Commentary

PER Diem: Jan. 5, 2009

What the win-loss records for the Bucks and Pistons really mean.

Updated: January 5, 2009, 1:44 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Rodney Stuckey Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesIs Detroit's win-loss record ready to take a dive during the coming weeks?

One of the concepts I've been hammering during the past couple seasons has been the idea that a team's win-loss record might not necessarily be a good reflection of how well they're playing. In the Eastern Conference right now, we have two extreme examples of that phenomenon, in Detroit and Milwaukee.

The Pistons own one of the best records in basketball at 21-11 and have won seven straight games. The Bucks are 16-19 and are currently holding down the No. 8 position in the East.

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Yet in Monday's Power Rankings, the Bucks are a lofty fifth, while the Pistons are a mere 15th.

Shine a little light on those records and it's easier to comprehend why each team ranks where it does. For starters, Detroit might be riding the worst seven-game win streak in NBA history: The Pistons beat Oklahoma City at the buzzer, held off New Jersey at home after Vince Carter was ejected in the first half and barely squeaked past Sacramento at home. On Sunday the Pistons needed a horrific Al Thornton goaltending call for an 88-97 win against a Clippers team that was missing both Zach Randolph and Baron Davis -- hardly a sign of quality, though at least Detroit finally won a Sunday game (previously they were 0-6 on Sundays this season).

Yes, there have been a couple good wins, including one, ironically, against Milwaukee, but the Rankings aren't bowled over by Detroit's past 10 games against opponents with a combined .422 winning percentage. And the Pistons' full-season numbers (plus-1.0 average scoring margin, .461 opponents' winning percentage) are similarly ho-hum.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, has won only six of its past 10 games. But that stretch includes wins by 15, 24, 34 and 28, a win at San Antonio and a win over Utah. The Bucks have played just 14 home games versus 21 road games, and their opponents have a .522 mark when not playing Milwaukee -- yet the Bucks have a positive scoring margin on the season, and a plus-8.1 margin in the past 10 games.

That Milwaukee is as high as No. 5 is partly a commentary on the league's "Great Divide": There is no "real" No. 5 right now; there's more of an indistinguishable, gelatinous mass between No. 5 and No. 14. But the Bucks are very much a quality team, and as soon as they get some games in their building, that fact should become much more obvious.

So, while it might seem odd to see the Bucks ranked higher than a team it trails by seven games in the standings, it's a better reflection of how the two teams are playing heading into this week. And while the Bucks' next five opponents sport losing records, the Pistons face a Portland-Denver-Utah road swing, so we're likely to see that gap close very quickly.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.