Auburn Hills — The All-Star break is not the midway point of the NBA season.
Instead of halfway, it’s actually about 70 percent gone.
Forty-seven days. Twenty-five games.
That’s all that’s left for the Pistons (28-29), who are 1½ games behind the Miami Heat for eighth place and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It’s not an insurmountable margin, but the Pistons have been so up and down, that counting on anything in the final stretch of the regular season isn’t easy.
As the Pistons embark on their last 25 games of the season, they have some big question marks standing in the way of them getting back to postseason. Here are some thoughts on the important factors to their potential return to the playoffs.
Reggie Jackson took a step forward in his rehabilitation process from a grade-3 ankle sprain he suffered in late December, returning to light basketball activities on Wednesday. He’s still likely a couple weeks away from being able to do a regular practice regimen, with full-speed running, cutting and contact.
Jackson was posting 14.6 points and 5.5 assists in his 33 games before the injury. More importantly, though, he was the floor general, leading the offense and providing another high-level scoring option on the perimeter. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Andre Drummond was the driving force and the biggest scoring threat the Pistons had.
Without Jackson, the Pistons haven’t had the same options and since the trade for Blake Griffin, the Pistons have revamped the offense and still are developing ways to work through Griffin and involve him more in the offense. Through the first two weeks, the results were mixed but with Jackson’s return, it could take another period of adjustment before they figure out what their new normal is.
There’s no plan to rush Jackson back any quicker than his current timeline, which could mean he could be another week or two from full practices and then another week or two to get back to playing condition.
The path forward isn’t going to be easy. Of the 25 remaining games, the Pistons have 15 on the road and 10 at Little Caesars Arena, where they are 19-12 this season. The hard part will be on the road, where the Pistons are just 9-17.
As the Piston are coming off the All-Star break, the first few games this week will be a test: home against the Celtics, at Charlotte and Toronto Sunday and Monday and home against Milwaukee on Wednesday.
“What I’m hoping is the week off will make a difference with them and come back,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We’ve got 6 games in 9 days, 9 games in 15 days and 11 of first 15 are on the road. It’s going to be a lot of travel. It’s not going to get easier for us; it’s not supposed to be easy.”
Of the 25 remaining games, 13 are against teams with winning records, including three against the Raptors, who have the best mark in the East. If they’re going to make a run, it’s going to have to involve some big wins — which they’ve done several times this season already, along with some inexplicable losses.
Coming off the All-Star break, the Pistons have two practices to help them get re-acclimated. It’s as many practices as Blake Griffin had with his new team, since the trade on Jan. 30 because of their hectic schedule. They went 6-3 after the Griffin trade and although they only had basic plays on offense and he had to find his way on defense, they should be better with more familiarity.
Griffin and Drummond started to develop a chemistry together and with a few days’ break, there’s optimism that they could form one of the better frontcourt combos in the East. Pessimistically, they could still be trying to find a rhythm — and the addition of Jackson in a few weeks could make things more complicated.
The reality likely lies somewhere in between.
The reserve group has been disjointed since Ish Smith moved into the starting role and they’ve relied mostly on Dwight Buycks and Langston Galloway — and Jameer Nelson, who was added on Feb. 8.
The other addition, James Ennis, looks to be the full-time backup to Stanley Johnson at small forward. It’s another key cog to the bench unit, which has had ups and downs, but likely needs more time to jell before they start to click — and Smith’s return could hasten the bench’s ascendance.
Griffin’s addition has brought another option at backup center and Luke Kennard and Anthony Tolliver have been solid off the bench. Jackson’s return could put all the pieces back together.
Celtics at Pistons
Tipoff: 7 Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit.
Outlook: The Pistons (28-29) start the final stretch of the season looking to take the three-game season series from the Celtics. It’s the first of three games in four days, following with games at Charlotte and Toronto.