In the Wed., April 24 Pistons.com Mailbag, Keith Langlois was asked for his opinion about Jeff Van Gundy’s comments on Coach Lawrence Frank’s firing. Langlois replied in part that it’s understandable that a former coach would stick up for his friends. Then he added this comment:
“Coaches have a shelf life. Every failure uses up a little piece of it, just as every success can extend it … [Frank] did some terrific things for the Pistons and I believe he was absolutely the right hire at the time. But it’s hard to argue that the shelf life wasn’t expired here given the turn the season took after the All-Star break.”
Up to the All-Star break, the Pistons were 21-33 (.389 – a slight improvement over the 2011-12 record of .379). After the break we went 8-20 (.286). But the worst part of that decline was our 1-13 record in March. At the heart of that “March Madness” was a 10-game losing streak. What went wrong in March, and how much of it can we blame on Coach Frank? To answer that question, let’s go back to the end of his first year as our coach.
Last summer, after the 2011-12 season was over, many fans were optimistic about our future because we’d finished the year playing .500 ball (21-21 after a 4-20 start). Some folks were saying we had a good shot at the playoffs, since winning half your games can often get a team in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. This year the Bucks (39-43) and the Celtics (41-40) both made it in. Curious about why we’d done so much better, I decided to examine more closely the strength of our schedule for those 66 games. And I discovered that a major contributor to our closing success was a decidedly weaker schedule.
While we may have been a worse team at the beginning of 2011-12, we also faced a tougher slate of opponents for our first 24 games. In fact, the average record for those foes was 35-31. In contrast, the average record of the teams we faced in our final 42 games was 31-35. While playing weaker opponents didn’t necessarily explain all of our improvement, it surely contributed greatly to it. On the whole for that 66-game season, we were 17-12 against sub .500 teams. We went 8-29 against winning squads. In 2012-13, we were 23-14 against sub .500 teams. Versus teams who finished .500 or above, we went 6-39. So this year we did better against the worst, and worse against the better.
While it may seem like common sense that teams generally play better against weaker opponents, commentators don’t always see the connection between schedule strength and winning and losing streaks. Of course, the NBA schedulers don’t pay any attention to balancing game schedules in a way that would lessen this effect. Until the Pistons get much stronger, road trips against Western Conference foes will continue to be a losing proposition. We were 18-23 at home and 11-30 on the road. All 11 of those road wins came against losing teams; the only opponent who made the playoffs was the Bucks.
After the 2012-13 schedule came out, I tried to project how the Pistons might do based on how their opponents had played the previous season. My resulting estimate was that we should have won 34 games. Since we only won 29, I was obviously too optimistic. In part, I expected some improvement over the previous season. If we’d done just as well in 2012-13 as we did in 2011-12, we would have won 31 games.
When I reviewed my month-by-month projections of how the Pistons might do, I was pretty close up through February. I had expected us to post a record of 25-35 (a modest gain over the previous year’s 22-38 through 60 games). Our actual result was 23-37. The poor start to our season was mostly predictable. I’d projected a 6-11 beginning based on the fact we were playing 14 games against teams that had finished .500 or better, and only 7 of our contests were at home. Through November we were 5-12. That really wasn’t too bad for what appeared to be the toughest stretch of the season for a young Detroit team.
For December, I’d projected we’d go 7-9. Our actual record was 6-10, so at 11-22 we were doing just as well as we had through 33 games in 2011-12. For January, I’d hoped for 5-8, but we did one win better for 6-7. But my hopes for a 7-7 February were a tad too optimistic, as we went 6-8. Still, at 23-37 we were a win ahead of the previous year’s pace, and only two wins behind my preseason projection.
Then, as the saying goes, the bottom dropped out. The fact that Andre Drummond’s back injury took our most productive player out of the lineup was obviously a significant factor. But let’s suppose that Drummond was not injured, so Frank inserted him into the starting lineup in late February. Let’s further imagine that his presence, along with the addition of Jose Calderon running the point, led the team to a post All-Star record of 14-14. If the Pistons had finished 35-47, I don’t think we’d be talking about who will be our next coach.
But was such an optimistic outcome possible? I think it was highly unlikely. More than the lack of Awesome Andre’s presence, the strength of our schedule led to our abysmal 1-13 March record. The previous year, our March foes had posted an average record of 39-43 for an 82 game schedule, which is equivalent to how this year’s Milwaukee Bucks finished. (If we’d played all 14 games against the Bucks, we probably would have done better even without Drummond; we were 3-1 versus them with him.) Still, with 9 games on the road, I was only hoping for us to go 6-8. But two of our opponents, the Nets and Warriors, were much stronger this season. So we actually faced our most difficult schedule in March.
On average, our March opponents had a 43-39 record this year (equal to Utah’s record, and we all know how well we do against the Jazz!). Even that figure is misleading, because our lone win came against the 21-61 Bobcats. So the 13 teams who beat us had an average record of 45-37 (the equivalent to playing the Bulls, Lakers or Rockets every night).
By way of further comparison, our 7 losses in January all came against teams with an average record of 45-37. So even with Drummond in the lineup, the Pistons would have been hard-pressed to win any more games in March. My guess is that he most likely could have been a difference maker in our narrow losses to the Hornets (100-95), Mavericks (102-99) and Bulls (95-94). While a 4-10 month would not have been very good, at least a 32-50 season (.390) would have been a slight improvement over the previous year. Our best hope for 3 more wins would have been if we could have beaten the Trailblazers (once) and the Timberwolves (twice).
Up through February, the average record of all our 60 foes was 40.5-41.5 – just under .500. For the whole season, their average record was the same. How was this possible? Because as difficult as our March schedule was, our April slate was by far our easiest. On average, our April opponents finished the year 35-47 (the closest comparison was Toronto’s 34-48 record). So, regardless of the fact that Monroe and Drummond were finally starting together, it’s not surprising we went 5-3 to finish the season. It’s hard to “tank” when only 3 of your last 8 opponents have winning records!
Now that the 2012-13 season is in the books, we can reflect back on several story lines. As of right now, the firing of Coach Lawrence Frank is the dominant event. While the unrealistic hope that we’d make the playoffs may have been a factor in this decision, I’m confident our miserable “March Madness” record was the beginning of his demise. Unfortunately for Coach Frank, this past season’s schedule made another extended .500 finish almost impossible to repeat. Perhaps the 2013-14 NBA schedule maker will be kinder to our next head coach!