Beard: Big offseason for Pistons’ Darrun Hilliard
The postseason is over for the Pistons, but the drive through the playoffs continues for the final eight teams in the conference semifinals.
The first round went mostly to form, aside from the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers’ exit at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers — which really wasn’t that big an upset, given that it was a No. 5 seed beating a No. 4.
The most striking takeaway from the first round was that the individual games were mostly lopsided. Of the 44 first-round games in both conferences, the average margin of victory was 14.7 points — and only 16 were decided by single digits. Only two series were four-game sweeps: the Cavs over the Pistons and the Spurs dispatching the Grizzlies.
With three of those Pistons games within a 10-point margin, that series had the smallest average winning margin of any of the first-round series, at 8.5 points. The Spurs had the largest margin, at 22 points, including blowouts of 32, 26 and 21 points.
Such a disparity made the first round almost unwatchable — even in the case of Sunday’s deciding Game 7 between the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets, which extinguished any suspense by the end of third quarter, with a 33-point Heat blowout.
The trend doesn’t look to be turning, either, with the Spurs winning Game 1 of the West semifinals by 32 and the Warriors beating the Trail Blazers by 12 in the opener.
The Monday Drive takes a look at the Pistons and the rest of the NBA playoffs with 10 observations from the past week:
1. Don’t count on anything underhanded: Stan Van Gundy left the option open that Andre Drummond could start shooting his free throws underhanded, looking to try anything to improve on the abysmal free-throw shooting (36 percent) this season. It’s an option, but maybe not the most preferable option. There’s pride and there’s production — unless Drummond is hitting 60 percent or higher underhanded, it’s not viable.
2. Stanley Johnson isn’t the only rookie to watch: While Johnson had a good first season, keep an eye on Darrun Hilliard’s progression this offseason too. He’ll likely play in summer league and hone his game. Hilliard quietly had good production in his time on the floor, but was stuck in a logjam behind Johnson and Reggie Bullock for playing time.
3. Johnson has some work to do this summer: His outside shooting wasn’t great and he didn’t show great variety in his offensive game. But his defense was good and he showed he could play on an NBA level, even at age 19. If he gets in the gym and improves his offensive game, he could come back more polished and ready to contribute next season in a familiar role as the sixth man.
4. There may not be a big splash in free agency: Given the Pistons’ cap flexibility (likely somewhere between $13 million and $26 million) they might not be able to get one big difference-making piece, as they’ll also be shopping for a backup point guard, a bench scorer and possibly a post option. That’s a long shopping list on a limited budget, which impacts the quality of the targets they’ll be able to pursue.
5. Roster balance: Though some fans will be anxious to get rid of reserves Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver, they’re two of the most seasoned veterans on the roster. Besides them, only Joel Anthony has significant NBA and playoff experience. That’s asking a lot of him to be that big of an influence to the entire roster — while also asking a lot of the younger players to grow up quickly without the same guidance.
6. The Toronto Raptors finally got out of the first round: They looked vulnerable in their seven-game series win over the Pacers, pulling out the deciding game, with the help of a questionable non-call in the final minutes. Toronto will have a tough time in the next round against the experienced Miami Heat, but it’s a big step for them — behind DeMar DeRozan — to get to the next round.
7. Quick exit: The Clippers were ahead, 2-0, before the injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin short-circuited their playoff run. It’s another disappointing exit, which brings into question whether they can keep the same crew together another year. They just appear to be snake-bitten in their current configuration.
8. Big step forward: The Trail Blazers were left for dead when they lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. But they bounced back from a poor start and got past the depleted Clippers. They’ll still need a couple more pieces to contend in the loaded West, but it’s a nice turnaround from what looked to be a dismal season.
9. Staying in the West: If the Thunder don’t get past the Spurs, they could face a similar situation, with Kevin Durant deciding where he might end up. For most of the season, the Warriors and Spurs have looked to be on a collision course to meet in the West finals and so far, the Thunder don’t look to be putting too much of an opposition.
10. The draft combine is next week in Chicago: It will have plenty of Michigan flair, with Denzel Valentine and Deyonta Davis (MSU), Caris LeVert (UM) and Kay Felder (Oakland) all reportedly invited to attend. Although they might not be lottery picks, they’ll have a chance to show they measure up against some potential first-round prospects.