Whew! The Detroit Pistons have just finished a brutal stretch of their season and have emerged 8-8.
Sounds like a perfect time to serve up a Thanksgiving-sized helping of
statistical analysis Kool-Aid for loyal fans who've enjoyed the highs and endured the lows of this young season.
Having watched almost every single minute thus far, I can share Pistons fans' frustrations with inconsistent play, inconsistent effort, too many turnovers, a league-worst bench and horrible long-range shooting.
While I know it's been pointed out numerous times in comments and posts recently, you have to keep in mind that the Pistons have played (as of 11/28) the sixth-toughest strength of schedule in the NBA, including four sets of back-to-backs (three of which ended in losses) and 10 road games. Toss in the fact that their bench, without its top two scorers in Brandon Jennings and Jodie Meeks, has been a glaring weakness, and the effect of the schedule is even more amplified.
When your starters are playing heavy minutes due to an incompetent bench that routinely surrenders leads, those back-to-backs and road trips naturally hurt even more than usual.
The fact that the Pistons have beaten top Eastern Conference contenders like Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago and Miami should encourage those who've observed enthusiasm-deflating efforts against the Kings, Lakers and Bucks.
It's not insignificant to note that all four of the above quality wins took place when the Pistons had at least one day of rest (including the season opener). Additionally, three of those four wins were at the Palace.
While I'm currently staying with family in Michigan over the holiday weekend, I've had a chance to peek at a couple of interesting stats that should help put the Pistons' first 16 games in perspective.
The first that stands out has to do with Andre Drummond. A quick look at his splits shows he has averaged 14.3 points and 13.8 rebounds on zero days rest (i.e. second game of back-to-backs). That the Pistons have gone 1-3 in those games is not surprising in light of that fact. The Big Penguin's game is so dependent on energy and effort that it suffers mightily when he doesn't have a full tank. On one day's rest, he's averaging 19.4/17.7. On 3+ days of rest (only two games, mind you), he's averaging 21.5/24.
Reggie Jackson averages 20.1 points, 6.4 assists and only 2.1 turnovers on one day's rest (seven games), while shooting 41.4 percent on 3s. Yet he's at 17/5.3/5.3 while shooting 21.1 percent on 3s on the second night of back-to-backs.
When your two best players play significantly worse when not rested, and when your bench is paper thin, a road and B2B heavy schedule can really take a toll.
While not all the home/road splits paint a rosy picture for Pistons fans (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has reversed last year's trend, for example), overall, there are signs of hope ahead.
The Pistons are 7-5 when they have at least a day of rest, and that stretch includes eight road games.
Prior to the start of the season, I predicted the Pistons would have a roughly .500 record by the end of 2015 - around the time Jennings is expected to return. Now that I've seen these first 16 games, and after taking a look at their upcoming schedule, I've become just a tad bit more optimistic about how their record will look when Swag returns to the court.
The next five games on the schedule look especially promising, as all five are against teams currently below .500, four of those games are at home, and only one is a back-to-back. Even better, the lone back-to-back is against a Houston Rockets team that will also be playing its second game in two nights (they play the Knicks in New York on tonight).
Given how they've played so far this season, there's a good possibility our Pistons will emerge 12-9 or even 13-8 at the end of this stretch. 11-10 would be disappointing, but not disastrous.
After that, four of their next six games are at home, with their two road games against the Hornets (a possible loss, playing a rested Charlotte team while the Pistons are on the second night of a back-to-back) and Sixers. They do have tough home games against the Grizzlies, Pacers, Clippers and Celtics, but given how they've played at home so far, the key element once again is rest.
While the game against Indiana will come without a day's rest, the Pacers will also be playing the second game of a back-to-back. But while the Pistons will have played the previous night against Philly, the Pacers will have just played host to LeBron & Friends. A rested Pistons squad will also be facing a Celtics team that played in Cleveland the night before, and a Memphis team that hosted Oklahoma City the night before.
So, during the next 11 games, the Pistons will play only three on the road - against Brooklyn, Charlotte and Philadelphia - and they'll be the more rested team more often than not.
In that light, our Pistons appear to have a puncher's chance in each of the next eleven games, before they play three straight road games against the Bulls, Heat and Hawks (ouch). And who knows, maybe Swag will come back just before that trip and help them steal an extra game or two before year's end.
Since 16 games is roughly 20 percent of the NBA season, one could easily project the Pistons to be a roughly .500 team. However, given the road/home discrepancy, the outlook appears to be brighter. While the current SOS-based projection has the Pistons finishing 42-40 (and narrowly missing the playoffs), improvements in team cohesion, an expected regression to career-norm shooting numbers for several key rotation players and the return of Jennings could add a few more wins to that total.
After last year's Tale of Three Eras (Smith/Post-Smith/Reggie), many of you know that 27 games is one-third of an NBA season. The next 11 games, ending with the home game against Boston on Dec. 16 will put the Pistons at that mark. Given the favorable schedule during this upcoming stretch, I see them going 7-4 to finish the first third of the season at 15-12. That projects to a 45- or 46-win season.
And while those three killer road games before Christmas look intimidating, the Pistons will be rested against Chicago and will play in Miami on three days' rest.
If they can emerge even 16-14 to end the year, they'll be in great position to make a playoff run, even in the no longer Leastern Conference.
When looking at the Eastern Conference standings, there are several teams primed to drop as the Pistons rise. The Heat, Hawks, Celtics and Hornets have all played nine or 10 home games already, and all but Atlanta have played a very weak schedule thus far (bottom third SOS in the NBA).
We should have a much clearer picture of where the Pistons really rank in the standings by the end of the year, and my guess is they'll be closer to that 6th seed than 9th or 10th.
Should be fun to watch.