Entering the 2022-23 season, it was well understood by those who study strength of schedule that the Pistons would face their toughest slate of opponents the first quarter of the season, then see a steady easing afterward that would conclude with a final quarter composed of a relative "creampuff" opposition.
This projection was based on an October of 2022 assessment of all 30 NBA teams. As we are all aware, many things have changed over the past four-five months. For instance, Sacramento has surprisingly risen from a team that won 30 games a year ago to one on pace for 46 victories. And Charlotte has fallen from an up-and-coming 42-win team to a squad on track for 26 triumphs.
Many fans expected Detroit to elevate itself above 2021-22’s dismal 23-59 record. Chiefly this hope was based on the Pistons 10-14 post-ASB finish as rookie Cade Cunningham played like the star he was expected to be (21.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 6.5 APG). Over that span, Detroit went from being -10 points per 100 possessions to -2.2, the greatest improvement made by any team in the NBA last season. League history indicates that such an encouraging uptick has often been a harbinger of continued success the following year.
Grant-ed (pun intended), the Pistons also traded one of their best players to Portland, becoming even younger with the additions of rookies Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. Yes, the acquisitions of Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel from New York and the trade of Kelly Olynyk for Bojan Bogdanovic strengthened the roster’s depth and added offensive firepower. Yet it appeared obvious that Jerami’s departure would weaken the defense, and that fear has borne fruit.
What could not be foreseen was Cunningham being shut down for the season after 12 games, and subsequently requiring shin surgery that will keep him on the shelf until 2023-24. We can only speculate how much better Detroit would have been with a healthy Cade, but it’s hard to imagine them being worse!
The disappointing result has been a Pistons squad that has limped (on Duren’s ankles) into the All-Star break with a 15-44 record – barely better than last year’s 13-45 at this point. Those who had once pined for Detroit to make a run at the play-in must instead hope for a bottom-3 finish that will guarantee a 14% chance at landing the NBA Draft’s top pick.
The race to the cellar is currently led by the launchpad-bound Houston Rockets (13-45), with the San Antonio Spurs (14-45) threatening them with a photo finish. Detroit is chugging along not far behind at 15-44, and the Charlotte Hornets are mostly stingless at 17-43. While the team that finishes fourth from the bottom will still have a 12.5% shot at the first pick, the odds still favor the worst three.
When the season opened back in October, Charlotte was also deemed to have a schedule that was more difficult at first, becoming very tough up until the All-Star break. Then it was expected to become markedly easier, just as was the case with the Pistons. The respective schedules for the Rockets and Spurs were judged to be less friendly. So it seems safe to assume that neither the Pistons nor Hornets will be able to "out-tank" either of those two franchises.
Now with the season about three-fourths complete, let’s look at what the remaining schedules for Detroit and Charlotte have in store for them.
The Hornets have 22 games left to play; 14 at home and 8 on the road. The Pistons have 23 remaining contests; 13 at home and 10 away. Both squads will complete their seasons on April 9th on the road – Charlotte at Cleveland and Detroit at Chicago.
The Hornets will face 12 teams that currently sport a winning record. The three easiest games on their schedule are home and away bouts with the Pistons and a home game versus the Rockets. The current average winning percentage of their foes is .489, which would equal a 40-42 record.
Detroit will see only six teams with a winning record, with three games against fellow cellar dwellers Charlotte and Houston. The current average winning percentage of their foes is .472, which would equal a 39-43 record.
Which franchise has the tougher schedule to conclude the season? Perhaps the Hornets have a slightly bumpier road, but it looks like a toss-up to me. What will make this "tank race" especially interesting in the coming weeks is the Pistons trek to Charlotte on February 27th and the Hornets flight to Motown on March 9th. If one of these teams wins both those games, that will give the other a clear edge to finishing in the bottom-3.
Charlotte has lost to Detroit twice previously this season – 141-134 in overtime at home on December 14th, and 118-112 in the Motor City on February 3rd. They entered the All-Star break on the strength of wins over Atlanta and San Antonio, however, and appear to be healthier now than they were earlier in the season. Having traded former Piston Mason Plumlee to the Clippers for fellow alum Reggie Jackson, the Hornets are now (like the Pistons) starting a rookie in the middle (Mark Williams).
So circle February 27th and March 9th on your calendars, and feel free to share your thoughts on whether Detroit or Charlotte will "win" the "Battle for the Bottom."