The Detroit Pistons have started the month of December with three wins in four days. They’ve played well; led by the sterling play of Andre Drummond (21.7 points/18.7 rebounds/3.3 steals/2 blocks per game this month), the Pistons beat up on the 76ers, upset the Heat in Miami, and pulled away from the lowly Bucks in the second half. The first three-game win streak of the year for the Pistons has pushed their record to an unimpressive 9-10…and sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Wait. How’s that?
Yes, the Pistons, despite their overall mediocrity through 19 games, are sixth in the East–and only a half-game behind the third-place Atlanta Hawks. The horror, the horror.
Let’s take a look at the standings in the East, what to expect from teams close to the Pistons in the standings moving forward, and whether the Pistons can capitalize on being a part of the weaker conference.
Atop the Eastern Conference, we have the Indiana Pacers and the two-time defending champs from Miami. Led by the excellent Paul George, the Pacers are 17-2 and look like Miami’s only challenger in the East. As for the Heat, they’ve been taking it easy this season (yes, 14-5 qualifies as “coasting” for them), as they’re already preparing for a run at a three-peat.
Now it gets fun. Here’s teams three through 15:
The Hawks and Wizards are the only two teams even AT .500 (for comparison, 12 of the Western Conference’s 15 teams are at or above .500). Chicago is the only team in possession of a positive point differential, and no team has more wins than losses away from their home court. The Celtics are 8-12…AND THEY LEAD THEIR DIVISION. THEY’VE WON 40% OF THEIR GAMES. The 76ers are allowing 111 points per game and are ONE GAME OUT (THEY LEAD THE EAST IN POINTS PER GAME). The Cavs, Nets, and Knicks were all expected to be playoff teams, they’ve all been terrible and wracked by strife…and none of them are more than three games out. At this pace, a 35-47 team will make the playoffs in this conference. One last thing: the Timberwolves, who are 13th in the West with a 9-10 record, would place sixth in the East–occupying the spot currently held by the Pistons.
Now, what can we expect the rest of the way from the abomination that is the Eastern Conference? A few teams (particularly the two New York teams) probably won’t be this terrible the rest of the way; with health, the two New York teams are playoff teams. Teams like the Celtics, Sixers, and Magic are rebuilding, and will most likely regress as the season moves along. A note about the Atlantic-leading Celtics: they’ve played the third-weakest schedule in the NBA to this point (h/t @TreyAdell). The eighth-place Bobcats haven’t played terribly (defensively, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA), but they’ve played the league’s second-weakest schedule.
All of this is good news for the Pistons, who are probably a 40-44 win squad. The team’s identity has been forged through dominating inside; Detroit leads the Association in points in the paint. Despite ranking second-to-last in three-point percentage (30.2%) and dead last in free-throw percentage (67.1%), the Pistons have managed to play…okay. They’ll need to take advantage of the fact that only four Western Conference teams are on the December slate, but if they continue to rule the paint, they’ll put themselves in good position to win a few games and solidify their position in the East.