Boston — The Pistons head will head into the All-Star break in playoff position, holding the eighth spot. In the final 26 games, they’ll be within striking distance — within three games — of reaching the Charlotte Hornets, who are currently in seventh, and the Nets, who are in sixth.
It’s a position that seemed out of reach a few weeks ago, when they had struggled through a tough schedule in December and January and were a season-worst seven games below .500. Blake Griffin has been steady for them all season, en route to his sixth All-Star selection and the recent hot streaks by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond have helped the Pistons to their surge.
This week’s Pistons mailbag looks at the team’s surge, trade deadline deals and playoff outlook.
►Question: Who do you think will make the bigger impact on the Pistons remaining games for the season, Ellington or Maker? — @GTroitPistons
►Answer: Wayne Ellington and Thon Maker have gotten big playing time since joining the Pistons last week in deadline transactions, along with Svi Mykhailiuk. As Ellington gets more acclimated to the Pistons’ system, he’ll likely join the starting group, which means he’ll be the bigger impact. He shoots as well as Reggie Bullock, and the hope is that he can slide into that role after the All-Star break.
Maker adds solid defense and energy to the reserve group, which will need it after losing Stanley Johnson. Maker can play power forward or center, which provides a different option than Zaza Pachulia. With his hustle and energy — plus his block of Bobby Portis — he’s already earned some fans.
►Q. With smart deadline moves and the improved play of Reggie and Andre over the last two weeks, has our ceiling changed? If we have the 6-7 seed going into playoffs, is it dumb to think we could win a few playoff games, and maybe... even steal a series? — @D_Schandy24
►A. I wrote a couple weeks ago that the target should be the No. 6 seed — and it’s attainable, even with Caris LeVert’s return to the Nets. The Pistons have one of the easiest schedules remaining. The key will be the four-game western trip, with games at Denver, Golden State and Portland (plus Phoenix). They have five games against the dregs of the East (Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta) and four against their contending peers (Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte).
As for the playoff outlook, they probably match up best against the Pacers, who are without Victor Oladipo. That might entail getting up to the No. 6 spot, but Indiana also could fall to the seventh or eighth spot. They could win a couple of games from the Pacers, but their worst matchups would be against the Bucks or Raptors.
►Q. Looking towards the draft, do you think the Pistons are more likely to draft a PG or SF in the first round? With holes at both positions, which is the front office more likely to prioritize? — @DaBrettster25
►A. By dealing both Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson at the deadline, the Pistons gutted their wing depth. I would think the Pistons give a higher priority to a wing than a point guard in the draft. There aren’t a ton of quality point guards available, and they’re more likely to value a veteran at both positions in free agency or in the trade market.
The tricky part is Ish Smith, who will become an unrestricted free agent. I get the sense that they like Smith and would like to bring him back for the right price — probably not $6.3 million — but he’s their most valuable reserve, so that will be the biggest thing to watch. A follower reminded me that the Pistons are 18-11 with Smith in the lineup and 8-18 without him. Those numbers won’t be lost in the negotiations.
►Q. Who would you say is the heart, or leader of this team? — @yungdoestheweb
►A. The heart and soul unquestionably is Blake Griffin — and it’s worth noting that he’s done it in a short period, joining the Pistons in January 2018. He took some time to learn the culture of the team and to take the leadership mantle gradually.
He has been adamant about establishing a winning attitude, along with Dwane Casey’s mantra of instilling a winning culture. With that, they’ve both had an impact on Drummond, in getting him to play near an All-Star level and reduce the number of games with questionable effort.
It’s going to take more, though. The final stretch of games in the regular season will test their mettle and if they don’t make the postseason, there could be some big changes looming.