With one month remaining in the season, the Detroit Pistons are firmly out of the playoff race. They’re at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and have the third-worst record across the entire league.
Naturally, fans are focusing on the 2021 NBA draft lottery. A bottom-three finish would give the Pistons a strong chance at a top-five pick. In a draft considered to have five can’t-miss prospects, the upside to the Pistons holding on to their current position in the standings is obvious.
Detroit did well to come out of the 2020 draft with four players who look like they’ll be contributors on their next playoff team. But the organization lacks an obvious young superstar.
Unfortunately, a month is a long time in NBA time. There are several teams jostling with the Pistons to finish with strong odds ahead of the June 22 lottery. And the Pistons have two things working against their lottery position in the final four weeks.
First, 10 of their remaining 15 games are at home, including nine of their final 11. Head coach Dwane Casey has talked often about the team wanting Little Caesars Arena to be a tough place to visit for opponents. As evidenced by their 110-104 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, the Pistons are going to go down swinging more often than not.
“We want to make people dread coming in,” Casey said Thursday. “It’s different when we don’t have our fans there, but that’s our goal, is to make it that way and make it a sacred place to come in and take care of. If anybody comes in there, they aren’t just going to come in and bully over us. Going forward, we want to make it a winning place.”
Second, the Pistons value finishing the season well. That momentum can pay dividends going into the offseason — particularly this offseason, which is expected to have less roster turnover than last summer and should be easier to navigate without a COVID-19 pandemic-related pause in the action.
Most of the Pistons’ young core is already in place. With many vets watching in street clothes, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey all started together for the first time Friday. The trio has a lot to play for, looking to establish a place in the NBA. Regardless of the lottery odds, the young players are going to play to win.
“You want to have that feeling going into next year, because again, growth is huge in our league … if you have the same group, we want to take those steps next year,” Casey said. “And whatever we can do, because it’s going to be an important summer for us for our individual development, we didn’t have this last year and summer league, the individual weight training, the whole nine yards. And now players know where their shots are coming from within the offense. They know the system defensively. That continuity counts for something.”
Of course, the draft lottery is just that: A lottery. Detroit had the fifth-best odds of winning the No. 1 picks last year and fell two spots to seven. The Charlotte Hornets, who had the eighth-best odds, moved up to three. Finishing with the third-worst record in the league would give the Pistons a 66.9% chance of nabbing a top-five pick. That’s still a 33.1% chance of dropping out of the top five. (The team with the worst record can drop no farther than fifth, and the second-worst record has an 80% chance to stay in the top five.) Not finishing with a bottom-three record wouldn’t doom the Pistons. Regardless of where they finish, they’ll need luck.
Still, it might be time for Pistons fans to acknowledge the possibility the team will play itself out of having the third-best odds. They’ll need cooperation from the teams around them in the standings, and they’re unlikely to get much help before the regular season ends May 16.
The Pistons are unlikely to out-tank the two teams in front of them
The Pistons entered Monday third in the lottery odds. Here’s a look at the top six, all grouped within six games. (Records entering Monday.)
1. Minnesota Timberwolves: 15-43
2. Houston Rockets: 15-42
3. Detroit Pistons: 17-40
4. Orlando Magic: 18-39
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: 20-37
6. Cleveland Cavaliers: 20-36
FiveThirtyEight.com projects the Pistons to finish tied with the Thunder Magic for the NBA’s fourth-worst record at 23-49, behind the Magic, Timberwolves and Rockets.
Indeed, it’s tough to see the Pistons improving their odds from No. 3. Both the Rockets and Timberwolves have tougher schedules left. Per Tankathon, Houston’s remaining schedule is the hardest in the NBA, with their final 15 games against teams with a winning percentage of .596. Minnesota, meanwhile, is 15th, with their teams having a .489 winning percentage.
The Pistons, meanwhile, have the 16th-hardest schedule, with a winning percentage of .485. Detroit’s schedule was front-loaded with difficult road games, and now they face a run of easier home games. Their best-case scenario, from a lottery standpoint, is a third-place finish. And that might be tough to attain.
Detroit has an easier schedule than the teams behind them, too
Friday made it clear the Pistons won’t roll over against other lottery teams. The Thunder — who have been without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander since March 24 due to plantar fasciitis and won’t have him back until May at the earliest — are dropping quickly. Friday’s loss to the Pistons was their ninth straight and 12th in 13 games. In that same stretch, the Pistons are 5-10.
The Magic, too, have embraced the tank. They hit the reset button before the trade deadline, parting with three of their best players — Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier — and have gone 3-10 since the deadline.
Both the Thunder (eighth) and Magic (12th) have tougher remaining schedules, too.
PISTONS MAILBAG: Why not getting a top-5 pick wouldn’t be the end of the world
Of course, things can change rapidly.
On April 3, FiveThirtyEight projected the Pistons would finish with the third-worst record (23-49). The Thunder (27-45) were projected to finish seventh, and the Magic (25-47) fifth. That both teams have leapfrogged several teams in those projections shows why the deck may be stacked against Detroit.
It’s a good problem the Pistons are competitive this late in the season. Telling a learning, hungry roster not to compete would go against everything the team has preached in its developmental strategy.
So if you’re a fan hoping the Pistons improve their lottery odds, now is the time to recalibrate your expectations.