No playoff excuses for Detroit Pistons without LeBron James in Eastern Conference

By @EvanPetzold

LeBron James has officially left the Eastern Conference.

Now, the Detroit Pistons have a chance to be the dark horse.

With James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pistons odds to win the 2019 NBA Championship increased from 500/1 to 150/1. First, in order to take home a title, the playoffs need to be reached.

The Pistons return a starting lineup of point guard Reggie Jackson, shooting guard Reggie Bullock, small forward Stanley Johnson, power forward Blake Griffin and center Andre Drummond. The team, coached by 2018 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, has added solid depth with signings of point guard Jose Calderon and small forward Glenn Robinson III.

As expected, Luke Kennard will backup Bullock, Jon Leuer will be second to Griffin and Eric Moreland will understudy Drummond.

Even though none of the players the Pistons boast are MVP candidates, it’s OK. All seven active MVPs are in the Western Conference – James, Kevin Durant, James Harden Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Derrick Rose.

Predictions for 2017-18

Just a year ago, the Pistons finished ninth in the Eastern Conference. Two years ago – tenth. Three years ago – eighth. Despite being projected to be in the middle of the playoffs in a weak conference, the Pistons failed to execute.

The 2017-18 Eastern Conference played out like this:

Take James out of the equation and the Cavaliers are out of the playoff mix. The Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors are a toss-up for the top three spots, while the Pacers, Wizards, and Bucks could land anywhere from No. 4 to No. 6.

If all goes as expected, the Pistons, Hornets, Heat and Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Magic, and Hawks would be left fighting for the final two openings in the Eastern Conference; which basically means it will be between Detroit, Charlotte, and Miami.

Here are my predictions (barring injuries) for the 2018-19 Eastern Conference:

The good news is, for the first time in two seasons, the Pistons should have enough to make the playoffs under Casey.

The main question marks in the Motor City surround the ability of the team to gel, make developmental steps in the right direction, and health.

Blake & Andre

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

When Griffin came to town from the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 29, 2018, he gelled well with Drummond, who has been in Detroit for his entire six-year career.

In order for the Pistons to be successful in the 2018-19 season, the two need to continue to click on all cylinders. There is no room for error or argument between the clear-cut stars.

There’s not much of an explanation for how to do this, other than to just get along. While it’s unexplainable, keeping the locker room morale high is important and it starts with Griffin and Drummond.

Save yourself, Stanley

(Photo by Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports)

Developing players start with 22-year-old Stanley Johnson. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, he showed a glimpse of dominance two years ago in the playoffs, locking down James in the first round against Cleveland. In the 2016-17 season, Johnson averaged just 8.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game.

For a former No. 8 overall pick, that’s not enough. He needs to give the Pistons more – around 12-6-3 per game – in order to be considered a valuable player on the roster.

Fixing his problems comes with finding offensive success. Johnson was one of the worst players in the NBA when attempting to score. He shot 35.3 percent and 37.5 percent from the field in 2016-17 and 2018-19, respectively. He only converted on 28.6 percent of 3-point attempts last season and turned the ball over 1.1 times per game.

A form of motivation for Johnson could come in Robinson III, who will be breathing down his neck for opportunities at the small forward position. Last season, the 6-foot-7, 215-pound former Michigan Wolverine averaged 4.1 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 0.7 assists while battling through injuries.

Reggie’s health

(Photo by Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports)

Since the 2015-16 season, Jackson has missed time due to an ankle injury, illness (twice), sprained knee, and a sprained ankle. This most recent season, he was held to 45 games due to his sprained ankle.

Jackson, at 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, has a problem staying on the floor. Most successful teams in the NBA are able to win in large part because of their point guard making plays. Jackson is a playmaker, but he can’t do it on the bench in a suit and tie.

The 28-year-old needs to be on the floor, posting his 14.6 points, 5.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game average night in and night out for Detroit.

The Pistons need a few things that haven’t gone their way in the past to lean toward them. However, if the cards fall in the right order, especially with James out of the picture, Detroit should make the playoffs and could even be considered a dark horse in the Eastern Conference.