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NBA Bursted Bubble Pt. 2

This is Part Two of the Bursted Bubble series, where I look at the eight NBA teams that were not invited to the bubble. Part One covered the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Hawks and can be found right here. In part two, we’ll cover the Pistons, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets.

26. Detroit Pistons

Record: 20-46

13th in the East

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Season Recap: The Detroit Pistons have fallen upon some rough times since the early 2000s, when they were a dominant force in the East. Those Detroit teams, led by Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben and Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince provided some of the most memorable moments from the franchise aside from the Bad Boys era in the late 80s and early 90s. 

From the 2001-2002 season to the 2007-2008 season, the Detroit Pistons made the playoffs all seven seasons, including two finals appearances. This era reached its golden age in the 2004 when Detroit capped a 54 win season by stomping the Lakers, led by Kobe and Shaq, in only five games to win the franchise’s third title. 

Since the 2007-2008 season, however, the Pistons have made the playoffs only three times in 12 years, and have 0 playoff wins to show for it (running into LeBron and Giannis in the first round doesn’t bode well for your chances). In that time, they have only had one winning season and have been through seven head coaches.

This season didn’t appear to be the year that Detroit would turn it around, and they proved that to be the case rather quickly. After starting 19-34, the Pistons decided to begin their rebuild. The team traded the former face of the franchise, Andre Drummond, and went 1-12 the remainder of the season, signaling a change of direction for the organization. This included waiving NBA vets Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris later that same month. The Pistons then spent the remainder of the season evaluating what they had on the roster in order to set their foundation for the desperately needed rebuild. Although the record may not have indicated it, this approach brought some sources of optimism for a team in need of such a thing.

Christian Wood, who is only 24 years old and joined his fifth team in four seasons, finally got his chance to be a consistent starter in the NBA and made it worth Detroit’s while. After the trade deadline, Wood started 12 out of the last 13 games and averaged 22.8 points and nearly 10 rebounds, both team highs during that stretch. The continued resurgence of Derrick Rose provided a sense of excitement for the team, as the former league MVP contributed just over 18 points per game and provided a solid veteran presence both on and off the court.

Seko Doumbouya also showed flashes of potential, including a 24 point outing against the Celtics, but he’ll need to work on his consistency and his shooting percentage in order to develop into the player the Pistons drafted him to be in 2019. These players, combined with the forever injured Blake Griffin, provide a solid cast to begin a rebuild but it still seems as if this organization has a ways to go before returning to former glory. It starts with the untradeable Griffin contract and trickles down to the player development of key pieces like Doumbouya and Luke Kennard.

Biggest Off-season Question: What will the rebuild look like? This question essentially boils down to how patient can a hurting franchise be during rebuilding mode. The Pistons are looking at around $30 million in cap space this year, making them a potential front runner for the top free agents in this year’s class. However, as I’ve previously noted in part one of this series, this free agent class may be a bit weaker than in recent years. So the Pistons have some options in terms of how they’d like to spend their first offseason as a total rebuilding team. 

They could buy in this offseason and work to make the playoffs, or they could play it a bit more conservatively, opting for a longer rebuild with a potentially better long term outcome. They could do a variation of the two, it would just require some smart spending and some bargain shopping this offseason. When this team is healthy, they do have the makings of a playoff squad with quality vets such as Rose and Griffin as well as young and exciting talent like Kennard, Doumbouya and Wood.

But there does seem to be holes on their bench that need to be addressed in order for this team to consistently win games in this league. If this team can’t string together some wins to begin the season, they could also explore shipping out Rose to a contending team in order to free up cap space and acquire assets to set them up for a longer rebuild. The Pistons have options here, but they cannot afford to make the wrong move this offseason if they look to make some noise in the immediate future. 

