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How the Pistons can make the playoffs

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Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

There are a couple ways the final 25 games of the Detroit Pistons’ season could play out. Let’s explore them. But first, let’s take a look at what the Pistons could roll out on the court following the All-Star break.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press recently reported that Reggie Jackson is expected to return “some time after the break,” going on to add that “it’s hard to see Jackson playing before March.” That would be a bummer if true, as they play four tough games to end the month of February and could use all the help they can get.

Jackson has been injured so much the past two seasons that it’s easy to forget how dynamic a player he can be when he’s healthy. I remember this perhaps more clearly than some of you because I spent hours reviewing highlight footage while making that fun video back in 2015-16.

Whether or not you believe Reggie will ever stay on the court long enough to be that kind of player again, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. It’s unlikely he’ll reach that level during the final 25 games, but if he can simply be the player we saw during the first 33 games of this season, there’s a possibility it’s enough to get this team into the playoffs.

A starting five with a healthy Jackson is a pretty solid group. I’m cherry-picking some numbers below, particularly with Reggie Bullock, Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson, because I think their recent numbers are more relevant than their season-long numbers.

  • Reggie Jackson: 14.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 34% 3PT, 54% TS
  • Reggie Bullock: 12.3 ppg, 49% 3PT, 67% TS (since Dec 10th)
  • Stanley Johnson: 13.6 ppg, 54% TS (since Griffin trade)
  • Blake Griffin: 22.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 5.6 apg, 55% TS
  • Andre Drummond: 17.2 ppg, 18.8 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 1.9 spg, 53% TS (since Griffin trade)

It’s hard to look at that lineup and not see the best Pistons starting five in a decade. You have a PG who can capably run the pick-and-roll and score in the paint, a SG who’s elite from long range, a defensive stalwart at SF who’s become more aggressive on offense, and a couple legitimate All-Stars at the 4/5 spots.

SVG has been taking a lot of heat from bitter Pistons fans lately (especially following All-Star Saturday Night) for his whiffs in the draft. Fine. He’d probably agree that he’s made mistakes. We all wish Donovan Mitchell was a Piston. But let’s remember what SVG inherited when taking over this team in 2014.

That team had two players who, three years later, are still starters in the NBA. It also had two starters who are currently out of the freakin’ league and one who was just bought out of his contract.

  • Jennings (G-League)
  • KCP
  • Smoove (out of the league)
  • Monroe (backup)
  • Drummond

The current starters are better at every single position. And the bench is much deeper. Even with $16 million in salary (Leuer & Smith) not contributing anything on the court. It’s dishonest to say he’s a “lousy exec” when clearly he’s been mostly successful in his task of upgrading and improving the roster.

Back to the current starting five with Jackson...

Although Stanley and Griffin are below-average 3PT shooters, defenders do need to at least respect them out on the perimeter, while both Reggies are capable shooters from downtown. Stanley isn’t a great fit with Blake/Dre due to his inconsistent shooting, but that’s a problem they’ll have to live with for now.

Reggie Jackson’s ability to penetrate should make it easier for the other Reggie to get open looks, which means perhaps a higher volume of high-percentage shots for one of the best 3PT shooters in the NBA. That’s good.

Jackson and Griffin both draw double-teams when they drive to the hoop. That means teams will have to pick their poison. Do you leave Griffin or Dre when Jackson gets into the paint? Or better yet, who would you prefer to get dunked on by? Or maybe stay home on defense and let Reggie snake those long arms past you for a layup.

We know the Pistons went 19-14 with Reggie in the lineup to begin the season (following a brutal stretch of the schedule with 13 straight games against above-.500 teams). If he’s healthy, should we expect the team to perform about the same, a bit better or worse?

Well, let’s imagine he picks up where he left off. Now look at the starting SG spot. Reggie Bullock’s 67% TS is a tad bit better than Avery Bradley’s 53% TS. Plus, no long twos off the DHO(!).

The Stanimal we saw during that early stretch of the season shot 47% TS, while the New & Improved version is shooting a respectable 54% TS since the Blake trade went down.

