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Optimism Ranks Part 3

If you missed the full criteria primer, please check it out here. There are many elements you could argue are important to a team’s future, but I believe the seven I have chosen encompass the essentials for believing in a team’s outlook. Some of these certainly matter more than others, so additional weight (3 tiers of importance) has been given to the more important categories. Without further ado, let’s see how bright the Eradicated Eight’s futures look under a microscope, continuing today with the teams #3 and #4: Chicago and Detroit.

4) Detroit Pistons 

Prospects (3)

Detroit doesn’t have a lot to boast about in their prospect cupboard. Their top youngster is Luke Kennard, who is just a hair over 24, so I’m going to count him for this category. Kennard actually has a pretty impressive offensive profile. He has increased his efficiency every year he has been in the league. Those increases also  came with increases in usage each season as well, making his efficiency spikes all the more impressive. He’s a 40% career 3-point shooter and has increased his volume each year, too. Among wings, he is actually in the 90th percentile in assist rate, per Cleaning the Glass.

The problem with Kennard has been his health, as he’s struggled with injuries throughout his young career. Their only other high-end prospect is Sekou Doumbouya. Sekou was their 2019 draft selection, but he saw just under 20 minutes a night, despite Detroit being a non-contending team this year. The highly touted Frenchman is just very raw at this point, as he entered the NBA as the league’s youngest player. He has plenty of time to develop into the rangy athletic versatile 6’9” force that Detroit envisioned on draft night. Bruce Brown is worth mentioning for his stout defensive skills, but he is not a needle-mover for me.

Recent Performance (2)

The Pistons ran the East in the early 2000’s but have been over .500 just once since 2008. They have avoided ever bottoming out (no seasons below 25 wins), but that’s probably not a good thing, as it has hindered their draft slots over the years. Finally, Detroit has gone 11 straight seasons without a postseason victory, as they have been swept in all three of their appearances (‘09, ‘16, ’19). 

Star Power (6)

Blake Griffin! I think some people will laugh, but Griffin made the All-NBA (third) team just one season ago. Last year, he averaged 24-7-5 with efficient shooting and led the Pistons to the playoffs with a rather mediocre-at-best roster. Obviously injuries are a major concern, but if Griffin can get back to 100%, he is still an excellent player.

Free Agent (2)

Motor City is yet another city amongst the Eradicated Eight that doesn’t attract premiere free agents. The most memorable free agents I recall Detroit landing was the infamous Ben GordonCharlie Villanueva pairing back in 2008. The other blunder they made in the past decade was signing Josh Smith, who had to be waived just a few months into the second season of a 4-year contract. No true top-flight free agents have decided to take their talents to Detroit in the last decade or so.

Overall Organizational Competence (5)

While winning hasn’t been very common recently, the Pistons haven’t exactly been a blundering organization. Stan Van Gundy and Dwane Casey have both been solid coaching options who have taken turns running the show for the last six seasons. It is true that their drafts have left a bit to be desired, with Luke Kennard being their only hit as of late, but even he was selected one slot ahead of a superior SG in Donovan Mitchell. However, they recently added Troy Weaver to take control of their front office, a move which has been praised across the NBA universe. Weaver excelled at helping OKC draft very successfully, as well as nail the Westbrook and Paul George trades, setting up the Thunder very nicely for the future.

Roster Flexibility (9)

The Pistons are one of a handful of teams with a pile of cap space this summer, and outside of Blake Griffin they have really nothing clogging their cap sheet. I think they could get even off of Blake’s deal at a reasonable price, as he still can play at a high level, and only has one season on his current contract beyond 2020-21.  

Draft Assets (4)

Detroit is mostly neutral as far as draft assets go. They have all of their own 1st round picks going forward, but owe out most of their upcoming 2nds, which is partially offset by two likely slightly worse incoming 2nds. They will have the 5th best odds in this year’s lottery to try to find their next young contributor.

Overall Indexed Score – 42.4

If I was a Pistons fan, I would actually be a little more excited for this team than the casual fan may be. We found a gem off the scrapheap in Christian Wood, who we should be able to retain this offseason. Luke Kennard has shown tremendous growth on offense, provided he can stay healthy, and a healthy Blake is still fun. Derrick Rose can still flash on a given night, and we may be able to trade him for future draft capital.

We also have a solid developmental coach in Dwane Casey, a highly applauded new General Manager in Troy Weaver, and likely the highest incoming draft pick we have had in a decade. Our immediate future has a small chance to be brighter than our recent past. Even if it isn’t though, we can easily pivot to a rebuild where we aren’t completely starting from ground zero and have the right organizational components in place to give me faith that it will be successful.

3) Chicago Bulls

Prospects (7)

The Bulls have a lot of intriguing young assets, but there are questions as to whether they will reach their full potential in a Chicago uniform (or at all). Lauri Markaanen was billed as the Finnish Dirk leading up to the 2017 draft. Most of it was probably draft buzz hyperbole but you definitely can see similarities between the two. Personally I am very torn on Lauri; he often has the look of a deadly shooter, and he has the confidence of one, but the ball hasn’t gone in for him so far in his career.

