The conventional wisdom is that Detroit’s schedule for the first half schedule of the 2020-21 NBA season was tough, so the second half will feature smoother sailing. There is some truth to that assertion, but not as much as we might imagine.
At 10-26, Detroit has the next to the last record in the league. Only Minnesota (7-29) is worse, and Houston (11-23) is primed to pass them on the race to the bottom. Orlando (13-23), Cleveland (14-22), Sacramento (14-22) and Washington (14-20) are also squads with the "potential" to drop lower.
There is also evidence from the first half that the Pistons have underperformed. According to Basketball-Reference, the Simple Rating System says they are 23rd among the NBA’s 30 teams. Their Net rating of -3.9 is also 23rd. The Pistons are 23rd in PPG and 24th in Offensive Rating. Their Defensive Rating is 18th and they are 14th in Opponent PPG. Finally, their Expected W-L was 14-22, which would have put Detroit’s record at 23rd.
Basketball-Reference grades the Pistons’ Strength of Schedule to date at 0.76 (0.0 would be average). For comparison, the Timberwolves are 0.35 and the Rockets are -0.80. Those ratings indicate that both of those teams may face a tougher slate over the remainder of the season. Houston also has 38 games left to play in 67 days.
An interesting quirk in Basketball-Reference's Expected W-L records is that they say the Rockets should have won 12 games and the Timberwolves should have won 9. On the other hand, the Magic have won 2 more games than expected, as have the Kings. And the Cavaliers have won 4 more! According to expectations, Detroit and Cleveland should swap records. (Thanks Cavs!)
No one can say with any certainty if the Pistons will play more like a 23rd worst than a 28th worst team over the next two months. But having looked at their previous schedule, and compared it to the games they have left, the remaining slate is not as weak as we might imagine.
Specifically, the teams Detroit faced during the first half won at a .510 rate. And the teams they will face between now and May 16 had a .493 winning percentage. Yes, that portends an easier road ahead – but not dramatically so. The Pistons will also enjoy more home games - 20. So far they have gone 6-10 at home and 4-16 on the road.
But a look at the Pistons first 10 wins is also revealing. The 10 teams they have defeated have a winning percentage of .546. Four of those wins came against the Lakers, Nets, 76ers and Suns. The only team they have beaten that is rated worse than them is the Magic! It should also be noted that Brooklyn played without Kevin Durant, Philadelphia lacked Joel Embiid, and Los Angeles was missing Anthony Davis.
In summary, we should take schedule strength expectations with a huge grain of salt. Injuries and illnesses cannot be predicted, and they may favor or hamper Detroit’s on-court performance. Even the possibility of the Pistons trading Wayne Ellington could be a key factor. In their 10 victories, Detroit has shot .400 from three on an average of 36.5 attempts. That accuracy is significantly above their season average of .352. Ellington has been a major contributor in many of those games, shooting .529 from three – also well over his .433 average. In the victories over the Lakers, Raptors and 76ers, Ellington shot a blistering 20-29 - .690!
No one should be surprised if the Pistons win more than 10 of their next 36 games. But this will be due more to growing team cohesion, greater health and consistent improvement by their youngsters than it will a more favorable schedule.