The Detroit Pistons are heading down the home stretch of the 2016-17 season. Their record is a yawn-inducing 34-36. They are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Miami Heat. They are a half-game behind Milwaukee for the No. 7 seed and just a game in front of the Bulls, who are currently on the outside looking in.
The question remains: Does anybody around here really care?
With Derrick Walton, Jr. and the Michigan Wolverines making headlines across the country and the Tigers finalizing their 25-man roster to start the season, the Pistons seem to have been set on the back burner.
It’s not as if playoff basketball is an annual occurrence locally. The Pistons made the postseason last spring for the first time in seven years. The franchise hasn’t won a single playoff game since 2008, a startling fact that probably won’t be splashed on any season ticket ads pumping up next year’s squad and the new Little Caesars Arena.
If the Pistons were to finish strong over the next few weeks and secure a playoff spot, it would be noteworthy. Back-to-back postseason appearances after an extended dry spell would count for something.
But for a number of reasons, it doesn’t seem to be making a whole lot of waves around here. Whether Stan Van Gundy's crew does or does not make the playoffs, you get the sense that it wouldn’t alter the Detroit sports landscape a whole lot one way or the other.
Perhaps it is that 34-36 record. Playing sub-.500 ball in a very weak Eastern Conference just won’t move the needle a great deal, regardless of whether said record is good enough to earn a postseason spot.
Unfortunately, this current edition of the Pistons is also a fairly flat one. Their effort is highly inconsistent on a night-to-night basis, nothing at all like those early 2000’s teams where “Goin’ to Work” and “Every Night” were slogans that rang true via the on-court product. The Pistons were recently smashed on the road at Cleveland. Everyone thought they’d try to earn back some dignity the next night at home against Utah. They got crushed again. The Pistons followed that up with a lifeless fourth quarter against the Raptors where they managed just nine points and lost by double-digits again.
Any team - good or bad - exhibiting maximum effort on a nightly basis will earn fans’ respect and interest.
But Van Gundy’s postgame pressers are often littered with quotes like these:
- “The first unit had no energy.”
- “Reggie looked exhausted after two minutes.”
- “Andre just wasn’t giving us anything.”
That type of in-game apathy is a surefire way to become irrelevant in a hurry.
And maybe part of the overall "blah" attitude from fans can be attributed to the NBA in general. There is an epidemic within the league now where the best players simply sit out games, often 3-4 top guys at a time, for no reason at all. Look at the Phoenix Suns, the Pistons' opponent on Sunday night.
For all intents and purposes, that was not a legitimate NBA club. The Suns have made the decision to rest their best players for the remainder of the year. They might say they want to get a look at their younger guys, but in reality they are likely just trying to lose as many games as possible to secure the highest pick in this summer’s draft.
You can agree or disagree with that strategy, but the bottom line is that the overall level of play has suffered greatly. The Suns didn’t use top-flight point guard (and perfectly healthy) Eric Bledsoe against the Pistons. Instead they forced little-used rookie Tyler Ulis to log 43 taxing minutes where he made 7 of 24 shots. Veteran Tyson Chandler was also put on the shelf. The completely unknown Derrick Jones, Jr was used in his stead, where the 20-year-old attempted nine shots and made one.
The Suns have also stopped playing former Piston Brandon Knight, which is not something he’s been at all pleased with. Essentially, if you bought a ticket and actually attended that game against Phoenix, you saw a really low-quality NBA product. The Pistons got the win and snapped a 3-game losing skid, but nobody really seemed to notice.
Facing the Bottom-Feeders
The Pistons will face horrendous competition throughout this week. They play at Brooklyn (13-56) Tuesday night, owners of the NBA’s worst record. Then it’s off to Chicago (33-37), Orlando (26-45), and New York (27-43). Sure, all the games are on the road, but this isn’t like going to Lambeau in December.
If the Pistons want to start making a little more noise locally, ratchet up some enthusiasm for this playoff push, they’ll go out and take care of business these next four games. A clean sweep would be ideal, but even a 3-1 mark would be a step in the right direction. Like Phoenix, there are a number of teams in the league simply playing out the string, more concerned with their lottery chances than actually winning basketball games. The Pistons should be able to feed off of this disinterest and attack with a real sense of desperation.
These final 12 games still afford the Pistons the opportunity to make some hay in the East standings. They sit three games back of Atlanta for the No. 5 seed and just two behind Indiana for the six-spot. There’s a dramatic difference between squeaking in as the final team, then getting trucked by LeBron; or scrapping a few pegs up on the ladder and earning a winnable matchup with Washington or Toronto.
As far as overall fan interest and generating a healthy level of excitement heading into the new arena next year, a little run in the playoffs could go a long way. Even fighting a team like the Wizards to six or seven games would be a welcome reprieve from the 4-0 Cleveland beat-downs the Pistons have suffered in their last two postseason trips.
Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and the rest will finish their regular season on April 12. Will this city be buzzing with NBA playoff chatter or will the conversation already have shifted to full-on Tigers mode?
To this point, the Pistons’ 2016-17 campaign has been a bore. Can they make a run these final three weeks and send the Palace off with a bang?
Should they lose to Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and the Nets tonight, a team that recently went 0-for-February (0-10), it’ll tell us all we need to know.
But if they come out, handle their business, and beat the NBA’s worst team by 15-plus points; at least it’ll provide a modicum of hope that these Pistons intend to be relevant in Auburn Hills one final time.