A close inspection of the roadkill in the NBA playoffs so far reveals how quickly the mighty have fallen. The first three teams to clean out their lockers and make early summer plans—the Detroit Pistons, the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs—were three of the league’s four conference finalists two years ago. The fourth team sent packing, the New Orleans Hornets, was almost unanimously considered to be an up-and-comer last year after a grueling seven-game playoff loss to the Spurs.
Except in the case of a young team like the Chicago Bulls or the Portland Trail Blazers, there is no positive spin on a first-round playoff exit. Losing before getting to the really big stage tends to mean that the team wasn’t as good as management thought it was. That typically leads to a little soul searching and a lot of meetings to pick up the pieces and move forward. In the case of all four of these teams, it won’t be easy. The fans have been sold on the notion that these are elite teams, yet the combined post-season record of these four was 3-16.
The Detroit Pistons were the weakest of the four early losers; they lost four straight to the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 16-point average margin of defeat. During the series, the Pistons, a team that has played in the conference finals six straight seasons, looked like they couldn’t wait to get their summer started. The Pistons have the most work to do of any team, but they are also in the best position to reinvigorate their roster. Two Pistons; forward Rasheed Wallace and guard Allen Iverson, are heading into free agency and the likelihood of either returning to Motown seem slim. Their departure will give $30 million in salary money for the Pistons’ team president Joe Dumars to shop for reinforcements. The Pistons are solid in the backcourt with emerging talents in Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo, journeyman Will Bynum and veteran Rip Hamilton. The small forward position is set in stone with Tayshaun Prince, an elite player who is showing no signs of slowing. The power forward and center positions are in flux. Antonio McDyess is 35 and still productive, but at this point, he’s a stopgap. The Pistons will be shopping for a big man, and it is possible that the Lakers’ Lamar Odom will be available, or one of two Jazz players, Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap.
Unlike the auto industry, the Pistons’ slump may be temporary. The Utah Jazz management is in a strange position. They are probably hoping that their best player, Boozer, opts out of the last year of his contract and leaves town. It’s not that Boozer is a bad player; it’s just that they have his replacement lined up in Millsap, and Boozer will command a lot more money. In addition, Boozer’s track record of good health is spotty. And if Boozer elects to stay, it may cost the Jazz Millsap’s services since the team is unlikely to pay the luxury-tax penalty that would result from Millsap’s new contract. The Jazz is a very good team in need of a few spare parts to become a great team, so the difference between Boozer’s contract and what it would cost to keep Millsap may give them just enough room to add another reserve big and return to the top of the Western Conference.
The Spurs have been an old team for a long time, but now it is starting to look like a problem. Only two members of the team’s rotation are younger than 27, and many of their peripheral players like guards Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley, and center Kurt Thomas are in their late 30s, ancient by NBA standards. The major cause of the Spurs’ decline this season was the injury to swingman Manu Ginobili, who missed much of the season due to a fractured ankle. However, Ginobili will be 32 next season; that’s the age of decline for players of his athleticism. Unlike the Pistons or Jazz, however, the Spurs are stuck with their current cast. Everybody in the rotation is signed to a guaranteed contract through 2010 or longer, so Spurs fans just have to hope that Ginobili stays healthy and that the rest of the team defies father time.
The Hornets’ decline is easy to pinpoint and hard to solve. The team has a young superstar in point guard Chris Paul and a relatively young all-star in forward David West. Most of the supporting cast, however, is old and expensive. In each of the last three off seasons, the team has spent lavishly on role players who haven’t produced much. Peja Stojakovic, Morris Peterson, Antonio Daniels and James Posey make a combined $32 million a season, but their production isn’t much more than what a few development league players could provide. In other words, bad personnel decisions in recent summers will doom the Hornets to playoff mediocrity for years to come. Paul, a transcendent talent, deserves better.
Although Utah and Detroit were run out of the playoffs quickly, both teams have the salary cap and roster flexibility to retool quickly and contend again. San Antonio and New Orleans are stuck with what they have for next season; their fans will just have to hope for the best.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.