Reason for Optimism: Current Roster. When healthy, I believe the Pistons do have the talent to get into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Once the Magic finally clinched the final playoff spot, the Pistons finished 9.5 games back from the eighth spot and only 2 games behind the Wizards, who made the bubble (even if it was ugly). A lineup consisting of Rose, Griffin, Wood, Kennard and Tony Snell/Doumbouya isn’t a squad that would take the league by storm, but if the young guys take a step forward in their development, it is a team that should compete in a weak Eastern Conference. Spending some of that $30 million this offseason could spruce up their bench, or add a pretty solid small forward to improve that starting lineup. They also have the 7th pick of the draft, where ESPN projects the team will take Tyrese Haliburton out of Iowa State. That adds another piece to a team that does have more talent than the typical bottom feeder, but it remains to be seen how healthy this team can be throughout the course of a season.

25. New York Knicks

Record: 21-45

12th in the East

NBAE via Getty Images

Season Recap: Another season in the books for the New York Knick. And it’s nothing but another season without a playoff appearance. After losing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes last offseason to the other New York team, the Knicks were not poised to succeed this season. The team finished 21-45 to cap off their 7th straight losing season. The Knickerbockers also burnt through their 5th head coach since 2013 in the process. After a 4-18 start to the season, ending in two straight 30+ point losses, the team fired David Fizdale after just one full season. Things didn’t necessarily turn around after that, as the team went 17-27 after that mark, but it was clear the franchise was thinking further down the road anyway. After acquiring Marcus Morris in the offseason (which I’m still bitter about as a Spurs fan) the Knicks traded him to the Clippers right at the trade deadline, receiving Maurice Harkless, a 2020 1st round pick, a 2021 1st round pick, and a 2021 2nd round pick. This adds to the heap of 2021 and 2023 1st round picks that the organization received as part of the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks last year. These picks, as well as the young players headlining this team such as RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle (all 25 or younger) show that the future is where the hope lies for this team. The plethora of picks also lessens the Knicks’s ability to tarnish their chance at acquiring franchise altering talent in the draft. These established young players also showed they provide a solid framework if the right pieces are surrounding them. 

RJ Barrett had a productive rookie campaign as he averaged just over 14 points per game and displayed solid development as the season progressed. The front court of Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson led the team to finish T-6th in rebounds per game, which isn’t going to produce championships anytime soon but is a good starting point for a young team with postseason aspirations. After their season ended, the Knicks also went out and quickly addressed their head coaching vacancy by signing former coach of the year Tom Thibodeau to a five year deal. Thibodeau brings a reputation of hard-nose defensive minded basketball to a Knicks team searching for an identity among so many young players.  

Biggest Off-season Question: How will the Knicks Handle their expiring contracts? How the Knicks decide to handle their own players’ “expiring” contracts will determine how much flexibility they have this offseason. The Knicks have five players that they could cut ties with and create a lot of cap room as a result.

Bobby Portis is on a team option contract this season, which means that the Knicks have the options to cut ties with him by October 17 in order to save $15.8 million, but Portis played all 66 games for the Knicks this season and averaged just over 10 points and 5 rebounds per game and is only 24 years old. 

They also could buy out Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton, and Reggie Bullock and save around $25 million combined. Gibson, Ellington, and Payton are all set to make $8 million this year but all are guaranteed only $1 million, Bullock is set to make $4.2 million but is also only guaranteed $1 million. 

Gibson is going on his 11th season and would provide a veteran presence both on and off the court, he also played for Thibodeau on two different teams in the past and could be valuable for integrating the new system. Ellington seems like a likely candidate to be bought out, he only played 36 games for the team last season and averaged 5 points on 35% shooting from the field. Payton is an interesting player because he’s been injured quite a bit during his young career, but the Knicks could do a lot worse at point guard when he’s healthy. Last season he led the team in steals (1.6) and assists (7.2) per game and was fifth on the team in points per game at 10.0. The Knicks also have a relatively crowded back court with Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. both playing point guard behind Payton.

Bullock also dealt with injuries last season, forcing him to miss 33 games, but the 28 year old averaged a decent 8.1 PPG on 40% shooting. Ultimately I believe the Knicks will cut ties with Ellington and Bullock to save some cap space and bring on more useful players for their roster. They also may decide to bring these five players on in order to trade their enticing expiring contracts to a contending team during the season. This seems most likely with Payton and Portis, as they could be the most useful for a team looking for a final few pieces to make a run. 

