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What do the Pistons have to do to make the playoffs?

The Pistons schedule favors a late playoff push

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

At 28-30, the Pistons are in the No. 8 seed in the Eastern conference, only half a game back of the No. 7 Bulls and a game and a half back of the No. 6 Pacers.... but only a game and a half ahead of the Bucks and two and a half games ahead of the Heat. It’s a precarious position to say the least, but one they’ve put themselves in through inconsistent play and some untimely injuries.

So what do they have to do to hold fast to this position? What do the Pistons have to do to make the playoffs? Let’s break it down.

FiveThirtyEight currently has the Pistons making the playoffs, as the No.8 seed, with 40 wins. That puts them in the same situation as last year (8 seed and a date with Cleveland), but with three fewer wins than last year and an under .500 finish - a step back, especially considering where expectations were to start the season.

Detroit has 25 games remaining: 14 home dates and 11 road games. Schedule looks like this:

Pistons remaining schedule
Pistons remaining schedule

To win 39 games - the projected bare minimum to make the playoffs, according to people much smarter than I - they’d have to go 12-13 post-All-Star Break, which isn’t too far off the pace they’ve set for themselves to date this season. To get to 41 wins, respectability (who takes an under-.500 playoff team seriously? Nobody), and maybe a non-Cleveland playoff matchup, the Pistons would have to go 14-11.

Yes, this means if they won all their home games and lost all their road games, they’d make it to .500. I think that’s funny and highly improbable too. But the question is can Detroit cobble fourteen wins out of the remaining schedule?

The answer is a SOLID maybe. Let’s put in some common-sense stipulations for how we should project whether or not the Pistons should win a game:

  1. The Pistons should beat teams out of the playoff race (the 12-15 seeds), regardless if they’re at home or on the road.
  2. Games against teams in the 6-11 seeds are coinflips - could go either way depending on a variety of factors (home vs. road, who’s on a back-to-back, how much effort Andre deems worthy on a given night - the usual stuff).
  3. The Pistons should lose to teams in the 1-5 seeds. They’ve established throughout the course of the season that they DO lose to those teams, so let’s not kid ourselves. (Fun fact: Detroit’s last non-buzzer beater win against a team over .500? Jan. 18th against Atlanta. Over a month ago. Yay.)

With those rules in place, what does the schedule hold?

Wins (Green): @PHI, NYC, PHI, @BKLYN, @ORL, @NYC, BKLN, @ORL (8)

Coin Toss (Yellow): CHA, POR, @NO, CHI, @IND, @ CHI, MIA, @MIL, @ MEM, WAS (10)

(Yes, a road game against Memphis and Washington are coinflips, give it a second)

Loss (Red): BOS, CLE, @ CLE, UTAH, TOR, TOR, @HOU (7)

You’re right, that’s kinda messy and very text-heavy. Pretty picture time:


(It’s dubious how much Memphis and Washington will be playing for that late in the season; it’s easier to call those games coinflips.)

Looking at the schedule, March has a LOT of games (17 of the remaining 25 games). But there’s not a lot of red at the end of the month. There’s a big opportunity for the Pistons to do the same thing they did last year - get hot and play their way into the playoffs.

There’s also the very real possibility they lose most of their coinflip games at the end of this month and the beginning of March, and dig themselves a hole too deep to escape from.

Again, Detroit only (“only”) needs 14 wins to get to 41. With eight “wins”, that means the Pistons would only need to go 6-4 in the coinflip games to make the playoffs. If you want to take FiveThirtyEight’s more generous offer of 39 wins for the playoffs, the Pistons could as few as four coinflip games and still sneak into the playoffs. And if you sneak a home win against Boston or Toronto - a game you’re supposed to lose - the picture gets even brighter.

If the Pistons can maintain the level of play they’ve shown since the beginning of February, they can definitely make the playoffs - with or without a move at the trade deadline. The bench, particularly Ish Smith, have played really well this month. Detroit starts the second half of the season with three straight home games. The teams below them in the standings either have injury issues (Milwaukee/Charlotte) or were never supposed to be in this position in the first place (Miami).

Winning their first coinflip game last night against Charlotte was a step in the right direction, playoff-wise, but fans can’t let the the euphoria of the win mask the overall inconsistent play from the team. The Pistons have the talent, the coaching, and the experience of chasing the playoffs from last year to build upon. But there’s little room for error: There’s no nine-game homestand for them to play through like last year.

If Detroit misses the playoffs, it won’t be because they had a huge road trip to the west coast or because the schedule suddenly got tough on them. It’ll be because they didn’t play well enough during a relatively easy portion of the schedule.

The Pistons should make the playoffs. Whether or not they will is entirely up to them.