Should the Pistons tank?
But whether or not they’ve actually discussed it, tanking has remained on the table. Though the Pistons have already immensely upgraded their talent in the last year, another top eight pick – whether they use it or trade it – would be a tremendous asset.
Unfortunately, it’s top-eight pick or bust. Due to the Gordon trade, Detroit owes the Bobcats a first-round pick that’s top-eight protected this year, so only full-fledged tanking will do.
As long as the Pistons avoid The Disaster Zone, they can’t go too wrong – at least not relatively. A postseason appearance would be nice, as would a top-eight pick.
Which should they shoot for?
Because the East is so awful – the Bobcats are on pace to make the playoffs with 36 wins – the Pistons have gotten more time than expected to make that choice. Somehow, the 19-28 Pistons are right in the thick of the playoff race, just 1.5 games behind Charlotte for the No. 8 seed (and half a game up on the Knicks in what’s becoming a three-team race).
But making the playoffs still seems unlikely. ESPN’s formula gives Detroit a 30.5 percent chance, and though that seems low because the system doesn’t account for the odds the Pistons make greater-than-average internal improvements throughout the year, it’s hard to spitball that above 50 percent.
Here’s the bad news for the pro-tanking crowd, though. The bottom of the NBA standings are even more difficult to break into than playoff position:
- Pistons: 19-28
- Knicks: 19-29
- Cavaliers: 16-32
- Lakers: 16-32
- Jazz: 16-32
- Kings: 16-32
- Celtics: 16-33
- 76ers: 15-34
- Magic: 13-37
- Bucks: 9-39
The league’s seventh-worst record would offer a 98.1 percent chance of the Pistons keeping their pick in the lottery. Eighth-worst would mean 82.4 percent – still likely, but enough to cause a few sweaty palms on lottery night.
Ninth-worst, though? The odds plummet to 6.1 percent.
Simply, the Pistons must finish with one of the NBA’s eight worst records to justify tanking.
How the heck can they do that?
If they put their minds to it, the Pistons could definitely finish worse than the Knicks, who’ve already traded their first rounder, and with it, incentive to lose.
But look at those other teams on the list.
The Cavaliers are in disarray. The Lakers’ top players are all hurt, and they seem to realize their slim playoff hopes have vanished, making tanking increasingly appealing. The Jazz have been better with Trey Burke, but they’re still getting knocked around by the West. The Kings made their big splash acquiring Rudy Gay and remain dismal. The Celtics have gone just 1-6 with Rajon Rondo, and though he needs more time to find his groove, it’s getting too late for them to make a run. The 76ers and Magic were expected to tank and are. The Pistons might have already won more games than the Bucks will all season.
That’s a tough bottom eight to crack.
It’s not impossible. The Pistons have lost to the Bucks, Magic, Jazz and Lakers (twice). They’ll have another chance against a bottom-dweller tonight, when they play the Magic. The Pistons, at times, can definitely look like a bottom-eight team. But relative to the actual bottom eight, they also look like a playoff team far more often.
I see the merits in tanking. You don’t need to convince me how valuable a top-eight pick in this draft would be, how this young team could surge forward next season and send Charlotte a worse pick in a worse draft (even though entering next year owing the Bobcats a top-one protected pick is risky).
But tanking would be really, really, really hard. It’s probably one of the few things these Pistons are too good for.