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Why the Pistons are fighting for the playoffs

With last night’s win, Detroit is a mere 2.5 games out of the playoffs

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Your 2019-20 Detroit Pistons, who were supposed to be in the thick of the playoff race come this time, have had one of the franchise’s most injury-riddled and disappointing starts to a season in team history. Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard have all missed significant time, and yada yada yada - you get the drill by now, they’re banged up and not very good because of it. They currently sit eleven games under .500 through the first forty five games of the season (17-28). Disastrous.

This seems like the perfect season to kick to the curb in the hopes of netting a top lottery pick and FINALLY building towards the future. But as we approach the trade deadline, with no major trades having transpired yet, and with this team actively trying to win games, it appears leadership in Detroit is all-in on making a playoff push; par for the course during the Tom Gores era.

Let’s break down why the Pistons might have their eyes on the post-season - not whether or not they’re right in those aspirations:

The middle of the East

The middle tier and the end of the playoff picture in the East have blended into each other, resulting in some hideous shade of brown. Only four and half games separate the 12th ranked Charlotte Hornets (15-30) and the eighth seeded Brooklyn Nets (18-24). Detroit is just two and half games back of those Nets, and four games back of the seventh seeded Orlando Magic (21-24).

Now, both the Nets and Magic have had their fair share of injuries, but the fact of the matter is, they’re not that good. The Nets have lost eight of their last ten games, including their last four straight. The Magic has recently found their footing, winning five of their last ten games, but they’re still three games under .500 and face a difficult schedule leading into the All-Star Break.

A major reason why the Pistons currently have playoff hopes is due to their surrounding competition. If the East had respectable teams in the 7 and 8 seed - you know, teams with winning records - this conversation doesn’t happen. Detroit SHOULD organically be out of the playoff picture by now, but, by no fault of their own, they’re a small winning streak away from recapturing a spot in the playoff picture. Thank the futile Eastern Conference.

The Young Guys

With Griffin, Jackson and Kennard missing games, the Pistons have been forced to give major minutes to Christian Wood, Sekou Doumbouya and Svi Mykhailiuk. And the result has been....surprisingly good.

Wood has gone from a guy who barely made an NBA roster, to an absolute steal of an acquisition who stuffs the stat sheet on a nightly basis. He’s shown an ability to hit the three, has had his moments on defensive side of the floor, and has literally dunked everything in sight.

Svi went from the end of the Lakers and Pistons bench last season, into the best three point shooter on the team, and a top-10 three point shooter in the league this year (43% on 4.7 attempts per game).

And most importantly, the rookie Sekou Doumbouya has looked incredible since he’s entered the starting lineup (although he came off the bench in their last game). Over his last 10 games, he’s averaged 12.2 points, and 4.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 49% from the floor and 35% from three. He’s producing in year one what many thought would take until years two and three for him to produce (including yours truly).

This team, filled with guys that we weren’t sure were going to play this season, or at least impact the game in any meaningful way, has held their own. And while they’re still not collectively a good team, they’ve been able to keep Detroit’s head just barely below water, and in arms reach of one of the final playoff spots.

The Pistons have approached the lineups correctly, they’ve played their young core for major minutes, and those players have simply outperformed expectations. Detroit has won three of their last four games, and you can look back on those games and a multitude of other games this season, and see impactful performances by each and every one of these players.

Derrick Rose’s Revival

Derrick Rose’s revival has been one of the most captivating stories in the NBA this season. Not only has he been Detroit’s best player, he’s also been THE leader on a team in search of one. He’s scored 20 or more points in his last ten appearances, and may have nabbed the starting point guard spot for the rest of the season, even though Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup on Wednesday.

Detroit has under-performed this season, they’ve only won seventeen games, but if Rose plays like a slightly-better-than-average-back-up, they’re probably a ten win team at this point. Instead, he’s played like a fringe All-Star. With Rose’s improved play, he’s greatly increased his trade value - which is good! Exactly what the doctor ordered if you’re looking to move pieces and build for the future.

But it has been reported that Detroit will not move Rose unless he requests or approves of a trade, and there’s a solid chance that he’s content with leading the Pistons for the remainder of his contract.

The Pistons should be down and out, but they’re not. And if they’re able to scrap and claw their way back into the playoffs, even if that means getting sacrificed to the Milwaukee Bucks yet again, it’s difficult to find fault in that result based on how it came to be. They’ve played their young core, are situated in a bad Eastern Conference, and just happened to acquire a an old-dog MVP who still has a few tricks up his sleeve.