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Only two franchises have gone from league-worst to the playoffs

History dictates that 17-win teams are typically multiple years away from postseason action

Detroit Pistons v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Detroit Pistons have officially closed the door on season three under Troy Weaver. They finish with another season unable to crack more than 20 wins — the fourth consecutive for the franchise. They avoided tying a franchise-worst season by one win with 17 in the W column.

Armed with yet another top-five selection and ample cap space to make an offseason splash, Weaver and his executive team (welcome, Dwane Casey) are equipped to bolster the roster as they prepare to rise up the standings in the 2023-24 campaign. Part of the rationale for replacing Casey as head coach was that the team had the resources to add talent, had a solid young base, was ready to win consistently, and a new voice would help in that effort.

As we head into an important offseason, the sour taste of a 17-win season will quickly erode as excitement and expectations begin to rise. Come August, you can bet your bottom dollar a portion of fanbase will be eyeing a post-season birth for the young Pistons.

While the team promises to be better next season, finishing with the second-worst record in franchise history isn’t going to be easy to overcome. Yes, veterans were rested and key personnel were injured, but the youthful foundation of the roster is a primary reason for the surplus of losses this season.

Development is far from linear in the NBA. It takes time for young prospects to hone their craft and figure out ways to impact winning. Teams with the worst record in the NBA don’t just suddenly vault themselves into the playoff picture the ensuring season.

In fact, after conducting extensive research in the lottery era, I found that only two franchises made the playoffs following a season with the league’s worst record (you can access all the data used in the following piece here).

Based off this data, Detroit has a 5.4% (2 teams/37 years) likelihood of making a postseason appearance in 2024.

Lottery luck could change everything, sure, but it even took LeBron James two seasons to make it to the postseason. Astute transactions and trades could also bolster Detroit’s chances, but the fact remains the Pistons are working against history if their goal is truly to make the playoffs. Instead of setting that unrealistic barometer, fans should instead focus on total win improvement.

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
Cade Cunningham’s season ending surgery in November eliminated any hope of a Play In appearance for Detroit.
Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Since 1985, those who concluded the season with the NBA’s lowest win total saw an average increase in wins from 16.4 to 26.0 in the following season. Thats an average of 9.6 victories.

If we apply this average to the 17-65 Pistons, next year predicts a win-loss total of 27 wins and 55 losses. A record which would tie Detroit with the 14th seed Charlotte Hornets in 2022-23.

Now, as previously pointed out, this year’s Detroit team was without its franchise player for all but 12 games, much like the first team to make to make the playoffs following a league-worst record the season prior — The 2008-09 Miami Heat.

The 2007-08 Heat team were without superstar guard, Dywane Wade for 31 games as he dealt with a left knee injury. The roster itself was in flux after dealing the aging Hall of Famer, Shaquille O’Neal, faltering to a 15-67 record. In the following offseason, Pat Reilly and company were able to regroup, surrounding the then 26-year-old Wade with a slew of veterans as the Heat finished with a record 43-39 and captured the 5th seed in the East.

Aside from the injury link between Wade and Cunningham, Detroit’s roster composition makes any comparison between the two situations tough. In Miami’s bounce back season, Wade was already a four-time All-Star. The Pistons will still be relying on a core that is 21 and younger. It’s the second and most recent franchise to make the unlikely jump up the standings, the 2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks, which serve as a better precedent.

After finishing 15-67 in 2013-14, the Bucks hired Jason Kidd as head coach and selected Jabari Parker second overall in the NBA Draft. They saw steady improvement in a young wing duo of Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, finishing with a .500 record (41-41) and 6th in the Eastern Conference. Unlike the Heat, this Bucks team leaned on its youth for success. The top-5 minute per game getters were all 23 years or younger; Giannis Antetokounmpo (20), Khris Middleton (23), Michael Carter-Williams (23), Jabari Parker (19) and Brandon Knight (23).

A new coach, top lottery selection, and a focus on playing young talent is strikingly similar to the position Detroit finds itself this summer.

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
A 20-year-old Giannis Antetokounpo and Jason Kidd were instrumental in Milwaukee making the 2015 Playoffs.
Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

However, even with various parallels between these Pistons and the rare franchises to make the playoff leap, the numbers are still heavily weighted against Detroit even making a Play-In push.

Only five teams have finished in the 10th seed or higher in their conference following a year with the most losses. Aside the aforementioned Bucks and Heat teams, the 2020-21 Golden State Warriors (9th), 1985-86 Indiana Pacers and the 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers (9th).

Following an injury-ravaged 2019-20 campaign, which included extended absences from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors leapt up the standings in 2021 with Curry back in the fold. They eventually fell to the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzles in the 2021 Play In tournament.

The 1985-86 Pacers team won 22-games and only finds itself in this grouping simply because there were 11 teams in the Eastern Conference at the time.

The 2003-04 Cavs were able to double their win total to 35 wins on the back of winning the NBA Draft’s greatest prize — LeBron James.

So what if the Pistons are lucky enough to land the 1st overall selection and draft the most hyped prospect since LeBron? There is certainly a case to be made for a Detroit team lead by Cunningham, Ivey and Victor Wembanyama to make the playoffs.

But then we turn again to that pesky data, and it’s conflicting with our preferred narrative. Only two of the seven teams to land the first overall pick following a league-worst record have finished in the 10th seed or better. The aforementioned Cavs lead by rookie LeBron and the 2004-05 Orlando Magic with a teenage Dwight Howard.

Franchises who were lucky enough to win the lottery experienced an increase of 11 wins on average with their top rookie in the lineup. However, the double-digit addition in victories hardly carried over to success in the standings as the average finishing position was 12 in the conference.

While Wembanyama would presumably alter Detroit’s fortunes dramatically, the real benefit would be in the long term. If they don’t land Victor, they would still have the chance to add an impact prospect to a young core of Cunningham, Ivey and Duren. Rebuilds take time and a lot of patience. There is a reason only a pair of teams have made appearances in late-April after winning 20 or less games.

Summary of Findings

  • Average wins following a season with the worst record = 26.04 wins
  • Average conference seeding following a season with the worst record = 12th seed
  • Average differential in wins following a season with the worst record = +11.3 wins
  • No team has ever made the playoffs after having the worst record and selecting #1 in the NBA Draft

In light of the above information, let us know in the comments your early expectations for the Pistons in 2023-2024.