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Can Detroit reach .500 by game 20?

Mo Cheeks’ Pistons were 10-10 through 20 games. Is there any chance Stan Van Gundy can lead this year’s squad to that same mark?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember when?

The apex of 2013-14 was a Dec. 7 road conquest of the Chicago Bulls, capping a four-game win streak that evened Detroit’s record at 10-10. While the streak began with a victory at home over Philadelphia, all of the next three wins came on the road. In fact, beating the Heat in Miami on Dec. 3 was certainly one of the highlights of the Pistons’ disappointing season.

Of course, the wheels began falling off the bus soon thereafter, as the team fell to 21-29 before Head Coach Mo Cheeks was let go. While a defeat of eventual NBA champion San Antonio under new coach John Loyer brought initial optimism, the fans' hopes were quickly dashed as the Pistons lost their next three games. Two of those losses were to a squad they were competing with for a playoff berth – Charlotte. The team managed only seven more victories as it sputtered to a second straight 29-53 finish.

It’s easy to forget how hopeful many supporters were for a return to the playoffs early last season. Some observers expected that Detroit would struggle at first to adapt to starting three new players and learning how to best use its “Big Three” line-up of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. Having reached .500 in early December, few would have predicted that the next 62 games would be a painful descent into mediocrity.

So what’s happening now?

While there were fewer personnel changes this past summer, the addition of a new general manager and head coach in Stan Van Gundy gave fans a fresh reason for optimism. Surely the man who had never coached a losing team (nor failed to make the playoffs) could turn things around in the Motor City. Alas, so far the results have not been impressive, as the Pistons have limped to 3-10.

Looking ahead

To reach 10-10, Detroit would have to begin a seven-game win streak when they travel to Milwaukee on Tuesday night. While they have enjoyed a welcome break since last Friday’s loss at Atlanta, they will also get to play five of their next seven at home. Let’s take a look down the road and gauge how likely it is that Van Gundy’s men can ascend to .500 in the next two weeks:

Game 14 (Tues., Nov. 25): Pistons at Bucks

Milwaukee is a surprising 7-7, with a win over 11-2 Memphis to crow about. While they lost at the Palace on Nov. 7, the final score of 98-95 was hardly a resounding victory for Detroit. The Bucks offense is rated 28th, and their defense has slipped to ninth. Given how relatively well they are playing even though their oldest starter is often center Larry Sanders (age 26), this is not a team the Pistons can overlook because of who will be their opponent the next night.

Advantage: Milwaukee

Game 15 (Wed., Nov. 26): Clippers at Pistons

There’s nothing like coming home to face the second game of a back-to-back against Los Angeles’ best team. The Clippers will be playing their fifth game in eight nights as they wind down a seven-game road trip, though they can rest Tuesday night after bouts with Memphis on Sunday and Charlotte on Monday. Their fifth-rated offense will challenge Detroit’s 13th rated defense. This figures to be a loss – unless L.A. takes a win for granted and/or the Pistons play at a much higher level than they have yet to reach.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Game 16 (Fri., Nov. 28): Bucks at Pistons

Whoever loses on Tuesday night will be looking for revenge in this rematch, and that may mean more than any presumed home court edge. The Bucks will have played the Timberwolves on Wednesday night, so both squads will be similarly rested.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 17 (Sun., Nov. 30): Warriors at Pistons

While Golden State is second in scoring so far, Coach Steve Kerr’s charges also sport the second-rated defense; their average margin of victory has been over 10 points per game. If that does not sound scary enough, then consider that they beat Charlotte 112-87. They will be playing their final contest of a five-game, eight-night road trip, so maybe they will be worn out by the time they trudge into Auburn Hills. If not, it could be a very unpleasant Sunday afternoon at the Palace for the home team.

Advantage: Warriors

Game 18 (Tues., Dec. 2): Lakers at Pistons

One of the great miseries of 2013-14 was being humbled twice by the Lakers. While L.A. has Kobe Bryant back, they are playing awful. (Or maybe we should say: Because L.A. has Kobe Bryant back, they are playing awful.) They sport the league’s worst rated defense, which hopefully should allow even the anemic Pistons to score some points. In their first 13 games (3-10) they gave up over 100 points 10 times, with a 140-106 drubbing by the Mavericks being the worst indignity. The Lakers will host Toronto on Sunday before they take off for Michigan to begin a three-game road trip.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 19 (Wed., Dec. 3): Pistons at Celtics

Boston is another defensively challenged but high scoring team. Though they have mostly been losing, they have downed Brooklyn at the Garden and Chicago on the road. In the middle of a home stand they must travel to Atlanta the night before this match-up, so both teams should be equally tired. Detroit won the season series 3-1 last year, and appears to have the Celtics number of late.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 20 (Sat., Dec. 6): 76ers at Pistons

The unquestioned worst team in the NBA, the only mystery is whether Philadelphia will have posted a win when they play their 20th game of the season. Eventually the 76ers are bound to eke out a victory, but the loser of that contest will be sorely embarrassed. Before facing the Pistons they will host the injury-depleted Thunder on Friday night, and those games may be their best shot at ending the drought. Better OKC than Detroit!

Advantage: Pistons

What can we expect?

Clearly the odds are against the Pistons making such a substantial turn-around in their play that they can even their record at 10-10 in the next two weeks. It seems especially improbable that they can conquer both the Clippers and Warriors, two of the Western Conference’s best. It also appears unlikely that Detroit can beat Milwaukee twice in the coming week. So three losses may well be unavoidable.

On the other hand, splitting with the Bucks and beating the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers for a total of four victories appears within the realm of possibility. Assuming that is how the next seven games unfold, the Pistons would be 7-13 with almost one-fourth of the season over. That result would also put them on track to be no better than last year’s team.

However, it once seemed reasonable possible that the 2013-14 team that reached .500 on Dec. 7, 2013 was capable of maintaining at least that level of competence. We know now that it could not. So it would be futile to project at this point that even a 7-13 team on Dec. 6, 2014 is incapable of producing a markedly more successful finish.

Nevertheless, even posting a 4-3 record in the days to come will require Detroit to play more effectively than it has of late. And the next 20 games will feature 12 contests versus teams that currently sport a winning record, and only one against an opponent with more losses. Making up any ground will require improved play, because the NBA schedule will not be offering Detroit any favors.

After the 10-10 start, last season’s Pistons went 7-13 to end up at 17-23 after 40 games. So if this year’s team can reach 7-13, and then manage to play .500-ball over the next 20 outings, it would simply match the previous administration’s record. However, achieving that result at the half-way mark would at least constitute real progress.

Of course, whether that level of improvement is possible remains to be seen. The next two weeks may well give us a clear indication if it is.

What do you expect from Detroit over the next seven games? Vote in the attached poll and then share your thoughts.