point, 1/7 of your season is gone to a .167 winning percentage.  This doesn't even consider a Bucks team building for the future around Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.  The Central Division is stockpiling wing talent.

THE PISTONS ROSTER

So, how do you beat three teams with such elite perimeter talent?  I think the answer is to load up with perimeter defenders.  KCP had his flashes last year, but the Pistons other wing rotation players are mostly scorers (Meeks, Singler, Martin).  My first proposal is to do whatever it takes to lock DeAndre Liggins up coming out of summer league.  The Pistons are going to need perimeter defense, and he would be a cost-effective option.  Liggins has shown both throughout his career and in this year's Orlando Summer League, that he is ready to body up opposing wings.  Anything that he provides on offense would be a plus when considered with his value (and 6 fouls) on defense.  I'll go further into Liggins later on in a separate post reviewing the Orlando Summer League, but I think he would be a smart addition to the roster.  Regardless of how they do it, it's necessary that the Pistons upgrade their perimeter defense.

The other answer to the "competing with Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana" question is to upgrade at the PG position defensively.  Stan Van Gundy's offensive genius, coupled with the talent of Drummond, Monroe and a wing rotation that can shoot the ball should be enough to give the Pistons a boost on offense, regardless of how Brandon Jennings plays.  The more important thing would be to get somebody who isn't a straw-thin sieve to guard Derrick Rose (6'3, 190) and Kyrie Irving (6'2, 180).  At 6'1, 169 pounds, Brandon Jennings just isn't built right to compete with the upper-echelon PGs that are in this division.  His backups aren't much better off either, both coming in  generously listed at 6'0.  SVG's desire for a bigger lead guard has been communicated, and if the Pistons are going to do anything this season, they need to find one sooner than later.


It kills me to say this, but somebody like Mario Chalmers probably wouldn't be a bad pickup.  Big enough to defend well, plays tough, aggressive defense and shoots the three well.  Just don't let him run the offense, which shouldn't be a problem when you consider his low, low usage in Miami.  Demand has been slow for Chalmers this offseason, and if that holds, he might be a good "buy low" option on a two year deal.  Would you rather have Brian Roberts for $6M over two years or Mario Chalmers for $8M?  Neither guy is going to rejuvenate the fan base, but I think Chalmers gives the team a better chance at playing respectable defense against Rose and Irving.

THE POSITIVE SIDE

The Pistons are certainly outgunned at SF and PG in this division, up against five years worth of MVPs, two scoring titles and two of the three best players in the league under the age of 25 (Irving and George).  The good news is, even if the Cavs trade for Love and Chicago signs Gasol, you can make a case that no team in the Central has a big man rotation as good as Detroit's (Chicago with Noah, Gasol, Gibson is great too).  If Josh Smith is back in a bench role and strictly playing PF, the Pistons have three All-Star caliber talents under the age of 30 in the frontcourt.  Getting Smith to produce might prove to be a challenge, but he's only 28 and two seasons removed from being one of the best defensive rebounders in the NBA.  There's salvage value there, whether you like/choose to admit it or not is up to you.  That value lies in reversing the trend that has seen Smith's 3PAr rise and his FTr fall.  We'll see what he gives night-in and night-out, because it appears increasingly likely that Detroit will be holding on to Smith until at least this season's trade deadline.  The other members of Detroit's frontcourt are the true reasons to be positive about the direction that the Pistons are going in, regardless of the LeBron-to-Cleveland development.  Detroit's the only team in the division built around a 20-year old force of nature at C and a 24-year old reliable low post option at PF.  Detroit's success will be defined by how well they work around these two.  The next few years got a bit bleaker with yesterday's developments, but that shouldn't throw Detroit off track.

Did I mention that you should follow this blog on Twitter, @Kevin6CD, for easy access to new posts and content and my jokes about every hilarious signing the Orlando Magic have made this off-season.  Good for you, Ben Gordon and Channing Frye.  Good for you.

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