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Tank Commander: The Pistons fight for pole position in the NBA Draft

A new series that explores the bottom of the NBA standings because all eyes are on the 2021 NBA Draft

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the mid-90s the Detroit Pistons are not actively fighting for a playoff spot. Sure, they’ll try and stay competitive in each game they play, but their offseason roster decisions and on-court performances have signified that they’ve finally decided to embrace a rebuild, or a retool or whatever they decide to call it.

In this regular series, we’ll monitor where the Pistons and their competition stand from a tanking perspective, purposeful or not. We’ll take a snapshot of where Detroit and fellow basement-dwelling teams sit, and predict what their futures may have in store.

Detroit Pistons

At 2-9 the Pistons currently hold the worst record in the NBA and are the only team on this list that entered the season without playoff expectations. Eleven games into the regular season and only two wins to show for it means the tank is on course, headed straight for at worst a top-five pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Detroit’s upcoming schedule could eventually impact its lottery odds as they’ll face off against the Houston Rockets, who recently traded away franchise superstar James Harden, and may soon embrace the tank themselves if they find a taker for the expiring Victor Oladipo and veteran PJ Tucker.

Over the next 10 days, the Pistons will match up against Eastern Conference teams fighting for playoff positioning, including the (5-5) Atlanta Hawks, (4-5) Miami Heat and (8-4) Philadelphia 76ers (two tanktastic games against Miami and Philly each).

Detroit hasn’t found its footing yet so it’ll be unlikely that they’ll start to hit the ground running against the likes of the Heat, Sixers and Lakers. Cade Cunningham, we’re on our way.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are off to the most surprising starts to the 2020-21 season, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. They’re currently 2-8, which is the second-worst record in the NBA, but their team stats signify that they’ll most likely start to string some wins together.

Toronto currently boasts the 15th ranked offense (109.7 points scored per 100 possessions) and 21st ranked defense (111.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) - not stellar, but not bottom-tier either - and they’ve lost their last two games by two points combined. It’s also worth noting that the Raptors are the only team who reside outside of their normal market - they were relocated to Tampa due to Canada’s travel restrictions. This move may play some part in their sluggish start to the season.

Here’s a look at their upcoming schedule.

This slate of games should produce some more scratches in the win column for Toronto; they’ll have some possibly favorable match-ups against the Hornets, Kings and Magic. The fact of the matter is, the Raptors are too battle-tested to remain at the bottom of the standings for very long.

They may not end up making the playoffs or play-in tournament, but the likelihood that they’ll remain a bottom-five team is low.

Washington Wizards

If you’re a Wizards fan, the time to panic is NOW. Following the most depressing trade in NBA history, which netted the Wizards Russell Westbrook and sent John Wall to the Rockets, Washington was hopeful that the makeover and growth from young players would result in its first playoff berth since 2018.

The result has been underwhelming if not an absolute disaster. Bradley Beal is averaging an astounding 34.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5 assists per game and Westbrook is averaging a near-triple-double - 19.3 points, 11.3 assists and 9.7 boards, and the Wizards are 3-8. Three and eight!

Does Westbrook shooting a career-low 38% from the floor have something to do with their slow start? Certainly, but they’ve made their bed and now have to live with the consequences. And Westbrook now may miss the next 3-4 weeks after suffering a setback in his quadricep. Disastrous.

Wizards upcoming schedule below.

With this schedule, could the Wizards string together some wins? From a talent vs. talent perspective, yes (even without Russell Westbrook). Will they? Who knows? But if they continue to stack up losses, there’s a very real possibility that James Harden won’t be the only All-NBA guard traded before the deadline. If the Wizards end up dealing Bradley Beal, they’ll most likely be a mainstay in the Tank Commander series.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Sans one Jimmy Butler-led playoff appearance, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been rebuilding since Kevin Garnett left town in 2007.

Timberwolves brass were hopeful that the combination of D’Angelo Russell and Karl Anthony-Towns would finally lift them from the NBA cellar, but due to injury and, frankly, terrible play, that hasn’t been the case. Minnesota has been without KAT for seven of its first 11 games after he suffered a wrist injury in the second game of the season.

They currently sit at 3-8 after blowing a double-digit fourth quarter lead to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, but have some winnable games coming up on their schedule. Now having winnable games and actually winning games have not been synonymous for the Timberwolves, but with Towns back in the line-up, they’ll have a much better chance at climbing back towards the play-in tournament picture.

DBB Community Question

When this article next comes out, what teams do you expect to fall to the bottom of the standings? And what teams from this list, if any, do you expect to climb out?

*all scheduling information and statistics provided by Basketball Reference.