Playoffs?

.500 record would put Pistons in hunt, but postseason can’t be sole barometer for 2012-13

Making the postseason is just one of several goals the Pistons have for the 2012-13 season.
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty)
To borrow from Jim Mora – and you’ll have to mimic his whiny tone yourself – “playoffs?”

As in, can the Pistons make them … this season?

Maybe. Historically, a .500 record puts a team in the Eastern Conference mix. In fact, the 2012 playoffs – in the aberrant, 66-game regular season – marked the first since the 2004-05 season when no Eastern Conference teams qualified for the playoffs with a record of .500 or worse. Two such teams made the field in 2011, one in 2010 and three apiece in the four preceding seasons.

Joe Dumars and Lawrence Frank are clear about their intent for the franchise. They really don’t talk about the playoffs. The goal is to compete for championships. And while you can’t win the NBA Finals without first making the playoffs, franchises that lack the patience for the painstaking construction of a champion often wind up with a team good enough to make the playoffs but no possibilities beyond that.

“It can’t be the only litmus test for us,” Joe D told me recently. “We want to make the playoffs. We’d love to make the playoffs. But more than just that, we also want to get better. We want to keep trending in the right direction. If you just base it on wins and losses, you can lose sight of what’s happening.”

“I’ve never talked playoffs,” Frank said when the subject arose after Tuesday’s practice, repeating what he’s said often in the past. “Even with teams that were predicted to go deep and even with some teams that were predicted to go to the Finals. To me, it’s all about the process. I don’t get into predictions. I just get into our habits. If you make today count, you’re true to the process, then those things will take care of themselves.”

As I wrote on Tuesday, there are eight Eastern Conference teams that enter this season fully expecting to make the playoffs: Chicago and Indiana from the Pistons’ own division; Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Brooklyn from the beefed-up Atlantic Division; and defending champion Miami and Atlanta from the Southeast Division.

All but the Nets were postseason participants last season. They’ve added Joe Johnson and retained Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace over the summer, taking on enormous payroll obligations to usher in their move to Brooklyn and the new Barclays Center.

The only Eastern playoff team from a year ago that clearly regressed was Orlando, which opted for a rebuild when new management engineered the trade that shipped Dwight Howard to the Lakers.

The Pistons have some clear challenges in pushing for the playoffs. No two players will be more important for them than Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, still just 22 and 20. Andre Drummond, at 19, holds the upside to make a significant difference in the product, but no one expects him to be a consistent impact player anytime soon.

A schedule that calls for them to go on the season’s longest road trip, a six-game jaunt, the day after Wednesday’s opener will be especially challenging to a young team.

“I would prefer getting three or four games at home first,” Tayshaun Prince said Tuesday. “Maybe one on the road in the Eastern Conference. The first game and then getting out for six could be tough, but at the same time it’ll test your team. More of a veteran team would be able to withstand just having one game at home and then going on the road for six games. It’ll be tougher for a young team to do that, which we are.

And while the Pistons return all five starters from a season ago, Frank will be breaking in at least a few newcomers off the bench. Rookies Drummond, Kyle Singler and Kim English appear to be in the rotation, at least until another newcomer, Corey Maggette, returns from a left calf injury.

Both Frank and Dumars over the summer have talked about building the right way and avoiding quick fixes. Owner Tom Gores drew headlines for saying he expected to make the playoffs, but he also emphasized the need for patience with Drummond and endorsed the Ben Gordon-Maggette trade that created cap space for next off-season, which will enable the Pistons to make the types of roster moves to make their playoff push more viable. Those aren’t the actions of an integrated management team that’s selling out for a playoff berth this season.

As Joe D said, they’d love to make the playoffs but it can’t be the only litmus test. And in the long view, it shouldn’t be the standard that judges the season ahead a success or something else.