In jumbled East, Pistons sitting pretty – if they can survive another road-heavy stretch

Pistons owner Tom Gores will meet with Stan Van Gundy next week to discuss what changes are in store for the Pistons.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DALLAS – It’s a little early in the season for scoreboard watching – OK, it’s a lot early for scoreboard watching – but the Pistons, nevertheless, had a pretty good night earlier this week. And they weren’t even playing.

On Monday, Miami lost to Atlanta. New York lost to Charlotte. Indiana blew it in the last few seconds to lose to Boston. And Philadelphia lost to Chicago.

The top three teams in the East – Boston, Cleveland and Toronto – have put some separation between themselves and the pack. There’s a five-game cushion between the No. 3 seed, Toronto, and the No. 4 seed, currently Indiana.

That’s nearly twice the gap between Indiana and the current No. 10 seed, Philadelphia. The pack includes the Pistons, who went into Wednesday’s game at Dallas in the No. 4 spot but tumbled all the way to No. 7 with their loss to the Mavericks. Three games is all that separates the Pacers and 76ers – and a half-game separates the Pacers and Pistons. Milwaukee, Washington and Detroit are all one-half game from the fourth seed.

The takeaway for Stan Van Gundy? That the East is a better conference than nearly everyone anticipated after a summer in which the already buff West got stronger by importing the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap and Carmelo Anthony from the East.

“You will still hear all the commentators and the experts talking about how much better the West is, but there’s now been 194 games and the East has won 101 and lost 93, so if the West if a lot better then they should be winning more games,” Van Gundy said before the West did just that, going 2-0 Wednesday including the Dallas win over the Pistons. “At least, that would make sense to me, but I guess I’m not an expert.”

A year ago at this time, the Eastern Conference standings were even more compressed with Boston as the No. 3 seed at 16-12 and Washington the No. 12 seed but just three games back. The Wizards wound up making the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.

In the West, the teams slotted 1-8 on Dec. 21 were the same teams that comprised the playoff field.

So … it’s early, but it’s not all that early. Historically, by the time you get midway through the schedule, or around the middle of January, the standings usually are a fairly accurate projection of what it will look like in mid-April.

Van Gundy doesn’t want to hear that and he’d point to Wednesday’s game – when the Pistons lost to the team that began the night with the worst record in the West at 8-23 but had over the past month beaten a healthy list of quality teams by big margins at home.

“You can’t get too caught up in that because if you look at our schedule and you had gone back at the beginning of the year and tried to pencil in what you thought were wins and losses, you would’ve been way off,” he said. “So you play every night and if you play well enough, we have a chance to beat anybody. And I think anybody’s got a chance to beat us.

“I don’t think you probably would have called the Boston game on the road or the Golden State game on the road (wins). And you probably would’ve thought we could have been at least in the game against the Lakers on the road. The games are played out here. So we can’t afford to look ahead.”

So let’s look ahead for him.

Prediction models heavily favor the Pistons to make the playoffs. BasketballReference.com has them at 84 percent and TeamRankings.com has them at 83 percent, projecting 45 wins. That would require them to go 28-23 over the final 51 games.

Of the seven teams sitting in the 4-10 slots in the East, the one the projection models like least to make the playoffs – and by a wide margin – is the Knicks. The obvious reason is the schedule. The Knicks have played 19 of their first 30 games at home and they’re a dreadful 2-11 on the road.

The only team among the seven to have played as many or more road games than the Pistons is Miami. While the Pistons are 8-9 in their 17 road games, the Heat have played 18 of 31 on the road and show a 10-8 record after Wednesday’s big win at Boston. That pretty much underscored Van Gundy’s point – two nights after losing to Atlanta, Miami knocked off the Celtics.

Another factor that bodes well for the Pistons: To date, they’ve played one of the NBA’s toughest schedules – No. 6 according to ESPN.com, No. 5 according to TeamRankings.com.

The Pistons on Wednesday began a stretch of seven of their next 11 games on the road to bring them to the exact mid-point of the schedule. If they’re still firmly in the thick of the playoff field after they play at Chicago on Jan 13, double down on their playoff bet. They’ll have 23 of their final 41 games at home and 22 of those 41 will come against the 14 teams currently outside the playoff field.

But opponent, home court – none of that matters much, Van Gundy would tell you, if the Pistons play as they did in getting blasted by Dallas.

“The standings don’t mean anything right now,” he said. “We’re 31 games into the year with 51 to go. It’s not like we’ve got two games to go. We just need to play better.”