He also hasn’t had a clean bill of health, which always can cut one of two ways – either he still has room to grow with more playing time and development when healthy, or he is injury prone and can’t be relied on. I don’t see Lauri and the team coming to an extension agreement this offseason, so next year will be crucial for Lauri to stay on the court and earn that next paycheck. 

Wendell Carter Jr. is someone who I do believe has more potential than we’ve seen so far in his Bulls tenure. With the right system or coaching, I can see him expanding both his shooting and his floor game to become a bit more potent on offense, and I already think he is more than capable as a defender. I’m looking forward to seeing if he can be further unlocked in year three.

There’s also Coby White, who scores major points for the hair alone, and began to impress down the stretch. He averaged over 26 points per game in his final 9 games, and made over four threes per game during that stretch. I think he has a floor of a microwave scorer off the bench, and the upside to be a dangerous second or third scorer/playmaker type for a solid team. Those three are a very sturdy young base that most teams would be pleased to build the future around. You can find these players discussed in more detail on the Assistant to the GM’s recent Bulls offseason podcast found here

Recent Performance (6)

The recent past has been ugly for the Bulls, with three straight 20ish win seasons. However, this fanbase had been accustomed to seeing winning basketball, with nine consecutive .500 or better seasons immediately preceding these recent struggles. In that time, they notched four series victories, which is far more than a number of other teams left out of the bubble.

Star Power (3)

Zach Lavine was touted as a star if you paid attention to Bulls media (or Lavine himself last year), but he is probably a rung shy of being a true star. He does have the gaudy 25ppg, but it comes with a crazy-high usage rate and Lavine-led offenses have struggled (finishing below league average in offensive rating) in his time with Chicago. He definitely carries name value and can be a treat to watch on the right night, such as his 13 3-point barrage against Charlotte last year, or any of his highlight reel dunks. After Lavine, the Bulls have no real candidates (yet) in the star power department.

Free Agent (4)

Chicago hasn’t exactly been feasting on high profile free agents, but it definitely has an edge on places like Minnesota, Cleveland, and Detroit. Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky (sign-and-trade) were two above-average signings from just a season ago. They have also gotten a few big names to come play at the United Center, such as Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo, but all of those guys were basically in their twilight years. If, or when, they have the cap space, you can talk yourself into Chicago landing a big fish if all the stars align.

Overall Organizational Competence (4)

The Bulls have finally relieved Gar Forman and John Paxson (well, reassigned) which has long been the angst of many analysts and fans. As detailed in the prospects section, they actually drafted decently as of late, but the miscues piled up over the years and it was time for a change. Between straight up selling off the 2017 38th overall pick to the Warriors, the Cristiano Felicio bloated contract, trading the rights to what became Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris for Doug McDermott, and the sour terms Jimmy Butler left the team on, a changing of the guard was overdue.

They also had the infamous Bobby Portis punch incident that knocked Nikola Mirotic out of 23 games (and got Portis suspended). Jim Boylen is also at the moment currently caught up in some strange limbo status where all the writing is on the wall that he will be fired, but he may actually not get fired(?!?) After running through all that, the Bulls sure have had their share of unsavory moments, but ultimately have still mostly stayed afloat in the standings and managed their transaction game competently. 

Roster Flexibility (4)

Chicago doesn’t have the capacity to do much maneuvering this offseason, unless it involves a trade, as they are capped out. Otto Porter is overpaid at 28M, though his deal expires after the 2020-21 season. Lavine is their next highest paid player, and is at about a neutral-value contract for two more seasons. They have more than enough young assets plus picks to pull off a big trade should the new regime desire to go that route. They also have the aforementioned Porter, as well as other midsize contracts in Satoransky and Young for salary-matching purposes if they go star-hunting in the offseason.

Draft Assets (4)

Chicago is mostly neutral when it comes to draft assets. They have control of all of their own future firsts, and owe out slightly more than they have incoming in terms of round two. They do, however, have the second worst lottery slot for 2020 among the eliminated teams, only ahead Charlotte.

Overall Indexed Score: 45.5

It’s possible that ‘The Last Dance’ documentary provided enough nostalgia in Chicago to buy the organization one more season of underperforming on the court before real anger sets in, but a fourth non-competitive season in a row would really be pushing the limit. Among the Eradicated Eight, the Bulls are set up better than most, as they have useful veterans, prospects with potential, and a new front office that they believe in, with Arturas Karnisovas leading the way.

There are plenty of decisions to be made with head coach, Markaanen’s looming extension, this year’s pick, and Otto Porter’s expiring contract all on the docket in the next 12 months or less. This upcoming season will be a crucial developmental year for the young players, and a very telling season for the franchise as they attempt to navigate their way out of the bottom of the East.

Part 2 – Minnesota & Cleveland

Part 1 – New York & Charlotte

Sam Johnson

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