For Pistons, here's what's worth watching for in final 25 games
Detroit — Despite their dismal record, there’s still plenty for the Pistons to play for in the final 25 games of the regular season.
In previous years, the prize was a potential playoff spot, where the likely outcome was a first-round exit. It happened in 2016 and 2019, but there’s very little chance it will be happen again, as the Pistons are 19-38 and six games behind the Orlando Magic for the No. 8 seed.
In other words, barring a colossal collapse by multiple teams, the Pistons can make plans for soon after the final game of the regular season on April 14.
In the interim, they can take a longer look at some of their young players and get an idea of what the future can look like. Assuming they don’t make the playoffs, they’ll get a good draft pick, presumably in the top 10 — and possibly as high as the top five.
Here are some things to watch as the Pistons embark on the final 25 games of the season:
The draft pick
The Pistons have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league, with 16 games against teams currently in playoff position, including two games against the Bucks and one each against the Lakers, Raptors, Celtics and Nuggets.
With a four-game losing streak, they’ve dropped to the sixth spot in the draft lottery, just one game behind the Timberwolves and Knicks. That’s important because the No. 4 spot offers a 48.1% chance at a top-four pick and a 12.5% opportunity for the No. 1 pick.
The Pistons don’t need the worst record to ensure the best chance at the top pick, because the draft rules were changed to give the three teams with the worst records an equal chance (52.1 percent for the top four and 14 percent for the No. 1 pick). With a downpour of losses, the Pistons could catch the Cavaliers or Hawks to get into the top three, but the sweet spot looks to be the fourth spot.
What the Pistons choose to do with that coveted draft pick will be the focus of the summer, as they look to add a talented young player to build around and add to the mix to help improve the roster beginning next year. Even if the outlook isn’t winning this season, it doesn’t look to be a multi-year process of losing.
The young pieces
Although the Pistons are not tanking in the typical usage of the term — they won’t go 3-22 in this final stretch — they will give a huge chunk of playing time to the young players to see what they have. That means taking long looks at Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk, Christian Wood, Thon Maker and rookie Sekou Doumbouya, but it won’t mean giving out unmerited minutes.
Coach Dwane Casey has shown as much in moving Doumbouya to the bench because of subpar play, citing Doumbouya’s lack of hard play, drive and motivation. The rookie’s numbers have dipped in the past couple of weeks and he’s teaching an important lesson — not just to Doumbouya but to the other young players — about earning their playing time.
Luke Kennard is slated to return from injury, possibly this week. That will bring another scorer and facilitator to the mix, and it should help clarify the pecking order of the wings, with Brown, Kennard and Mykhailiuk. That’ll be an important piece going into the summer. Blake Griffin likely will be back next season and who plays in the frontcourt with him will be an interesting development.
There likely will be some paring of minutes for some of the veteran players such as Derrick Rose, Langston Galloway and Markieff Morris at some point. Rose has nothing to prove, but his competitive spirit and finishing the season on a strong note could be a reason to let him play more in the final 25 games. As long as he avoids injury, there’s no real downside to playing Rose.
The Pistons could consider bringing Galloway and Morris back on reasonable contracts. They’re both leaders on and off the court and having them in the mix during the rebuild could prove prudent. Casey won’t let the Pistons get blown out night after night and utilizing his veterans will help that, even at the expense of letting the young players get seemingly meaningless minutes in losses.
The process of winning
Casey isn’t mailing in the rest of the season. He’s focusing on building winning habits with his young players and rooting out a culture of losing before they get established in the midst of a losing season.
There’s a balance between trying to win and not having the talent to compete with the top teams because of injuries and having to use young players for longer stretches.
“Our No. 1 thing is to maintain a competitive spirit, competitive edge, competitive outlook with our team because it’s so easy,” Casey said last week. “You get situations where guys are hurt, guys are out, and guys hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves. We’re in a situation not only to win games but also to develop a culture and go from there.”