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Should the Pistons chase the playoffs, or is it time to tank?

DBB tackles the options for the Pistons’ final eight games.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The case for the playoffs - Justin Lambregtse

The Pistons are already too far into the season to try and tank. It may not be ideal to stumble into the No. 8 seed, only to get inevitably trounced by whoever the No. 1 seed happens to be (I still think it will be the Cavs despite their recent struggles defensively).

However, playoff basketball is a completely different animal than the regular season. Despite the fact that most of the players on this team have been disappointing, it is still valuable to get playoff experience, especially with a few core members still a couple years ahead of their prime.

Yes, this roster could look very different come next season, so who cares about getting these guys playoff experience? With playoff berths comes respectability, even if you are only there for a few games. Last season, the Pistons created a stir around the league with their competitive performance against the eventual-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, they got swept, but people saw them as becoming one of the up-and-coming teams for this season.

Obviously, the season turned out differently this year, and the team did not live up to expectations. But those expectations would never have been that high if the Pistons didn’t make the playoffs last year. High expectations are good - they keep a team focused on maintaining a baseline of above-average play. Underachieving this year could only be one small blip in the long rise out of the lottery that every team goes through.

Professional basketball and college basketball are very different, but you are seeing perfect examples during March Madness of why once you get to the postseason, anything can happen. Not many people saw South Carolina making it to the Final Four. Not many people saw the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors defeating the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in the 2006-2007 playoffs. Once you get to the postseason, no matter how poorly you played in the regular season, anything can happen.

This team has had their moments this year when they look like a top-tier team (granted, those moments have been very few and far between). The momentum a potential upset during the first round could carry for a young, emotional team could be huge - and reset expectations for this team going forward.

None of the stuff that I mentioned above really touches on the reason why people want to tank, which is lottery balls. Every team that does not make the playoffs has a chance at a top-three pick because of the lottery. The odds are slim to none for the teams that barely miss the playoffs, so if you are not going to make the playoffs as the season winds down, it makes sense to tank to get a higher chance at a top three pick.

The Pistons are, sadly, already too successful to even consider tanking this late in the season. The Pistons, at the time of writing, sit at tenth in the East. The only two teams in the league that have better records and could miss the playoffs are the Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets, which means that the Pistons would be picking No. 12 in the draft if it were to be held today.

If the Pistons tanked the rest of the season and lost every game (I doubt they would lose every game even if they tanked), they would probably get passed in the standings by the Charlotte Hornets, and possibly a Western Conference team like the Mavericks or New Orleans Pelicans. If all three of those teams passed the Pistons (I doubt it), they would move up to No. 9 in the lottery.

The goal of tanking is to get a top pick with the potential for a franchise-altering talent. NBA history tells us you are not likely to find that at nine, and you are not likely to find that at 12. You have a slightly better choice of talent at nine, but the difference is not that significant.

Some people will argue that there is a particular player that they want that likely won’t be available at 12, but could be available at nine. While that is true, it is still not a guarantee. Nobody knows what is going on in the heads of rival GMs, and they could like that player enough to take them early in the draft.

You see it happen every year, like when Milwaukee took Thon Maker or the Cavaliers took Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall. The converse is also true - guys slip in the draft all the time. Devin Booker fell to the No. 13 pick. Gary Harris fell to the No. 19 pick. Damian Lillard was taken after Dion Waiters. The draft is weird, man.

According to Tankathon, the Pistons have a 0.7 percent chance at number one, 0.8 percent chance at number two, and a one percent chance at number three, where they currently stand in the lottery. Say the above scenario happens and the Pistons move up to nine, the odds are as follows: 1.7, 2.0, and 2.4.

If the Pistons don’t get jumped by those three teams, the odds are not much better at 10 or 11. At 11, the odds are 0.8, 0.9, and 1.1. At 10, the odds are 1.1, 1.3, and 1.6.

Is somewhere between a three and six percent chance at a lottery pick, even in a draft this top-heavy, that really worth throwing away the rest of the season for?

