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What if the Pistons played in the West?

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If the Pistons played in the West, would they still be an elite contender or just another good team? DBB reader Mike Z. tackled that problem in an interesting email he sent me last week (note: his final numbers don't include Sunday or Monday's games), using Detroit's actual winning percentage against Western Conference teams to calculate a hypothetical "adjusted" winning percentage for the season, based upon the fact that NBA teams play 52 regular-season games within their own conference and 30 games with the other conference. In any case, here's what he came up with:

A lot of people, in fact most, probably say that the Pistons would not have had as good a record over the last 6 years (The 5 ECF Finals plus this year) if they had been playing in the Western Conference rather than the Eastern Conference.

So I went to Yahoo Sports NBA standings and did some analysis of what the Pistons record has been from 2002-03 through today vs what it would have been if they had played in the Western Conference.

I did this by computing the winning percentages that the Pistons have had against each conference over the 6 year period through today by year and in total for the 6 years. I projected this year's winning percentages to 82 games. I then took the total Pistons wins by year by conference over the 6 year period and added up the wins and losses by year to come up with a 6 year winning percentage by conference along with a total 6 year won and loss record.

I then reversed the 52-30 arrangement and gave the Pistons a 30-52 (East/West) and applied the actual winning percentages by conference for each of the 6 years to come up with an adjusted winning percentage and wins and losses by conference and in total for each of the 6 years based upon the 30-52. I then added up the adjusted wins and losses by year for the each of the conferences and in total and came up with an adjusted won/loss percentage in total for the 6 years.

The actual won loss percentage for the Pistons over the 6 years has been .678, which has resulted in 333 wins over 482 games. The adjusted numbers over the 6 years projected though the end of this year are .665 and 327 wins. This amounts to only 6 less wins over the 6 years, or 1 less win a year.

Of course depending on which team was exchanged for the Pistons (i.e. moved to the East) it is possible that the Pistons may have actually had a better record over the last 6 years by playing in the Western Conference. Who would have thought it?

If you want to check his math, this is the data he used:

2007-08 Total to Date 49-19 vs East 30-11 vs West 19-8
2006-07 Total 53-29; vs East 36-16; vs West 17-13
2005-06 Total 64-18; vs East 39-13; vs West 25-5
2004-05 Total 54-28; vs East 35-17; vs West 19-11
2003-04 Total 54-28; vs East 37-17; vs West 17-11
2002-03 Total 50-32; vs East 35-19; vs West 15-13

Total 2002-08 is 324-154 = .678 (Projected based upon 82 games this year)

vs East 212-93 = .695
vs West 112-61 = .647

If the Pistons played in the West, the adjusted winning percentage since 2002-03 (based upon 30-52 rather than 52-30 East/West games) would have been .665, rather than what it has been at .678

There are 492 games over a 6 year period

Actual winning percentage of .678 = 333-159
Adjusted winning percentage of .665 = 327-165

I can see a lot of ways to poke holes in this hypothetical argument (for instance, would the wear and tear of facing Western teams 52 times a year result in a reduced winning percentage?), but it's certainly a different (and surprising) way of looking at things. Just like the Pistons don't take sub-.500 teams quite as lightly as anecdotal evidence suggests, they also fare better against the superior conference than one might guess.

Update: Now that we know the winning percentage, what about the playing seed? Mike ran the numbers again and provided this quick and dirty table:

Actual seed in East; Projected seed in West
2007-08 2nd; 1st
2006-07 1st; 6th
2005-06 1st; 1st
2004-05 2nd; 4th
2003-04 2nd; 5th
2002-03 1st; 7th

This is just a quick estimation based upon the previous numbers -- as Mike pointed out, obviously the seeds could (and likely would) be different had Detroit played in the West since all the other teams would have slightly different records, as well.