A Path to the Playoffs

Internal steps, added talent, familiarity key for Pistons’ postseason bid

With a young core, added talent and an on-board front office, the Pistons are headed in the right direction for a playoff push for next season.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Tom Gores didn’t flinch when asked last week what his expectations for 2012-13 were: “I think we better make the playoffs,” he said. “That’s realistic.”

It’s a laudable goal, but it’s one that every team in the East will carry into next season with the likely exception of Charlotte – unless lottery form holds and the Bobcats add Anthony Davis, in which case even they won’t look so hopelessly overmatched every night.

Consider this: The eight Eastern Conference teams that opened the playoffs over the weekend are the same eight that got there a year ago. None appear poised to step off a cliff.

Yet the Pistons, after their calamitous 4-20 start, finished 21-21 over the season’s final 42 games. And their mind-set is that there were another handful in those final 42 they should have won – and would have, perhaps, if they hadn’t been robbed of the chance to learn how to win during the blowout-heavy first 24.

A .500 record, if the Pistons could sustain that level over 82 games instead of 42, would give them a shot at making the playoffs. No .500 or worse team cracked the East playoff field this season, but an average of two such teams were postseason participants over the past four years. As recently as last season, Indiana made the playoffs with a 37-45 record. In 2007-08, the last of the Pistons’ six straight seasons to advance at least to the conference finals, three East teams qualified with records of .500 or worse. The last time the Pistons were a playoff team, in 2008-09, they finished 39-43.

“The reality is it’s very hard,” Lawrence Frank said. “Those playoff spots don’t change. It’s not eight in and the next year it’s eight new teams. We can get there, but it’s going to take an unbelievable amount of commitment. We’re going to have to do it harder, do it better, do it longer. We showed in stretches that we’re capable of being a playoff team, but it was a 66-game season. We didn’t do it over 66; next year it’s 82. Do we expect to be a playoff team? Yes. Was this year unacceptable? Yeah, because we weren’t in the playoffs. But it’s one thing to say it; it’s another to be totally invested in the process, to be committed and be able to sustain that focus required to be a playoff team.”

The Pistons showed in spurts this season they could compete with the NBA’s best on a given night, beating the Lakers, winning twice against Boston and playing Miami and San Antonio down to the wire at The Palace. But by and large, their second-half improvement was about their ability to beat up on the downtrodden. The Pistons went 11-5 this season against the five East teams – New Jersey, Toronto, Charlotte, Washington and Cleveland – that finished below them in the standings. They were 10-3 against those teams after their 4-20 start, and two of three losses came in a back-to-back set at Cleveland and Toronto leading into the All-Star break.

Will those five teams be as reliably bad next season? New Jersey hopes its move to Brooklyn enables it to land a second superstar to pair with Deron Williams, either by free agency or trade, with Dwight Howard still the primary target. Washington closed the season with six straight wins and likely will be in the market for a new coach who could jump start the franchise. Toronto will get 2011 lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas, a 7-footer with enormous potential, to go with its 2012 lottery pick. Cleveland goes into the lottery in the No. 3 spot, hoping Anthony Davis is around to join Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson.

Then there’s Milwaukee, on the cusp of playoff contention this season and encouraged by the late-season pairing of Monta Ellis with Brandon Jennings.

Of the eight franchises that have occupied the East’s playoff berths the past two years, which are the most vulnerable? Miami and Chicago are entrenched playoff teams for years, assuming injuries don’t undermine their cores. Derrick Rose’s ACL tear devastates the Bulls’ 2012 title chances, but ACL surgery and rehabilitation allows players to return at full strength today in ways that weren’t possible a generation ago.

Indiana has a deep roster with room for internal improvement plus an advantageous payroll situation. New York might be flawed as a title contender, but the Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire-Tyson Chandler core makes the Knicks a strong playoff contender with the financial wherewithal to keep adding mid-level free agents without concern for punitive luxury tax bills.

After that, it gets a little spotty. Boston GM Danny Ainge could decide to retool with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett hitting free agency. Philadelphia was in free fall down the stretch under Doug Collins, whose history suggests his ability to motivate teams wanes over time. With only six players under contract but already over the salary cap for next season, Atlanta – under suspected financial pressure due to soft fan support – might be forced into trades that lower the talent base. And Orlando faces another year of turmoil if the Magic hang on to Dwight Howard this off-season.

So there will be opportunities for somebody who finished outside the playoff field to make the leap next season. The Pistons’ path is pretty straightforward: They expect to be better because (a) Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, foremost among their young core players, still have plenty of growth potential; (b) a normal off-season ahead of them and a season of familiarity behind them will put them that much farther ahead at the start; (c) another lottery pick in a draft filled with intriguing prospects gives them a good shot to infuse the organization with another talent jolt; and (d) Joe Dumars, with a clear vision now for the type of player that will thrive under Frank’s direction, has an off-season to tailor the roster to his coach’s preference.

As Joe D put it last week, “(Frank) says, ‘I’ve got to get the guys better who are here.’ In turn, what I say to Lawrence is, ‘And I’ve got to get more guys that you like their style of play and what you want to do.’ ”

So, playoffs?

“I think it’s a reasonable expectation,” he said. “But every year is a new year. We got better this year. If we had started off 21-21 and finished 4-20, it would be pretty easy to say, ‘Man, they’re not headed the right way.’ We started off 4-20 and turned it around to 21-21. That’s a clear sign we’re getting better, but every year brings new challenges.”