In a post last month, I looked at the strength of last season’s 66-game schedule and how it factored into the Pistons 21-21 finish after their 4-20 start. My basic conclusion was that a significant contributor to the Pistons’ poor start was the more demanding schedule they faced at the beginning of the season. Likewise, their improved play was aided by a weaker schedule of opponents over their last 42 games.
So I thought it would be interesting to look at the 2012-13 NBA season in the same way in order to project our upcoming ups and downs. In doing so, I am well aware that how a team performed last year is no sure predictor of how they’ll do this season. Some teams have certainly improved their personnel. The Nets finished 22-44 last year, but most prognosticators expect this season’s squad will make the playoffs. But their depth is suspect, so an injury to a starter could easily derail them. The Magic with Dwight Howard were 37-29, but few expect them to have a winning record this time around without him. Several teams, such as the Wizards and the Warriors, may be significantly stronger. Other teams, such as the Bulls and the Hawks, may well be weaker.
As for our Pistons, it’s open for debate whether we’ll be better or worse. We’ve said goodbye to both of the Bens who contributed to last year’s team – one consistently with his defense and rebounding, the other inconsistently with his scoring. The new additions are mostly untested rookies, so our biggest hopes for success depend on improved play from Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey and Jonas Jerebko. Good to great seasons from all four would certainly make Detroit a much stronger team. But some of our fellow lottery teams may be significantly improved.
Of course, projecting how well any team will actually play this season is dependent on unknown factors. Injuries will probably make a big difference, but no one can predict them. Philadelphia may be much stronger this year – unless Andrew Bynum goes down. Without him, and with Andre Iguodala now in Denver, the 76ers could easily head back to the lottery. Nobody knows how quickly and fully the Bulls’ Derrick Rose will recover. So the true strength of the Pistons’ schedule will be much easier to judge in hindsight. Looking back isn’t as much fun, however, though I’ll be interested in comparing this preseason look with the actual results when the games are over.
Therefore, this examination of the strength of our upcoming schedule is based mostly on last year’s actual results, which makes this raw data both its greatest asset AND shortfall. Please note that the average win-loss records have been averaged up or down to whole numbers. I’ve divided the schedule up by months, and will also look at how the number of home and away games might affect our wins and losses. So here goes:
October-November: 17 games, with 7 at home and 10 on the road
The Pistons first month will be the toughest stretch of the season as we play 12 games against teams that posted winning records, 2 against a team that finished at .500, and only 3 against foes with losing records. On average, these teams were 36-30 last season (equivalent to 44-38 for 82 games), which is how Dallas and New York did in 2011-12. Our most winnable contests are probably our home games against the Rockets (Oct. 31), Magic (Nov. 16), Raptors (Nov. 23), Blazers (Nov. 26) and Suns (Nov. 28), and on the road at Sacramento (Nov. 7). We play the Thunder twice (home and away), and also visit the Lakers, Nuggets, 76ers and Grizzlies. A 6-11 start is probably the best we can reasonably expect. That’s not great, but it would be a step up from last year’s 4-13 beginning. Unfortunately, win number 4 was followed by 7 straight losses. Five of those losing efforts were on the road, and the 2 home defeats were at the hands of Miami and Atlanta.
December: 16 games, with 9 at home and 7 on the road
Our December schedule eases up considerably, as we face 8 teams that had winning records and 8 that were losers. On average, these teams finished 32-34 last year (that’s 39-43 for 82 games), which is slightly worse than last season’s Suns, who were 33-33. Our most favorable match-ups are home games versus the Cavs (Dec. 3), Warriors (Dec. 5), Wizards (Dec. 22) and Bucks (Dec. 30), and on the road at the Cavs (Dec. 8), Raptors (Dec. 19) and Wizards (Dec. 22). Five of our home games are against playoff teams – the Bulls, Nuggets, Pacers, Clippers and Heat. I think we can hope for a 7-9 month, which would bring us to 13-20. We were 11-22 through 33 games in 2011-12, having gone 7-2 after that dismal start. Five of those victories were at home, and we won on the road at New Jersey and Boston.
