The Northwest Division has its share of boom-or-bust potential. There isn’t as much top-end star power across the division as the Pacific or the Atlantic; instead, there is a relatively even share of talent on most teams, many of whom hope to compete for a Playoff berth.
As a matter of fact, every team in the division likely feels they will belong in the 2019 Playoffs. The Jazz, Thunder, Blazers and Timberwolves all qualified last year, while the Nuggets missed out by one game due to an overtime loss to the Wolves on the final day of the season.
Breakout players can change the narrative for teams. Donovan Mitchell’s impact on the Jazz last season is a perfect example. We are by no means predicting that anyone on this list will have the impact that Mitchell had last season, but a player coming into his own quickly or ahead of schedule gives a team another weapon to rely on. With all that being said, let’s examine six players from the Northwest division who we think can burst onto the scene for their respective teams in 2018-19.
Can we really consider Jamal Murray a breakout candidate? After all, he’s already a known commodity, but he’s not yet a star – and that’s the catch.
Murray is only 21 and entering his third season. That’s right, last year was his sophomore season. There was no sophomore slump, though. Murray’s game came alive last year. He posted 16.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He is already a dynamic scorer who, at 6-foot-4, elevates and protects the ball extremely well on his way to highlight-worthy dunks and smooth finishes.
But he can and should take another step forward this year. At media day this year, Murray said he packed on 15 pounds of muscle this off season, which should help him become a more versatile defender. Murray emphasized the team’s focus on defensive this training camp – a source of frustration for the team given how it missed the playoffs last year – which is likely music to the ears of Nuggets fans.
If Murray can develop into a defensive stopper, it makes him that much more valuable. The Nuggets have lots of guys who can score the rock, but Murray’s ability to morph into a great wing defender represents the next step in his progress. If he can do so, he’ll be in the running for an All-Star spot.
Jones played well last season, when he played. That much is evident when diving into his numbers and his team’s production while he was on the court (17.8 minutes per game). He saw more playing time this preseason (22.8 per game), which led to improved production in the form of 9.5 points, 3.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game.
But basketball is about more than numbers. And Jones does not disappoint; his effect is obvious in live action. He has the potential to grow into a quality starting point guard – remember, he’s only 22 years old. The main detractor from Jones’ success is playing time, or lack thereof. But he should see more opportunity this season than he did last year, and he should continue to produce when on the floor.
Jimmy Butler’s presence complicates things for Jones because if he remains, then Derrick Rose likely plays more minutes at point guard. But regardless of personnel, Jones needs and deserves minutes.
His production last season was clearly noticed around the league – evidenced by Phoenix inquiring about his availability when exploring the possibility of facilitating a Butler trade as a third party – so hopefully his value is equally high in Minnesota. If he gets the opportunity, look out for Jones to make waves this season.
Another Minnesota player primed to make an impression around the league, Josh Okogie has exhibited the type of well-rounded game that Coach Tom Thibodeau prefers. Given the opportunity he has as a wing in Minnesota (considering the Jimmy Butler situation), the 2018 first-round pick should receive a fair amount of playing time to show what he can do.
This is mostly circumstantial. If the relationship with Jimmy Butler is repaired – even for the short-term – his potential impact takes a hit. But Okogie boasts attributes that set him up for success for the short and long-term in the pros.
First of all, he is a long, capable defender. He disrupted lots of offensive sets through the first few preseason games. He also showed that he can contribute efficiently (for a rookie); he averaged seven points per game in 21.5 minutes.
And even Thibodeau has come out and publicly and said that he likes Okogie’s play. Earlier this preseaon, Thibodeau said in reference to his team’s play, “I didn’t like our bench tonight. I didn’t think they played well. I didn’t think our starters played well. But the thing that I do like with Josh is the energy. Like tomorrow he’ll bounce into the gym and he’ll be ready to go in practice. And to me, that’s an important step.”
Lots still hangs in the balance regarding Okogies’s role – namely, who might Jimmy Butler return in a deal if one materializes, and will said player(s) impede on Okogie’s playing time? Or, will Butler remain with the Wolves for part or all of the upcoming season?
But it seems like Thibideau will prioritize developing the young wing regardless of who else might be on the roster. Hopefully that remains the case because Okogie could develop into something special.
Grayson Allen is about as polarizing a rookie as exists this season. He has his haters, but he also has supporters – including teammate Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell knows what it takes to be a breakout player, having broken onto the scene last season in epic fashion.
