Based on most preseason prognostications, the fact that Detroit entered the last All-Star break with a 27-27 record was reason for rejoicing. ESPN forecast a 35-win season and 11th place finish in the East, so even being in the playoff race with two-thirds of the season complete was a step forward.
However, the Pistons had also gone 27-27 the previous year after Stan Van Gundy’s decision to waive Josh Smith. And that move was the first of several to radically re-make his roster. Of the 15 players who began 2014-15 in Detroit, only seven were with them when this past season began. The only starter holdovers during that entire time span have been Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
So it was a legitimate question to ask if all of the post-Smith roster turnover had actually accomplished any real improvements. And while .500 ball was an advancement from six years of winning only 25-32 games, no one was going to be satisfied with mediocrity for long.
Stan Van Gundy clearly was not content with the status quo, either. In February of 2015 he had shipped out D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler for Reggie Jackson. Then this last February he swapped Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova for Tobias Harris. Both were bold moves, but the last one produced more immediate results. While the Jackson-led squad stumbled at first and finished 11-17 on the way to a 32-50 mark, the Harris addition sparked a 17-11 rally that led to 44-38 and the playoffs.
When we compare the team stats for 2015-16’s pre and post break play, nothing jumps out as a huge difference-maker. Our scoring improved by a half point, but our defense gave up an additional 1.1 points per game. We shot better (45 percent versus 44) – especially from three (36 versus 34). And we passed better (20.9 assists versus 18.7). But other teams shot better against us, too.
Yet the Pistons clearly found a way to win over the last third of the season. If they’d merely continued playing at a .500 pace, they would have been on the outside looking in, as probably 42-40 Chicago or 41-41 Washington took their place as the eighth seed.
Did the post All-Star Break schedule help Detroit?
One possible explanation for the jump from being a .500 team to becoming a .607 one would be an easier schedule. As previously chronicled on DBB, the 2011-12 Pistons were able to play .500 ball over their final 42 games in part because their opponents had an average winning percentage of just .470. Quirks in the schedule cannot explain everything about a team’s performance, but their role should not be discounted. In the case of that previous Detroit squad, the strong finish led to an unreasonable optimism about the team’s prospects for the 2012-13 season.
Looking at Detroit’s schedule as a whole for 2015-16, their opponents’ average winning percentage was .495. (While we might expect it to be .500, the fact that they went .537 and did not play an equal number of games against the other 29 teams skews that figure some.) The average winning percentage of the 44 teams they beat was .457. The average of those they lost to was .542. Looked at another way, they beat 18 playoff teams and 26 lottery teams; they lost to 24 playoff teams and 14 lottery teams.
While these results stand to reason, they also indicate the importance of schedule strength in evaluating how a team played during various portions of a season. If it made no difference, then we would expect the winning percentages to be about the same for both the teams they beat and those they lost to.
So did the post All-Star Break schedule give the Pistons an extra assist toward their strong finish?
In fact, we actually see that their schedule as a whole worked against them. Prior to the All-Star Break, their foes had an average winning percentage of .493. After the break, it was .499. About the only boon we can attribute to this part of their schedule is that they enjoyed a 15-13 edge in home contests, since they went 10-5 at home and 7-6 on the road. The 17 teams they beat posted an average winning percentage of .468; the 11 they lost to went .547.
The bottom line is that Detroit actually played better versus a stronger schedule. The team also came through in close games, winning nine of 13 contests decided by less than 10 points. The Pistons won eight games by 10 or more points, and lost seven by 10 or more. If not for a spectacularly awful 43-point dismantling in Washington, they would have outscored their opponents by 1.75 points per game. Before the break they outscored them by 0.8 ppg.
Can the Pistons win 50 games next season?
If Motown’s finest can sustain a 17-11 pace in 2016-17, that will net them 50 wins – which would have been enough for a third place finish in the East last season. Since they achieved that result against a slightly tougher slate, it’s reasonable to expect them to maintain that level of play in the future.
Unlike last summer, we can expect to see much less roster turnover on this team, which won more games than any Pistons squad since 2007-08. The top seven players in the rotation at the season’s close appear set for another year – Drummond, Caldwell-Pope, Jackson, Harris, Marcus Morris, Aaron Baynes and Stanley Johnson. And the needs for a more capable backup point guard and a more traditional power forward seem achievable via trades or free agency.
Of course, Detroit’s efforts to stay on course and become a top-4 team in the East will not play out in a vacuum. They will have stiff competition from above (Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Miami and Indiana) and below (Chicago, Milwaukee, Orlando and Washington). But after a largely unexpected 12-win improvement, no one should be surprised if the Pistons win 50 games or more next season.