Detroit has been disappointing. Yes, they probably won’t earn a spot in the playoffs because of their inconsistent play and inability to seize the opportunity presented to them by the schedule.

However, they are only one and a half game back of the No. 8 Miami Heat. The Pistons have gone too far to turn back now, and the alternative option is not all that appealing.

The case for tanking - Steve Hinson

Let’s admit it: this season’s over. There’s nothing more to see here. Ushers, please help the visitors find their way to the door.

But there are still things to learn about this team. Might Boban Marjanovic be all his advanced figures say is? After putting up 18 points and nine rebounds per game in the D-League, how does Henry Ellenson look against real NBA players? After scaling back his offense for most of the season, how would Stanley Johnson respond to more shots?

This Pistons team, as assembled, has had 74 games to earn a playoff spot. They haven’t. It’s only thanks to the incompetence of their peers that they’re even still in the conversation. We’ve seen all we need to see for this season - it’s a fundamentally flawed squad.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen would be for the Pistons to make the playoffs. After all, they have some talent. They could conceivably pull off a first round upset. After coasting the entire season, that could send all sorts of bad messages.

To the players: we don’t have to play hard, things will work out.

To the front office/coaching staff: maybe they’ll figure things out.

This team is toward the bottom of the league offensively, anchored by a league worst true shooting percentage - which isn’t a fluke, the team has been in the bottom five in the league in true shooting in each of Stan Van Gundy’s three seasons.

They still don’t get any easy points - this team is last in the league in free throw rate and second-to-last in free throw perecentage.

And it’s “best” players are the team’s worst defenders. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are among the worst in the league at their position in defended field goal percentage and defensive rating (using NBA Stats calculation). Even Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, hailed as a defense-first player, hasn’t necessarily been a plus defensive player. He’s been especially bad defensively since coming back from his shoulder injury in late January, allowing players to shoot a miserable 4.3 percentage points higher than their average.

If there’s a chance that making the playoffs can let these facts slip by - or even worse, validates their performance for the season - then it’s best for the future of the franchise for them to miss it. This squad needs some good, honest self-reflection. A playoff run that puts them in a final spot slightly higher than last year will just be taking that self-reflection in a funhouse mirror.

So the Pistons are probably going to need to make some moves this offseason. Wouldn’t it be great to have an accurate idea of the capabilities of all the players on the roster? Boban, Ellenson, and Johnson, as recent acquisitions that we’re not certain have a place on this team, are a big part of that. But the team is also going to need to decide if Darrun Hilliard is a NBA-caliber player. Reggie Bullock and Michael Gbinije have been dealing with injuries, but it still remains to be seen if either is worth the roster spot. If one or both can become available to play, get them out there too.

As a fan, I’d certainly like to see it. Some young guys who are actually playing hard would be a pretty nice contrast to the team’s effort overall lately.

I haven’t talked about the draft pick yet, because it’s just a cherry on top. But the Pistons have already dropped three draft spots during their losing streak. It’s certainly possible to see team continue to pass them, if they continue to lose.

While there’s not typically a big difference between a No. 10 pick and a No. 15 pick, it could make a difference in this draft. It has five solid point guard prospects that could go within the top 10 picks (six if you include Malik Monk), and the Pistons might have a need at the position.

Beyond that, this seems to me to be an 11-player draft. There are still some intriguing players beyond that, but they’re either older, not as productive, or lacking in size. One of those 11 could still fall to the Pistons if they’re picking outside of the lottery, but moving up even just a little bit could guarantee the Pistons the options of one of these higher-tier players.

It’s not enough just to chase a better draft pick on its own. But at this point in the season, there are enough additional factors that make “tanking” the right call. Shut down Reggie Jackson. Shut down Andre Drummond. Let’s get the young, lightly used players out on the court.


What say you DBB? Share your thoughts in the poll as well as your reasoning in the comments.


Should the Pistons chase the playoffs or tank?

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