Detroit — The tank debate is tabled, although for the Pistons, it never was much of a debate. They made their decision a year ago when they traded for Blake Griffin. And Griffin’s outstanding play rendered the decision irreversible, at least for now.
The Pistons are in the playoff field at the moment, and chances are, they’ll be in the playoffs when the season ends. You can argue the wisdom of squeezing in at the expense of draft lottery percentages, but the percentages are so miniscule, it’s not worth arguing anymore.
Here’s my advice to ardent tank-ophiles: If your team has a star in the midst of a career year and is determined to give it a go, step back and see what unfolds. I mean, is any Detroit team really in position to turn down any shot at any postseason?
There hasn’t been a playoff game involving the Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers or Lions in nearly three years, more than 1,000 days. The Pistons haven’t made it since 2016, and haven’t won a single playoff game since 2008.
They’re 26-29 after four straight victories and sit in the eighth seed, a game ahead of Miami and one game behind No. 6 Brooklyn. Is this something to celebrate? Of course not. They’ve beaten up on bad teams and have a favorable schedule the final 27 games. If they get in, I’d say their odds of beating Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia or Boston are about five-to-10 percent. (Although if they climb to the sixth seed and face No. 3 Indiana, hmm).
Lottery doesn't make sense
Those numbers are just a guess, but these aren’t: If they miss the playoffs, their odds of landing the No. 1 pick likely would range from 0.5 to 3 percent (calculated for the five best records in the 14-team lottery). By most accounts, there’s one big prize, Duke’s Zion Williamson. If gambling on lottery odds was a viable strategy, it had to be implemented long before this, and with big-contract guys like Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, it wasn’t really feasible to start over, yet.
So what’s to gain by missing the playoffs? A shot, although a shot so long, even the three worst teams — New York, Phoenix, Cleveland — have only a 14-percent chance at the No. 1 pick.
What’s to gain by making the playoffs? Hard to quantify, but after a decade mired in irrelevance, the Pistons are desperate to get noticed. It would be notable if they became the only local team to make the playoffs amid a drought that shows no signs of ending for anyone else.
No, a first-round series as heavy underdogs wouldn’t fill up Little Caesars Arena. But even in a short span, it could raise the visibility of some players, and young guys like Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown and Thon Maker might gain useful experience. It could even raise the marketability (and trade-ability) of the big-name players, when the long-term plan is revisited in the summer.
“We talked about this from Day One, about building the foundation, getting this thing going in the right direction again,” Griffin said. “And that’s the first step, getting there. And you only get there by earning it, so it would be huge for us.”
Griffin deserves to make the playoffs with his spectacular play. The All-Star is averaging a career-high 26.2 points per game, as well as 8.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists. At 29, he keeps expanding his arsenal, basically running the offense when he isn’t pounding inside, and is shooting 36.2 percent on 3-pointers. He’s figuring out how to play alongside Drummond and Jackson, who both look revived the past two weeks.
In the past eight games, Drummond is averaging 23 points and 15.5 rebounds, and his energy has ratcheted. So has his chemistry with Griffin.
“For me, I just decided enough was enough,” Drummond said after the Pistons beat the Wizards 121-112 Monday night. “I was allowing my frustration of losing to mess with the way I played. And I was overthinking, trying to make the home-run play instead of just being patient and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. … I think we just looked each other in the eyes, man to man, and we all saw we wanted it. We want to be in the playoffs and make a run, not just be in it.”
The Pistons have only played twice since the trade deadline, and after facing Boston tonight, will be off for the All-Star break. It’s way too early to suggest they’ve made a strong statement. It’s not too early to say they’ve shown signs of responding to Dwane Casey’s steady coaching, and Griffin’s determined prodding.
Owner Tom Gores and senior adviser Ed Stefanski didn’t sell much at the deadline, Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson, and didn’t surrender any future assets. They actually picked up a young, intriguing piece in the 7-1 Maker, who showed manic energy Monday night before leaving to get five stitches in a bloody upper lip.
The downside to not tanking is, you can’t win the lottery, although doing so doesn’t guarantee anything. Since LeBron James was taken No. 1 by the Cavaliers in 2003, the only top pick to win a championship is Kyrie Irving. Two years ago, the 76ers got burned with Markelle Fultz. Last year’s No. 1, Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, is a fine rookie but the Suns are right back with one of the worst records.
The upside to not tanking is, you can take advantage of all the tanking teams, and at least nine are using the not-so-subtle art of strategic losing. I’m not being dopey here, either. This isn’t like the NHL, with its get-in-and-you-have-a-shot history. The Pistons would have virtually no shot at making a run (just like they have virtually no shot of landing Williamson).
If they didn’t have a respected, veteran coach in Casey, and didn’t have a rejuvenated superstar in Griffin, and didn’t have expensive pieces in Drummond and Jackson, the plan might be different. And of course, the plan might be different in the offseason, when trades become more viable.
But now that the deadline has passed, you might as well see what you got.
“Blake is carrying a huge load for this team right now,” Casey said. “And the good thing about Andre is, he’s playing off of him, and Reggie has learned to play off of him. Even as bad as some stretches of the season were, the group never gave up on each other, I never gave up on them. I think that’s the attitude we have going into the next few weeks.”
It’s the only attitude left to have. This franchise has wasted all sorts of chances with bad draft picks and irresponsible contracts over the years, and many important moves are ahead. In the meantime, the options have narrowed and the players have no choice but to embrace the chase, no matter the odds.