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A closer look at Detroit’s 27-27 finish

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The Pistons went .500 after their disastrous 5-23 start to last season. A look at the opposition they faced can help us appreciate the true significance of this improvement.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pistons stumbled out of the gate last year, losing 13 games in a row at one point to fall to 3-19, it brought back memories of another horrendous opening to a season. In 2011-12 another new head coach (Lawrence Frank) led his charges to a 4-20 start. Yet just like last year’s 5-23 squad, that group was able to win half its games the rest of the way.

The 2011-12 season had not opened until late December because of a player lock-out, so it only consisted of 66 games. Training camp and preseason were shortened, and injuries led Frank to start rookie point guard Brandon Knight in 60 of those contests. Thus the circumstances were not fortuitous for a new coach with a young team. By the end of January, the fans were already discussing the 2012 NBA Draft.

Beginning in early February, however, Detroit was able to right the ship. That squad finished the year with a 21-21 mark , a hopeful sign that better days were ahead. Assuming continued improvement from young players like Knight, Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko, and with the addition of an exciting rookie in Andre Drummond, it was reasonable to project that the 2012-13 Pistons could contend for a lower seed playoff slot.

Frank was doomed by inflated expectations

Instead, Detroit went 0-8 out of the gate, and any hopes of a late season run were squashed by a 1-13 record in March. (It did not help matters that Drummond missed most of February and March with a back injury.) Not surprisingly, the disappointing 29-53 record led to Frank being fired and replaced by Mo Cheeks.

While few observers would claim that Frank did a masterful coaching job, he was also a victim of the inflated expectations created by the previous year’s 21-21 finish. Owner Tom Gores and Team President Joe Dumars may have hoped they had at least a .500 team, but they did not. And the fact that they did not could be discerned by a careful examination of critical variations in the strength of Detroit’s 2011-12 schedule.

While there are more sophisticated ways to evaluate the quality of one’s opponents, one simple method is by their record. Generally speaking, better teams win more games. So by looking at the average record of opposing teams for a given section of the Pistons’ schedule, we can see if there were variations that affected their win-loss record. While this approach is not a precise evaluation of schedule strength, it is nevertheless revealing.

Schedule strength makes a difference

For example, if we look at the record of the teams that Detroit faced when they started out at 4-20 in 2011-12, we find that the average winning percentage was .530. And when we look at the average winning percentage for the foes they faced when they finished 21-21, we find that it was .470. Thus while the Pistons may have become a better team over the final 42 games, they also benefited significantly by playing weaker teams.

With that history lesson in mind, what can we glean from last season’s schedule to inform our evaluation of Detroit’s 27-27 finish? Was the horrible beginning influenced very much by a slate of more formidable foes? Was the upswing at least in part a gift granted by a weaker schedule?

In a word, the answer is: No.

Looking at their whole 82-game schedule, the average winning percentage of the Pistons’ opponents was .495. (While we might expect it to be .500, being in the weaker Eastern Conference has its benefits.) The winning percentage of the teams they beat averaged .466. Those who beat them averaged .512. And what was the average for the teams that Detroit faced in those first 28 games? It was .497. So the reason why they lost so much at first was not because their schedule was tough. The main reason the Pistons lost so much was because they were bad.

Did their schedule for the remaining 54 games get any easier? Only if we think a .493 winning percentage constitutes a significantly more favorable ride to the finish line. On the whole, there is no reason to think that variations in the strength of their NBA schedule significantly affected the pitiful start or the improved finish.

Detroit did have two extended losing streaks in 2014-15 – an early season one of 13 games and a late season one of 10 games. Opponents in the 13-game fall averaged .524 for the year. Foes in the 10-game slide averaged .521. Perhaps another patsy or two sprinkled on the docket at either point would have given the Motor City men a chance to break through at that point. On the other hand, the 16-10 record that extended from the onset of the "Post Smith Era" to the All Star Break benefited in part from the Pistons contending with teams who compiled a .481 winning percentage. After the break the schedule toughened up some to a .504 average, which may have contributed to the 11-17 mark in the "Reggie Jackson Era."

A different team takes the court this Fall

Of course, the 2015-16 Detroit roster will be dramatically different from the one that from late-December to late-January went 12-4, giving fans brief hopes for a playoff berth. At most only two starters from that team – Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – will take the floor at the opening tip in Atlanta on Oct. 27. Gone from that group are five key players (D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe and Kyle Singler), and a sixth (Brandon Jennings) may not be fully recovered from his Achilles injury.

So whether the Pistons can play .500 ball or better in the coming season will greatly depend on how new additions Aron Baynes, Steve Blake, Ersan Ilyasova, Stanley Johnson and Marcus Morris mesh with the team’s returning core. But if they do prove to be a good fit with the returnees, Detroit may finally contend for a playoff spot once more.