Then you have a pretty clear upgrade with Blake over Tobias Harris. While the TS numbers aren’t wildly different, Blake’s versatility and passing ability make a world of difference, in addition to his ability to get whistles and make frequent trips to the charity stripe.

And then you have Andre. Whoo boy. Would you just look at those numbers? Holy shit. New & Improved Dre blocks shots, plays better defense, scores more and rebounds more. He’s been scoring less efficiently though (too many shots from the post again), so let’s hope SVG figures that out over the break.

It looks like this version of the team is better at SG/SF/PF/C than it was the last time Reggie saw the court. And the bench unit - with Ish Smith back where he’s at his best, along with Luke Kennard, Anthony Tolliver and James Ennis - remains pretty solid and deep. So if they don’t take too long to mesh (not a gimme), the Pistons could potentially outperform that 19-14 pace.

But the schedule...

Yeah, let’s take a look at that.

Here are the remaining games where you’d expect the Pistons to be favorites:

  • @ Orlando
  • vs Chicago
  • @ Sacramento
  • @ Phoenix (Pistons on B2B, 3rd in 4 nights; Suns on 2 days rest)
  • vs Chicago (Bulls on B2B)
  • vs LAL
  • @ NYK
  • @ Brooklyn (Pistons/Nets both on B2B)
  • vs Dallas
  • @ Memphis
  • @ Chicago

Those are 11 games against bottom-feeders. They will likely find a way to lose a couple of those games, but overall, that’s 11 very winnable games, many against teams that are actively tanking. If Reggie’s on the court, those should be wins.

Here are the remaining games where you’d expect the Pistons to be underdogs:

  • vs Boston
  • @ Toronto (Pistons on B2B)
  • @ Cleveland
  • vs Toronto (Raptors on B2B, 3rd in 4 nights)
  • @ Utah
  • @ Denver
  • @ Portland
  • @ Houston
  • vs Toronto (Pistons/Raps both on B2B, 3rd in 4 nights)

That’s nine games against playoff-caliber teams, including three home games against elite teams. (Those two against the Raptors on the second night of B2B’s could be quite rough, but we also catch them twice with tired legs.) The Pistons will likely find a way to win a couple of those games, but overall, you wouldn’t be surprised to see 8-9 losses emerge from that group.

Here are the remaining games where it’s more of a toss-up:

  • @ Charlotte
  • vs Milwaukee (Bucks on B2B)
  • @ Miami (Pistons on B2B)
  • vs Washington
  • vs Philadelphia (76ers on B2B)

These are the games that will likely determine whether or not the Pistons make the playoffs this season. They probably need to win about 15 of those 25 games to make the playoffs. That’s a .600 pace. It means winning 9-10 against the bottom-feeders (losing to the Suns & Nets), stealing a couple of the tougher games (Toronto, Portland, Utah) and winning 3-4 of the toss-up games (Hornets, Bucks, Wizards, 76ers).

If Reggie takes too long to return, or if they take too long to gel once he does, the small margin for error likely means they’ll miss the playoffs. If they gel quickly and he’s playing well, winning 15 of those games isn’t difficult to imagine.

Now, anyone who reads the comments at DBB knows that should things not come together down the stretch run and they wind up on the outside looking in, there will be cries for SVG’s head and the naysayers will be out in full force.

That’s fine. Just let everybody vent.

But don’t let that stop you from being optimistic about next season and beyond. In fact, the only reason not to be optimistic would be that Reggie Jackson can’t seem to stay healthy. Fair enough. But given some luck from the basketball gods, a Pistons team headed by Reggie/Dre/Blake and a capable cast of shooters over a full season should be headed for 50 wins, hosting a playoff series and maybe even contending for the East crown.

The wild card would be adding an upgrade at the wing, a guy who can create his own shot and score more efficiently than Young Stanley. Maybe SVB can convert Jon Leuer’s contract and another supporting player into such a guy using magic pixie dust and a 2044 second rounder. We’ll just have to wait and see.

For now, buckle up and hope that Reggie Jackson returns to the court ASAP.