DETROIT – Some faces are defeated, others in shock. Some eyes scanned the floor, others stared into the abyss. The only noise heard was the players taking off their shoes. The spirit of a young and vibrant Detroit Pistons basketball team felt earlier has been sucked out of everyone and now lies next to the dirty laundry in the locker room.
It was Nov. 1 and the respectable 2-2 Pistons — who had lost only to last year’s Eastern Conference champions, the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the current No. 1 seed. 2 in the Western Conference – were welcoming the trail-riding Portland Blazers. That night, the Pistons held a 15-point lead in the opening seconds of the third quarter. They had dominated in every aspect. For another 24 minutes, the Pistons proved they were no longer in the same conversation as the NBA’s worst players. It seemed to be a great recovery response to the defeat a few days earlier against the Thunder. Something a good team would do.
Then, in a snap of the fingers, Detroit was back to a submerged place. It happened so suddenly. The Pistons turned the ball over 10 times in the final 24 minutes of the game. They converted on just two of their 13 3-point attempts, allowing the Trail Blazers to make every other shot they made. It was almost as if the Pistons were hypnotized into believing things were better, like waking up from a good dream. Instead, they found themselves back in the nightmare that had kept them awake for the last year, and with some changes.
“There was a change in energy,” Pistons forward Ausar Thompson said after the game.
At that moment, the rookie had no way of knowing how powerful those words would be.
Three consecutive defeats became seven. That turned into 12. Then a franchise record 15. And so on. Detroit continued to collapse in the fourth quarter. The Pistons continued to turn the ball over at a breakneck pace at the beginning, middle and end of ball games. The rebuilding team that had never learned to win at this level looked up and realized they were in a predicament you only see once every few years. This is “deer in the headlights” in human form. Nobody has answers because, well, they only know how to lose at this level.
The last time Detroit won a game, the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers was tied at one game apiece. Since then, United Auto Workers ended a month-long strike. Representative George Santos was expelled from Congress and began making cameos.
The Pistons haven’t won a basketball game since October 28th. That’s 46 days, 20 consecutive games without emerging victorious. How does this happen?
Well, how much time do you have?
Detroit’s disastrous season today began last year, about 13 months ago, when 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham was shut down after 12 games and underwent season-ending shin surgery. For Detroit, last season should have been about developing the team. The “restoration,” as general manager Troy Weaver likes to call it, would move forward with Cunningham, rookies Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey, veteran Bojan Bogdanović and a handful of other players in whom the organization had high hopes. It was supposed to be the seed planted for something special.
Cade Cunningham is back and ready to take the Pistons to the next phase of their rebuild
Cunningham’s injury, however, essentially led to the Pistons scoring their season. His absence has led Detroit to try to capture lightning in a bottle and pursue once-touted prospects in hopes of resurrecting their careers. The franchise has gone from hoping to build continuity to, once again, prioritizing individual development.
Losing dreams. Players who could have helped Detroit be respectable most nights started showing up on the injury report late in the calendar year. The result? The Pistons won just seven games from Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season in April. It also didn’t help that the prize for winning the NBA Draft Lottery a season ago was Victor Wembanyama, arguably, the best prospect since LeBron James.
Cunningham’s injury — more than people realized at the time — may have set the rebuilding franchise back another season.
“It was a challenge for us,” Weaver said Atletico in January, when asked how Cunningham’s injury affected the team’s development. “I don’t know how many different starting lineups the coach has had. From a team development perspective, we have failed, for lack of better words, to find a coherent identity. This was the challenge.
Fast forward to October of this year and Weaver, for the first time during this rebuild, put a finish line on the end of the season. He said the team expects to “play meaningful basketball” until the end. But it’s December and it already seems like an impossible dream.
Fans, though, needed words of encouragement after what they endured last season, but no one really knew what the Pistons were in for this season. Not the new coaching staff. Not the front office. Not property. This team was practically strangers to each other on a basketball court.
The Pistons have four players with All-Star potential – Cunningham, Ivey, Duren and Thompson – who will determine whether this historic franchise can return to prominence. To date, those four have played 11 games together. Throw out rookie Thompson and the slightly more experienced trio only played 20 games together for various healthy reasons. There wasn’t a large enough sample size to suggest that Detroit was, in fact, ready to enter the next phase of its restoration.
The Pistons were frugal this offseason in free agency because of what happened last season. They couldn’t adequately evaluate their group due to Cunningham’s injury. This year, Detroit’s front office decided to once again prioritize youth development and see what they had in house, with the expectation that a few veterans would help everyone get on the right track.
Instead, what Detroit got was a group of injured veterans and even younger players asked to do something they had never done as pros: win.
Bogdanović, one of the most efficient and most used offensive players in the NBA last year, has been mostly out of action with a calf injury. He played his first match of the season on December 2nd. Monté Morris, Detroit’s veteran guard acquired in the offseason who was expected to be the adult in a very, very young backcourt, hasn’t played all season due to injuries.
The only person who has been around as the Pistons’ losses pile up is coach Monty Williams, who this summer signed a huge contract that could net him as much as $100 million. However – and he will be the first to tell you – he too had difficulty understanding the new team considering his youth and all his injuries.
Monty Williams has transformed a franchise before. The Pistons will be different
Williams and his coaching staff were slow to figure out what the best version of this team was. The Pistons had their best offensive performance of the season in Monday’s 131-123 loss to the Indiana Pacers, who are not a good defensive team at all. However, the highest-scoring game of the season coincided with the first time Williams unleashed a small-ball, Detroit-friendly lineup (it happened due to injuries to Duren and Marvin Bagley III). It also coincided with the fact that for the first time he slammed Cunningham and Bogdanović together, so that one was always on the pitch. It coincided with Ivey – who struggled to find a role with Williams despite being one of the NBA’s top rookies last season – playing a season-high 34 minutes, which was just the third time this season he played more than 30 minutes.
“I think we’re starting to understand that we can score when we space the floor properly,” Williams said after Indiana’s loss. “I’m learning how to utilize some of the guys on the team.”
It’s too early to tell whether or not hiring Williams will work in the long term, but owner Tom Gores should have made sure Williams was the right man at the right time rather than wanting to win the press conference and, in turn, , handing over a contract that it won’t be economical to get out of if he finds out that this isn’t a good marriage.
As for the front office, they were a little too early in setting the finish line for this team before the season. There was nothing to suggest this team was ready to make a leap, even before the injuries hit. It also wouldn’t have hurt to try and turn one of the two big prospects Detroit has on its roster into proven depth forward.
The blame should be spread around like Oprah Winfrey sells out cars. You don’t get to 20 consecutive defeats without everyone having a hand.
The NBA’s longest losing skid in a single season is 26. The longest losing skid (over two seasons) is 28.
The Pistons, one of the league’s most successful franchises, are on the wrong side of history.
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(Photo by Monty Williams: Jason Miller/Getty Images)