January: 13 games, with 8 at home (one international) and 5 on the road
While we have fewer games and more at home in January, the level of our competition also gets tougher, as we face 9 winners and 4 losers. On average, these teams were 35-31 last season (43-39 for 82 games), which is how the 76ers did in 2011-12. Our most winnable games are at home against the Kings (Jan. 1), Bobcats (Jan. 6), Magic (Jan. 22) and Bucks (Jan. 29), and on visits to the Bucks (Jan. 11) and Magic (Jan. 27). Playoff caliber foes include the Hawks, Jazz, Knicks, Celtics, Bulls, Heat and Pacers. A 5-8 month would be a good result for this Pistons’ squad, bringing us to 18-28. By comparison we were 16-30 through 46 games last season.
February: 14 games, with 9 at home and 5 on the road
This is one of the easier stretches in our schedule, due to the preponderance of home games and a slate of opponents who finished 31-35 last year (that’s an 82-game result of 38-44), which is how the Bucks performed. We have 7 games against winning teams and 7 against losers. Home contests that look most promising will be versus the Cavs (Feb. 1), Hornets (Feb. 11) and Wizards (Feb. 13), and visits to the Bucks (Feb. 9), Bobcats (Feb. 20) and Wizards (Feb. 27) could be winnable. The Hawks and Nets are coming to Detroit, so we might squeeze out a win or two there. We also play the Lakers, Spurs, Grizzlies and Pacers (twice). I think 7-7 would be possible this month, which would put us at 25-35 through 60 games. Last year we were 22-38 at that point.
March: 14 games, with 5 at home and 9 on the road
Our opposition this month gets only slightly tougher (32-34 last season – equivalent to 39-43 for 82 games), but we’re on the road more. Once again we’re facing 7 winners and 7 losers. Our toughest match-ups will be road games against the Spurs, Clippers, Jazz, Heat and Bulls. Winnable home games appear to be our contests with the Nets (Mar. 18), Timberwolves (Mar. 26) and Raptors (Mar. 29), and our most favorable road foes are the Hornets (Mar. 1), Warriors (Mar. 13), Blazers (Mar. 16) and Bobcats (Mar. 23). A 6-8 month would be a good performance, bringing us to 31-43. At the 66 game mark, I expect we’ll probably have about 27-28 wins – a modest improvement over last season’s 25.
April: 8 games, with 3 at home and 5 on the road
We will conclude our season with our easiest slate of opponents, as we’re matched against 3 winners and 5 losers. Their average record was 28-38 (35-47 for 82 games), which is how the Blazers performed last year. The home game against the Bobcats (Apr. 12) is probably our surest victory, and road games against the Raptors (Apr. 1) and Cavs (Apr. 10) could also be wins. Our toughest opponents will probably be the Bulls, Celtics and 76ers. A 3-5 finish seems likely to me, so that the Pistons will end the 2012-13 season with a record of 34-48.
Now in all likelihood we’ll win some games we’re not expected to (like last year’s victories over such playoff teams as the Celtics, Lakers, Magic, Hawks and 76ers). We’ll also probably lose to some teams we should beat (as in defeats last year by the Cavs, Raptors and Wizards). While some of the teams we play this year are improved, others will probably be worse. My gut feeling is that we probably won’t do much worse than 34 wins, and could possibly win as many as 38 games.
What’s most important to me is that we don’t judge our record in 2012-13 based on the mistaken idea that last year’s squad finished as a .500 team. While our start to this season probably won’t be as awful as last season’s 4-20 beginning, this will be due in part to a schedule that’s not so heavily frontloaded with strong teams. And while we may not finish playing .500 ball as we did in 2011-12, we also won’t be playing against as weak a slate of opponents. Our first 41 games will be against teams that on average were .500 last season, and our final 41 foes posted an 82-game equivalent of a 40-42 record. By comparison, the 42 game stretch of last year in which we went 21-21 was against teams that posted the equivalent of a 38-44 record. If the Pistons could match that mark this season, I would say it’s been a big step forward.