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Pistons can take some cues from NBA's biggest winners

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul, left, and James Harden will face the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals.

As the NBA playoffs progress toward a crescendo with the highly anticipated conference finals, the Pistons find themselves in a difficult position, after moving on from coach Stan Van Gundy. The roster, led by Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, likely will remain the same next season, as they look to stay healthy and realize their potential.

The Pistons were ravaged by injuries to Jackson the past two seasons and finished with only 37 and 39 wins, respectively. In examining the roster construction, it’s mostly free agents with a couple of draft picks, including Drummond, the longest-tenured Piston. They’re over the salary cap and have little wiggle room to make a significant move this offseason.

If the Pistons are looking to get back to the playoffs and into contention, they’ll need some skill in remaking the roster and some luck, like the eight teams that advanced to the conference semifinals. Each of those teams found distinct ways to build a roster and to refine it for a playoff run.

Here’s a look at how each of the eight teams was constructed and their chances going forward:

More: Pistons’ Reggie Jackson: ‘I wish I could have done more’


■ Celtics: Assembling this roster wasn’t easy. They got lucky in dealing Isaiah Thomas for a disgruntled Kyrie Irving and despite Irving’s and Gordon Hayward’s injuries, the Celtics still find themselves in the East finals.

They took advantage of the Nets and pillaged draft picks in their trade for Kevin Garnett and others — and they’re finally reaping the benefits. Getting Jayson Tatum instead of Markelle Fultz was a genius decision, which netted them more draft picks for the future. They have maybe the brightest long-term future of any team in the NBA. They have most of their key pieces signed through at least next season.

With Hayward and Irving returning next season, they have a promising roster with a better future that will keep them relevant for years to come.

■ Cavaliers: It’s easy to build around LeBron James, but the Cavs did it the hard way this time, by dealing Irving before the season and turning over the roster at the trade deadline. It was a gamble — and it worked. James willed the Cavs to the conference finals again and getting past the injury-riddled Celtics still will be a difficult task.

James’ influence and legendary skill set made it easy to build a roster around him, but even with their struggles in the regular season, they were able to put it all together when it mattered down the stretch in the regular season and in the playoffs.

The Cavs go as James goes — and they’ll fall out of contention if he goes to another team.

■ Sixers: One word: Tanking. Systematically losing for years has finally realized a benefit, as the Sixers look to be one of the most promising teams in the league. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could've been back-to-back rookies of the year, but each missed the first season of his career, delaying their chances.

The Sixers took a huge risk in signing Embiid to a long-term contract before he ever had played a full season. They also hadn’t had a winning record in an 82-game season since 2004-05 and they’re coming off a five-year hiatus from the postseason. They capped a turnaround season with a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to the Celtics in five games.

The future looks bright for the Sixers and if James decides opts to head Philadelphia, they instantly go from up-and-comer to true contender in the East. After a half-decade of tanking, they’ve become a potential free-agent destination. Maybe it was worth it, after all.

■ Raptors: The Raptors built their roster in a more traditional way, drafting DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas and trading for Kyle Lowry in 2012. After losing to the Cavaliers in the past three seasons, this construction of the Raptors may have run its course. Their future is murky, with unwieldy contracts for Lowry ($31 million), DeRozan ($27.7 million), Serge Ibaka ($21.7 million) and Valanciunas ($16.5 million) on the books for next season.

Coach Dwane Casey was let go because of the Raptors’ foibles and it might take a shuffling of the roster or a complete overhaul. They have a mix of good young talent to complement the veterans but despite their loyal fan base, their time may be up.


■ Warriors: When the NBA champions add Kevin Durant, it’s pretty easy to repeat. They have the most talent in the league and four All-Stars. Keeping Durant and getting Klay Thompson a pay raise will be big challenges. They’re at the top of the food chain until further notice with everyone else chasing and trying to build a super team to keep up.

They drafted deftly in getting Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson and just added the pieces around it to reach their status. It’s a model for other teams to emulate, with the caveat that there’s some luck in fitting the four stars into the cap — or going above the luxury tax. It’s safe to say that it won’t be duplicated anytime soon.

■ Rockets: It’s almost all free agency for the centerpieces in the Rockets’ launch, but taking a chance on James Harden clearly started the countdown. They realized they didn’t need a traditional big man in Dwight Howard, but pivoted to a run-and-gun team under Mike D’Antoni. Adding Chris Paul this offseason was the capper and they filled in with complementary players.

It’s more D’Antoni’s coaching style that allows Harden to flourish in a freestyle role and got Paul involved without the two bumping heads. In the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, they made a quick ascension with good pickups in free agency.

■ Jazz: When they were looking for some talent to recover from Hayward’s departure to the Celtics, they traded up to get Donovan Mitchell in the draft, which changed their trajectory — quickly. They’ve developed Rudy Gobert into a defensive maven and made a shrewd trade for Ricky Rubio.

Things came together nicely for the Jazz this season and though they’ll have decisions to make on Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, the rest of their roster should be back next season to make another run in the West. They were a surprise but adding another solid rotation piece could push them further.

■ Pelicans: After the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans were supposed to shrivel into obscurity. Not so much. After Anthony Davis played at an All-NBA level down the stretch, the Pelicans made some noise and swept the Trail Blazers.

They could resemble the Pistons’ construction in that they’re relying on two big men and an oft-injured point guard, in Jrue Holiday. Jackson would have to have his best season to resemble what Holiday did in the playoffs, but it’s possible. Doing it in the West showed how good the Pelicans can be.

The Pelicans will have to make a decision on whether to bring Cousins and Rajon Rondo back, but it’s all built around Davis and Holiday.