As the NBA season winds down to its final games, the Pistons fan base is becoming splintered on how they’re wrapping up the season. One side wants to see a strong finish, and the other wants to lose the remaining games by as many points as possible.
The latter group is focused on finishing in the bottom three of the standings, which would guarantee the Pistons the best odds at getting the No. 1 overall pick. Throughout another dismal season with 50-plus losses, the silver — or maybe platinum — lining is getting another top-tier pick to pair with their young core.
In Sunday’s win over the Indiana Pacers, the dual personalities reared their heads. When Rodney McGruder hit a 3-pointer with less than two minutes remaining to push the Pistons’ lead to nine points, there was some hand wringing. The Pistons had won the last two games, and McGruder’s shot helped them make it a three-game streak, tying their longest of the season.
While most teams and fan bases are watching the standings closely to jockey for playoff positions and vying for the play-in tournament, Pistons fans are focused on securing the best possible draft position.
Sunday’s win moved the Pistons to 23-56, within three games of the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets, who are 20-59. The bottom three teams each will have a 14% chance of getting the top pick in the draft lottery, and with their win streak, the Pistons are a half-game “ahead” of the Oklahoma City Thunder for that third-worst spot.
The Pistons won at Oklahoma City last week and for a couple of hours, they had fallen out of that third spot, until the Thunder surprised the Phoenix Suns, who have the league’s best record. That left the standings as they were entering Sunday. Like the Pistons, the Thunder (23-55) are on a bit of a run, winning three of their last six games.
In the final stretch, the Pistons have a tough schedule, facing the Mavericks, Bucks and Sixers — all teams that are playing for playoff seeding. The Thunder have four games remaining: home against the Portland Trail Blazers and at the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers.
If both the Pistons and Thunder lose their remaining games — or if they otherwise finish tied — the NBA would have a random draw to determine the third- and fourth-place teams for standings purposes, and they would share the draft odds.
The third-place team in lottery should get a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick and the fourth-place team 12.5%. With a tie, those odds would get split, so each team would have a 13.25% chance.
That’s a lot of numbers, but the key takeaway is that even if the Pistons win a game or two in the final week, all is not lost in their draft positioning.
Regardless of position entering the lottery, each team has a chance to move up — or fall — a few spots. It happened last season, when the Pistons had the second-worst record, but leapfrogged the Rockets to get the No. 1 pick and select Cade Cunningham. The Cavs also moved up two spots to third, and the Raptors three spots to fourth.
There’s more history with significant moves up and down. The Timberwolves jumped two spots in 2020 to No. 1 and got Anthony Edwards. That same season, the Hornets moved up five spots and took LaMelo Ball third, and the Bulls three spots to get Patrick Williams at No. 4.
Also noteworthy were the jumps in 2019, when the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzles each moved up six spots to pick Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, with the top two selections, respectively. The Hawks also elevated seven spots to fourth and took De’Andre Hunter.
The next step
The Pistons haven’t had the same luck in the draft. More often, they’ve stayed in the same spot or fallen out of the position where they entered the lottery. In 2020, they had the fifth-worst record, but they fell two spots and selected Killian Hayes seventh.
That trend ended with getting Cunningham last season, and they’re looking to get another favorable pick this year in the draft to aid in their rebuild. The draft will bring another big piece, but they’ll also look to find an impact free agent or make a trade to help their turnaround. Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes are the foundation, along with veterans Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk, Hamidou Diallo and Marvin Bagley III.
“Our big step is going to come from free agency and the pick we get in the draft and adding those two guys, whoever it is,” coach Dwane Casey said Sunday. “The momentum and the confidence level that these guys are getting right now is sort of similar to what Phoenix did when they had Chris Paul.
“They had a good (finish to 2020 in the bubble) — it wasn’t great, but good — and they rode into the summertime with confidence. These (final) games are going to give a guy like Saddiq Bey and Cade coming back next year confidence.”
Bey had a breakthrough 51-point performance against the Magic and added another big game with 31 points on Sunday. Cunningham tied his career high with 34 points against the Brooklyn Nets, and though they seem not to mean much in a dismal season, they could pay dividends in the future.
“What they’re doing now, coming into next year, it’s going to be a huge step for them. It’s hard to turn that off, and we’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to give other guys an opportunity to play,’ but these young men are coming in and playing,” Casey said. “No matter who’s dressed or who’s playing, they’re coming in and playing the right way, playing hard.
“That’s a sign of a good culture, good work ethic and of our guys’ professionalism, because they have every reason to turn it off right now and get ready for the summertime, but they haven’t. They’ve been dedicated; they’ve been pros, and that’s what you want to build your team around.”