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Central Division Matchup Preview: Detroit Pistons

Central Division Matchup Preview: Detroit Pistons

Although the Cleveland Cavaliers are attempting to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season, it will be more difficult than in years past. Aside from the Cavs being a worse team as a result of the departure of LeBron James, if they hope to secure a playoff berth, they will have to do it without winning the division, as both the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks are better teams.

Third place is a necessity if Cleveland wants to have any chance at the seventh or eighth seed, and in order to do that, they need to outplay the Detroit Pistons, which presents the most important matchup of the season.

The last time the Pistons made the postseason was 2015-2016, when they lost in the first round to the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers. They have won fewer than 40 games in each of the last two years, but a turnaround may come sooner rather than later.

2017-2018 Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey was fired by the Toronto Raptors (due to the fact that no matter what, Toronto could not get past the Cavs in the playoffs), and was hired by Detroit to bring the team back to its glory days of the early 2000’s. Casey will rely heavily upon the bigman duo of Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.

Drummond has been a rebounding machine for the Pistons since 2012, but Griffin is a relatively new arrival. He was traded to Detroit last season and played in 25 games for the club. While Griffin isn’t the MVP candidate he was four years ago, he is still a very good player, as evidenced by his averages of 19.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 6.2 assists for the Pistons.

Aside from Drummond and Griffin however, Detroit’s roster is weak. Reggie Jackson will run the point for the fifth season, and even though he makes $17 million per year, he isn’t much better than league average. Career reserve Reggie Bullock was thrust into a starting role last year and responded by averaging 11.8 points per game and shooting an excellent 45% from beyond the arc.

Stanley Johnson hasn’t improved offensively since his rookie year, and remains only a solid defender best suited to come off the bench. After those three, the Pistons don’t really have anyone else of note. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, the second and fourth-leading scorers from a year ago, were dealt to the Clippers for Griffin.

In addition to other players, Los Angeles also received Detroit’s 2018 first-round pick. This trade left the Pistons devoid of young talent to build around, a hole they haven’t been able to climb out of yet. They are stuck in purgatory; not good enough to challenge Philadelphia and Boston in the Eastern Conference, but not bad enough to earn high draft selections even when they keep their picks. They present a model that the Cavaliers are somewhat emulating, for better or for worse.

Because of their lack of depth behind their starters, the Pistons do not match up well against the Cavs. Griffin and Drummond can certainly outplay Kevin Love, Ante Zizic, Tristan Thompson, and Larry Nance Jr., but at all other positions, Cleveland has the upper hand.

Reggie Jackson isn’t a great offensive player, and he is a liability on defense. Whether George Hill, Collin Sexton, or Jordan Clarkson is handling the ball, they will all be able to score on him. And with Hill and Sexton being good defenders, Jackson and his backup (Ish Smith or former Cavalier Jose Calderon) won’t have easy baskets.

Detroit’s wings – Bullock, Dwight Buyucks, Langston Galloway, and others – simply lack the talent that Cleveland’s posses. Out of the group of Rodney Hood, David Nwaba, Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman, J.R. Smith, and Sam Dekker, most would start for Detroit. The Cavaliers have a good balance of scorers and defenders which can be rotated in and out all game, always keeping fresh players on the court.

Where the Cavs will struggle is in the paint. Drummond is a far superior player to Zizic at this point, even if Zizic has plenty of potential for the future. Zizic did play well against Drummond last season, but talent and experience still give Drummond the massive edge. Blake Griffin is the kind of power forward that Love has trouble with. Griffin is big, physical, and can score in the paint as well as drain a three-pointer.

In addition, Griffin still retains the athleticism to defend a stretch-four like Love, and that is the most important skill in this matchup. Love is an excellent rebounder and post scorer, but he displays those traits against either smaller players or larger centers who don’t have the quickness to keep up with him.

Griffin falls in the sweet spot where he doesn’t have a weakness that Love is well-equipped to exploit. However, with the large advantage that Cleveland holds outside of the paint, Drummond and Griffin shouldn’t be enough to tip the scales completely in Detroit’s favor.

While it isn’t smart to look past a team, the Cavaliers should be focusing primarily on beating the Pistons in their season series as opposed to Chicago, due to the Bulls’ severe lack of talent. Detroit vs. Cleveland will be one of the most important matchups in the league, and the game on March 18th could decide which of the two teams makes the postseason.

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