And Mitchell clearly sees star potential in his teammate, Allen. He has been vocal in his support of Allen, claiming the rookie from Duke is in for “big things”, and implying that the sharpshooter could be the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year.
Allen’s numbers don’t quite support the latter, but he did impress with his poise and production in the preseason. He shot a surprisingly efficient 51 percent from the field this preseason on 45 attempts, including 52 percent from deep. He dropped 12.6 points in 19.4 minutes per game.
He proved he’s not afraid of the moment – not that that was ever in question for Allen. He definitely fills a need for Utah, and he should contribute to the team’s success this season. If Allen can keep his cool for the most of the season – a big if – then he’ll certainly produce at a relatively high level.
Collins fits the mold of the modern big man. He blocks shots, shoots the ball from deep and possesses a soft touch around the rim. He just needs to do all of those things more consistently.
While only entering his sophomore season, Collins recently inherited a vastly increased role. With the departure of backup big Ed Davis, Collins must step in and take on primary backup duties. And while Davis voluntarily left to join the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers seem less than heartbroken to see him go. Team GM Neil Olshey recently told NBA.com’s Brook Olzendam that the organization is pleased that that there will be playing time for the versatile rookie.
If Collin’s season was less-than-impressive last year, it’s only due to a lack of opportunity and familiarity. Remember, he was a rookie. And he only received 15.8 minutes per game – in which, he still managed 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds on .398 shooting.
A better indicator for him for the upcoming season is his lone season at Gonzaga. In 2016-17, Collins averaged 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 17.3 minutes per game, including shooting 48% from deep.
The Blazers don’t need a go-to scorer. They don’t even necessarily need a second scoring option. They need Collins to grow into a supplemental player who can come in and effect the game in a number of ways, which he can do thanks to his versatility and skill set. Expect more production and highlights from Collins this season, as his shooting and athleticisim should be on display far more regularly.
This last selection is as much a comeback player candidate as he is a breakout candidate. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a star, but tore his ACL after completing a chase-down block in in February of his freshmen season. His draft stock was hurt; he dropped from a first overall pick consideration to sixth overall.
Noel became the first Philadelphia rookie to forego his rookie season due to injury in what’s become a time-tested tradition – and which may continue this season thanks to an injury to Zhaire Smith suffered in early August. Noel flamed out in Philadelphia and moved on to Dallas, where he saw career lows last season in minutes, points, rebounds and most every trackable statistic.
But Noel proved that he still has value in four preseason games with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His best output came predictably when he logged the most playing time: in 34 minutes, Noel notched seven points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals.
Maybe he was never meant to be a franchise cornerstone, but he sure can stuff a stat sheet. And while his offensive game might not be terribly versatile, his overall game still seems to be. He is a glue guy who energizes the team with change-of-pace plays like blocks, dunks or key rebounds.
Considering Noel is on a team with two scoring savants, look for Noel to get lots of space and easy looks. And look for him to capitalize on it with dunks and other buckets around the rim. His presence should help the Thunder, and he should get a good amount of playing time both alongside Steven Adams and backing him up.
Breakout players are more than just happy accidents. They can energize a team generating momentum and effort out of thin air. Sure, they’re a feel-good story, and when their breakouts are big enough, they can be news onto themselves. But they really do move the needle for teams. They are assets that weren’t expected to appreciate nearly as quickly. They are also challenging to predict, and therefore, teams obviously can’t count on projected breakout players to contribute immediately, or at all. But each of the aforementioned players has made a strong case for themselves. With the season less than a week away, we won’t have to wait long to see which one’s produce, but we expect relatively big years from all six.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division
Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.
The Stretch Run.
With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.
As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.
But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.
At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.
On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.
Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.
With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.
And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.
At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.
After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.
And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.
Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.
But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.
Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.
On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.
The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.
But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.
You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.
This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.
If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.
Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.
And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.
Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.
But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.
NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success
Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.
It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.
The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.
But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.
“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”
Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.
“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.
“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”
Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.
“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.
Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.
“I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody I can represent as well.”
— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies) February 15, 2020
In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”
“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.
“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”
Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.
Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.
Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.
“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”
Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.
All-Star Weekend proved it.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division
In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.
The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.
As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.
The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.
Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.
At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.
The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.
Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.
The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.
With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.
The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.
Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.
Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.
The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.
A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.
Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.
The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.
The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.
Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.
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