Reason for Optimism: Assets. As the last two sections indicate, the Knicks have a variety of assets, from draft picks to expiring contracts, at their disposal. This provides some flexibility for the front office in terms of how they want to go about crafting their future. The immediate future includes three draft picks inside the top 38 (including the 8th pick overall), and the various expiring contracts. This could allow the Knicks to acquire some veteran presence for their relatively young core, while also being set up for the future with the picks acquired from the Clippers and Mavericks. If the Knicks decide to stay the course this offseason and not make many moves, that’s okay too, fans should just expect not to be a whole lot better next season.

This team could just keep their three draft picks, not part ways with any players and set themselves up for a more exciting offseason in 2021. This organization hasn’t had much success recently in luring big talent to come play at Madison Square Garden, but there is plenty of talent on this young team to inspire a big name to gravitate towards New York in the near future. The Knicks actually have a more exciting future than one might think, but it all comes down to how they manage their pieces.

24. Chicago Bulls

Record: 22-43

11th in the East

Steven Ryan | Credit: Getty Images

Season Recap: The Chicago Bulls just capped off their third consecutive season winning below 30 games and missing the playoffs, something that last happened immediately following the “Last Dance” season, starting in 1998-1999. This season, however, may have been the most disappointing of the current skid as the Bulls came into this season with much more hype surrounding them than in recent years. They didn’t have a very active offseason, but they went and acquired Tomas Satoransky from the Wizards as part of a sign and trade, and drafted Coby White with the 7th overall pick in last year’s draft. These pieces, along with the prolific scoring of Zach LaVine, the emergence of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter, and solid role players like Kris Dunn and Otto Porter seemed like enough for the Bulls to be far better than they ended up, so what happened? While the Bulls were pretty good on the defensive end, finishing 9th in defensive efficiency (number of points allowed per 100 possessions), they looked out of sync and just plain bad on offense, finishing dead last in offensive efficiency (number of points scored per 100 possessions).

Good defense typically translates into more efficient offense, especially when you have a player like Kris Dunn who finished the regular season second in steals per game, but the Bulls couldn’t get much going once they had the ball on offense. Some of this can be attributed to Markkanen’s failure to take a step forward this season after a promising 18.7 points per game the season before, and you can look at the lack of scoring options outside of LaVine and Markkanen as another reason why this team left much to be desired on that end of the court. However, I believe much of the blame should be put on recently fired head coach, Jim Boylen.

Yes, using the head coach as a scapegoat is very easy to do, which is why some teams cycle through coaches like it’s nothing, but it has been pretty obvious that Boylen wasn’t the answer for quite some time. The lack of structure on the offensive end was pretty apparent throughout the season. The absence of quality player development from Markkanen and Wendell Carter, especially with Carter’s shooting ability, fall pretty heavily on the coaching staff. Time after time Boylen would mismanage a game that would result in a Bulls loss. One of the best possible moves the Bulls could have made this offseason was to fire Boylen and they did exactly that.

I’m not saying that, with his departure, the Bulls are going to be a brand new team, but this organization could not afford to let so much promising talent waste away their time in a Bulls uniform playing for a coach that didn’t have any business in his position. 

Biggest Offseason Question: Who do the Bulls hire now? Now that Jim Boylen is officially out as head coach, where will the Bulls go to fill that opening? This is an attractive position for any coach seeking to make a name for themself, as the Bulls provide an opportunity to coach a talented, young team that just hasn’t been able to reach its potential quite yet in one of the biggest markets it in the world.

After three straight losing seasons (and not advancing out of the first round of the playoffs in six seasons) the next head coach will face some pressure from a franchise that’s accustomed to winning, but the pieces are there to make it happen. It’s been reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the organization is looking at assistants from this year’s playoff teams, including Milwaukee’s Darvin Ham, Denver’s Wes Unseld Jr. and Miami’s Dan Craig. Former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and Six