I play Magic: The Gathering, the grandaddy of all trading card games, as a hobby. Aside from sucking a LOT of my spare cash, it’s taught me a lot. There’s a saying in Magic: “19 points of your life don’t matter.” Both players start at 20 life, and the game doesn’t care if you win 20-0, 10-0, 1,000,000-0, or 1-0. Your opponent just has to be at 0 for you to win.
What does that have to do with the Pistons? It means the first 60-odd games of their season don’t matter right now. You have to beat the teams in front of you, and do so more often than the teams around you. Winning with inconsistent or frankly, offensive effort is - right now - preferable to losing after competing hard for 48 minutes. You just need the wins.
A month ago, I talked about what the Pistons would have to do, record-wise, to make the playoffs, and how likely (or unlikely, depending on how pessimistic you want to be) that was. I displayed “green”, “yellow,” and “red” games on the Pistons’ schedule, stoplight colors substituting for how likely the Pistons were to win that game (Green=should win, Yellow=coinflip, Red=should lose).
So far, they have done a little better than I would have expected them to. In typical 2016-17 Pistons fashion, they have done so in perhaps the ugliest manner possible (high-profile blowout losses to Indiana and Cleveland, low-effort wins against Phoenix and New York), but right now that doesn’t matter - wins are wins.
Detroit is 7-6 since the last time we looked at their schedule. The breakdown in stoplight terms:
- 3-0 in green games
- 3-2 in yellow games
- 1-4 in red games
The most important record is 3-0 in green games. Despite playing poorly in those games, the Pistons continue to beat teams that they absolutely need to beat to make the playoffs. They also had a strong 2-0 start in yellow games after the All-Star break and remain above even against those teams.
Stealing a red game against Cleveland was greatly beneficial, but the Pistons shouldn’t be expected to do that again the rest of the season - and can make the playoffs without stealing another red game.
With only 12 games left in the regular season, Detroit’s remaining schedule in stoplight terms:
- 5 green games (@Brooklyn, @ Orlando, @NYC, Brooklyn, @ Orlando)
- 5 yellow games (@Chicago, Miami, @Milwaukee, @Memphis, Washington)
- 2 red games (Toronto, @Houston)
At 34-36, if the Pistons continue to - at the absolute worst - beat the teams they are supposed to beat, they will put themselves in good position to sneak into the playoffs at 39 wins. If they’re gifted a win by Washington or Memphis, that helps even more.
As the Pistons are currently tied, record-wise, with Miami, and a half-game behind Milwaukee. That makes those Miami and Milwaukee games are de facto playoff games, though - I’d wager the Pistons need to at least split those games. If you told me they could only win one, I’d have it be the Miami game, which would give them the playoff tiebreaker over the Heat, who are almost certainly making the playoffs.
Actually, while we’re here, let’s look at Miami and Milwaukee’s remaining schedule:
Yeah, the Heat are making the playoffs. Lots of winnable home games, and three games against teams who will be resting guys at the end of the season (Cleveland and Washington). The Pistons will really need to take that game at home against them.
The Bucks, on the other hand, has a tougher go of things. They still have two more games on their current road trip out west, have to play in Boston when Boston won’t be resting players, and still have to travel to OKC (who will NOT be resting people, they’re scrapping for seeding) and Indiana (ditto). That road game against Philadelphia is a trap game, too: Philly has beaten Dallas and Boston in the last week.
(You might be asking “What about Chicago?” Chicago lost Dwyane Wade to an elbow injury. You can take them off the grill, they’re done.
“But they just beat Utah!” Yeah, my strawman, but Michael Carter-Williams is about to get a role increase, and Fred Hoiberg is about to get run over by a bus containing the Bulls’ front office. They’re not making it.)
Just because the schedule is easy doesn’t mean the Pistons can TAKE it easy. A 3-0 record post-ASB against teams they should beat doesn’t mean they’ll be 8-0 against those teams at the end of the season. There’s no guarantee that Washington and Memphis will take pity on them.
However, the path for the Pistons to make the playoffs is currently being paved by a bunch of tanks. All they have to do is drive smoothly down it.