The impact of the Detroit Pistons’ playoff push

Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Is a playoff appearance worth the lost chance in the NBA lottery? The Detroit Pistons gained valuable experience during their series versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Detroit Pistons broke into the playoffs for the first time in the greater part of a decade this past season, coming away with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

NBA teams on the fringe of the playoffs often face a tough decision late into the regular season. Squeaking into the playoffs almost always leads to a crushing defeat by one of the NBA’s elite teams. Why not rest some players and hope for a fall out of the playoff picture and into the draft lottery?

Many argue that barely inching into the playoffs gets a team stuck on the “mediocrity treadmill.” After all, the NBA is a superstar league and the only reliable way to get one of those is by winning the lottery.

In making the playoffs did the Pistons shortchange themselves a chance at a star? There is evidence to the contrary.

“Facing a superior team forced the Pistons to innovate within their own roster.”

In this video, Stan Van Gundy points out how big of a collective milestone making the playoffs is for the young Pistons core. He discusses how various players stepped up in different games down the stretch, giving them an on the job tutorial in what it takes to win in tense situations.  Players do not get that experience by being in the lottery, and that experience can pay off in the years to come.

So Van Gundy believes that there is a tangible benefit to pushing for the eighth seed. Does it outweigh the opportunity cost of the lost lottery ticket? Dave Berri looked into the NBA lottery in 2013 and came to the following conclusion:

"“So we see that the NBA draft lottery is quite similar to the state lotteries so many people play.  Winners of these lotteries often don’t get the life of their dreams.  And the odds of winning are so poor that state lotteries are often described as a tax on the mathematically illiterate.  Despite all this, people still buy lottery tickets in the hopes of realizing their dreams.  And likewise, some people in the NBA have dreams that winning the NBA lottery is the path to a future NBA title.”"

Basically, pinning your hopes to the draft lottery is a fool’s errand. The odds of winning the lottery are one thing. Even if your team is lucky enough to land a top pick, the odds of finding a transformational player are just as daunting. For every Tim Duncan and LeBron James, there is a Kwame Brown and an Anthony Bennett.

The article also provides statistics showing teams labeled as “mediocre” in a certain year are more likely to become contenders in the next five years than teams bottoming out at the same time. In short, mediocre is not a death sentence.  It is a stepping stone.

There happens to be some concrete evidence that the Pistons series versus the Cavaliers served as just that.

In a recent article, Jonathan Tjarks identifies a new wrinkle the Pistons developed in their final playoff game.  The Pistons may have their own version of the Warriors vaunted lineup-of-death.

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Starting at the 6:30 mark in the video, the Pistons roll out a lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Marcus Morris. These are five players who can shoot the three and guard multiple positions in theory. None of these guys are as polished as they should be in a few years, but the physical tools are all there to mimic what the Warriors are doing right now. Jackson is blessed with an incredible wingspan to contain players bigger than him. Caldwell-Pope is already noted for his defensive abilities, and the remaining trio of Johnson, Harris, and Morris all possess the size-athleticism combination to adequately guard both in the post and on the perimeter.

The potential to switch every screen is encouraging, but the real appeal of this lineup comes on the offensive end. As seen in the video, all five of the players need to be respected from three. This leaves the paint wide open for cutters and dribble penetration with little rim protection. Jackson provides a good example at the 7:50 mark, beating his man and driving for the wide open dunk.

Next: Best Individual Seasons in Pistons History

As Tjarks writes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Facing a superior team forced the Pistons to innovate within their own roster. That discovery should pay off when the Detroit Pistons are truly ready to contend down the road.