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Chicago — If the NBA season were only 27 games, the Pistons would be the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

It’s always fun to play the “what if” game, but a third of the way through the season, the Pistons are 15-12, which is 10 games better than their start last year.

That’s the reality.

It’s mostly due to the tinkering that coach Stan Van Gundy has done with the roster, but even more eye-opening given how the Eastern Conference has improved. Even at three games over .500, the Pistons are within four games of the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s a tight bunch in the middle of the standings, but if the Pistons can continue on an upward trajectory, they could find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt — and maybe even having home-court advantage in the first round.

“Last year, we were 5-22 at this point and we were looking to make major changes,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a lot different now.”

For the most part, it’s the usual suspects in the playoff picture, including Friday’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls, along with the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers. But also in the mix are the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Pistons.

The Atlanta Hawks are also 15-12 and the Boston Celtics are only a have game behind. That makes nine teams that are within four games of the top seed.

What if?

With another two-thirds of the season remaining, it’s a game that fans can play a few more times as the standing start to shake out in the spring.

Johnson progressing

As rookie Stanley Johnson gets more games under his belt, he’s getting more and more comfortable in the NBA. Unlike many of the lottery picks in the NBA draft, he doesn’t have to start but is getting significant minutes off the bench for the Pistons.

He’s averaging 7.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 21 minutes, but also doesn’t have the pressure to produce immediately. That was part of the plan in drafting him and bringing him along gradually so that he would be able to develop at a reasonable pace.

Van Gundy says that Johnson is about where he should be, given his youth and inexperience.

“(He’s) like you would expect for a 19-year-old. He’s shown flashes of being very good but he’s been very up and down — that goes with the territory,” Van Gundy said. “We love his competitiveness; he backs down from no one.

“He’s a very aggressive guy and he’s going to develop into a very good shooter and a very good offensive player.”

Although Johnson has had to learn through some bumps in the road, he’s brought a joy to the game that has spread to some of his teammates — and Van Gundy sees how contagious that can be.

“The kid loves the game and he’s always in the gym and wants to work. His challenge is to be more focused in his work,” he said. “You can be in the gym a lot and not getting a lot accomplished and a lot of times, picking up bad habits.

“Stanley really needs to focus his work a little bit more. He does have a great starting point, in that he wants to be a great player. He loves the game, he loves being in the gym, and that’s the kind of guys you want to coach.”

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

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