Recently we’ve been seeing some projections of how many games the Pistons will win in 2012-13 (see Pistons season projections). My initial reaction was to judge these writers as being way too pessimistic. For example, ESPN’s "summer forecast" projects a 30-52 season – only good enough for 13th in the East. Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus reportedly believes the Pistons will finish 11th with 32.9 wins (why not round it off to 33?). It’s worth noting that our 25-41 record last season equates to 31-51 for a full 82-game schedule. Winning one or two more games is not much of an improvement!
We’ve been discussing this issue on Detroit Bad Boys ever since the new NBA schedule came out, mostly debating the pros and cons of whether the Pistons can contend for a playoff spot. At the close of last season, Keith Langlois of Pistons.com wrote a blog (see A Path to the Playoffs) making the case for our chances. One point he emphasized was that the Pistons finished last season 21-21 after a horrendous 4-20 start. Since teams with a .500 record (or worse – the 2008-09 8th seeded Pistons finished 39-43) often make the playoffs, why shouldn’t Detroit have a shot this coming season? Even if this year’s team makes only modest improvements over last year’s squad, it still makes sense to me that we can contend for that 8th playoff spot.
Granted, last year’s 8th seed in the East was Philadelphia, and they finished 35-31. In the West, Utah was 8th at 36-30. So .500 wasn’t good enough then, and there is no assurance it will be in 2012-13. Still, a .500 team has reason to hope that they will be in the playoff fight. But are the Pistons truly a .500 team?
On the surface, it appears we are. After all, a 42-game span is pretty significant. And when a team closes a season 21-21, it sounds logical to say that they will begin the next season as a .500 team. But do the actual results of the 2011-12 campaign truly support that assertion?
As I pondered this question, I decided to take a closer look at the strength of the Pistons’ schedule last year. In order to do that, I chose to base my examination on a simple criterion – the win-loss record of our opponents. Now I realize that someone can devise more complex formulas using more detailed statistics for making this judgment. But I think this view is revealing enough, and will pass muster.
So let’s look at how well our opposition did last year. The Pistons played 66 games – facing every team at least once, and some as many as four times. We were fortunate enough to play Charlotte four times (four wins!) and unfortunate enough to play Chicago four times (four losses!). But if you combine the wins and losses of all 66 opponents (counting each team as many or few times as we played them), on average their record was 32-34. (Okay, it was actually 32.36-33.64, but I’m going to round up or down unless it’s dead even). Since the league average is 33-33, our schedule was just a little easier than the norm.
First, let’s look at the average record of our opponents for our first 24 games, when we were 4-20. That dismal stretch began with a 91-79 loss at Indiana on Dec. 26 and closed with a 99-96 loss at New Jersey on Feb. 1. The four teams we beat had an average record of 28.5-37.5 (close enough to Portland’s record of 28-38; we beat them 94-91 on Jan. 21). The 20 teams we lost to posted an average record of 36-30 (which was Dallas’ record; they beat us 100-86 on Jan. 10). As a whole, the average record of our first 24 opponents was 35-31 (which was Philadelphia’s record; they beat us three times in January and February). By the way, we went 3-8 at home and 1-12 on the road. The lone road win was at (surprise!) Charlotte.
Now let’s look at the average record of our opponents for our final 42 games, when we went 21-21. This improved record began with an 88-80 victory over Milwaukee on Feb. 3 and concluded with a 108-86 defeat of Philadelphia on April 26. The 21 teams we beat had an average record of 25-41 (which was our record; the next closest team in the East was Toronto at 23-43, and we beat them two out of three games in February, March and April). The 21 teams we lost to had an average record of 37-29 (which was Orlando’s record; we lost to them 119-89 on April 9). As a whole, the average record of our final 42 opponents was 31-35 (which was Milwaukee’s record; we beat them in February and lost to them in April). Our record was 15-6 at home and 6-15 on the road.
So, in summary, the main reason we went 4-20 was because we were playing better teams (with an average record of 35-31). For that stretch, it was as if we were playing the 76ers every night. And the main reason we finished 21-21 is because we were playing poorer teams (with an average record of 31-35). For that stretch, it was as if we were playing the Bucks every night. Yes, we finished as a .500 team – but against a weaker schedule. On the whole we were a .379 team.
They have a saying in the investment world: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." There really is no telling how much better our Pistons will be in 2012-13. Last year’s squad was slightly better than the 2010-11 team, and we do have some good reasons to think we’re headed in the right direction. I still hope we’ll get close to a .500 season, and think projections of 32-33 wins are too low. But in order to do that we’ll have to get better than we were last year. As of right now, the Pistons are not a .500 team.