“We better make the playoffs.”
April 26, 2012
With those five words, Pistons owner Tom Gores backed his team into a corner.
The idea, at least in abstract, wasn’t terrible. Sometimes, being pressed against the wall triggers a fight-or-flight reaction that summons the best in people.
That didn’t happen here.
Instead, the Pistons find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Backed into a corner and stuck between a rock and a hard place? Yes, everything really is closing in on the Pistons from all directions.
The Pistons are 17-25 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference — right in the teeth of what I call The Disaster Zone.
if the Pistons land a pick in Nos. 9-14, that would mean they lose the choice to the Bobcats and missed the playoffs: The Disaster Zone.
So how do the Pistons avoid The Disaster Zone? Should they try to improve to make the playoffs or tank to keep their pick? With the season mostly over, they’re running out of time to decide.
Thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN for simulating the rest of the NBA season 1,000 times, applying real lottery odds to each outcome and supplying the results, we have baseline possibilities for the Pistons’ final position:
- Make playoffs: 36%
- The Disaster Zone: 34%
- Keep pick: 30%
Call that a three-way tie. Any differences in percentages this small can be attributed to the difficulty in forecasting uncertain future events.
That leaves the Pistons in a heck of predicament and, in a twist that surely will leave you floored, not even I know what they should do.
Keeping their pick won’t be easy. Even finishing with the NBA’s eighth-worst record would grant just an 82.4% chance of landing a top-eight pick. It would take the league’s seventh-worst record to bump those odds up to 98.1%.
And how much worse can the Pistons get than they already are? There’s talent on this team, and it won’t be easy to make a step back. Team president Joe Dumars probably would have to pull off multiple trades to unload enough talent for a major regression.
A common suggestion — trading forward Greg Monroe for a future draft pick — actually might make the Pistons better right now. Same with trading Smith (who probably wouldn’t net a future draft pick) or, sadly, even Andre Drummond.
The Pistons just waste too much time playing all three together, a lineup combination that is a proven failure. Smith’s, Monroe’s and Drummond’s minutes together won’t change significantly as long as coach Maurice Cheeks appeases each by starting them.
Smith, Monroe and Drummond have played together 38% of all Pistons minutes this season and account for 80% of Detroit’s total deficit.
In other words, get rid of the Smith-Monroe-Drummond lineups — even if means getting no immediate contributor while excising one of the three — and the Pistons might have a fighting chance.
Getting good enough to make the playoffs might be even more difficult.
Monroe’s value has sunk while playing with this odd-fitting team, and the odds of trading him for a good wing shrink by the game.
Meanwhile, the rest of the East is showing significant progress. In their last 15 games, the Pistons are 4-11. In the conference, only the tanking Boston Celtics, tanking Milwaukee Bucks and tanking Orlando Magic have been that bad in that span. Even the tanking Philadelphia 76ers have been better.
If trying to get better won’t work and trying to get worse won’t work, maybe the Pistons should just stay the course — though that could lead them right into The Disaster Zone.
On the other hand, trying to get better or trying to get worse also could send Detroit into The Disaster Zone.
There’s no easy out, the predictable result of what Gores set in motion years ago.
By rule, I don’t typically edit block quotes in order to preserve the original message. But in interest of transparency, I want to note a change today. Free Press editors mistakenly edited “The Disaster Zone” to “the Disaster Zone.” The Disaster Zone, with a capital T, is the official style.
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