The Detroit Pistons return to action on Friday night after a five-day break. In their last outing (Monday night), they went to Cleveland and thumped the hapless Cavaliers 115-92. The win moved Detroit to 14-16 and solidified their second-place standing in the Central Division. Despite Chicago’s victory over the Nets on Wednesday, the Pistons are still second, but by only one-and-a-half games over the Bulls and two-and-a-half over the Cavs. Those two teams represent the biggest challenges to potential playoff seeding, and perhaps even a playoff berth for the Pistons. In this post, we’ll take a look at the upcoming slate of games for all three teams, and try to determine who has the edge moving into 2014.
But first, you may be wondering why the Pacers and Bucks won’t be participating in this post. The answer is pretty straightforward: no one’s catching the Pacers, and no one will sink to the Bucks’ level. The Pacers are one of the three best teams in the NBA, and they may win as many as 65 games if they’re healthy and/or motivated enough. No other roster in the Central is constructed well enough, or is simply talented enough, to win more than 45 games, give or take a couple games. As for Milwaukee…they’re not good. They’re not healthy, they’re not scoring, and they’re not winning. And barring an unlikely surge, things are probably going to stay that way for Wisconsin’s NBA franchise.
Now, on to analyzing the fight for second place. Below is a table containing the schedules for Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland from now through the end of January:
Let’s start with Chicago. On paper (well, technically, on Microsoft Word), the Bulls have the toughest schedule of the other three contending Central teams. They play nine current playoff teams over their next 18 games, and they play seven Western Conference teams. Despite the initially bleak outlook, there are positives for them; five of the playoff teams the Bulls face are Eastern Conference teams, and they only have to leave Chicago twice in order to play said teams. The end of the month could be difficult; over a span of five days, they play the explosive Clippers, the stingy Bobcats (in Charlotte), the underrated Timberwolves, and the reigning Western Conference champion Spurs in San Antonio. The Bulls have lost 11 of their last 14 in San Antonio dating back to 1999.
Next up, Cleveland. The Cavs get to play the Pacers twice and the Blazers once, and they have a five-game West Coast swing in the middle of January. Not too promising. However, respite comes in the fact that their three opponents after the January 5 game in Indy have almost as many wins (24) as the Pacers themselves (23). Further relief could be found in the form of a five-game home stand from January 20-January 28. The Mavericks and Suns are included in that five-game stretch, though, and both teams have winning records in Cleveland over their last seven. In fact, the Suns have won their last three meetings with the Cavs at Quicken Loans Arena, with all three wins coming by a margin of at least eight points.
Finally, we have the Pistons. Detroit plays the fewest games of the three from December 26 through the end of January, and they have the weakest strength of schedule to boot. The Pistons have only two games against teams with a winning record over this span; a matchup with the Clippers on January 20, and a date with the Hawks in Atlanta nine days later. In the meantime, they play the Magic and 76ers three times; those two squads are a combined 16-40. Another game of note: the January 17 fixture with the 8-23 Jazz. Former Michigan Wolverine Trey Burke is slated to make his return to the state of Michigan that night as Utah’s starting point guard.
The Pistons have an opportunity over the next month to gain a bit of separation from their Central challengers, and this opportunity is one that they should take full advantage of. Whether or not they will is another story, and it’s one that will have to be played out on the hardwood.