DETROIT — Some faces were defeated, others in shock. Some eyes peered down at the floor, others gazed into the abyss. The only noise heard was that of players taking off their shoes. The spirit of a young, vibrant Detroit Pistons basketball team heard just hours earlier was sucked out of each and everybody and now lying next to the dirty laundry in the locker room.
It was Nov. 1, and the respectable 2-2 Pistons — who had only lost to last year’s Eastern Conference champions, the Miami Heat, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the current No. 2 seed in the Western Conference — were welcoming the Portland Trail Blazers. On that night, the Pistons had a commanding 15-point lead seconds into the third quarter. They had dominated in every facet. For yet another 24 minutes, the Pistons showed they were no longer in the same discussions as the NBA’s bottom-feeders. It appeared to be a great bounce-back response to the loss a few days earlier to the Thunder. Something a good team would do.
Then, in the snap of a finger, Detroit returned to a sunken place. It happened so suddenly. The Pistons turned the ball over 10 times in the game’s final 24 minutes. They converted on just two of their 13 3-point attempts, while allowing the Trail Blazers to make every other shot they put up. It was almost as if the Pistons were hypnotized to believe things were better, like waking up from a good dream. Instead, they found themselves right back into the nightmare that had kept them awake for the last year and some change.
“There was a shift in energy,” Pistons wing Ausar Thompson said after the game.
At that moment, the rookie had no way of knowing just how powerful those words would be.
Three straight losses turned into seven. That turned into 12. Then a franchise-record 15. So on and so on. Detroit proceeded to crumble in fourth quarters. The Pistons continued to turn the ball over at egregious rates in the beginning, middle and end of ball games. The rebuilding team that had never learned to win at this level looked up and realized it was in a predicament you only see once every few years at that. This is “deer in the headlights” in human form. No one has answers because, well, they only know losing at this level.
The last time Detroit won a game, the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers was tied at a game apiece. Since then, United Auto Workers ended a month-long strike. Rep. George Santos was expelled from Congress and started doing Cameos.
The Pistons haven’t won a basketball game since Oct. 28. That’s 46 days, 20 straight games without walking away victorious. How does that happen?
Well, how much time do you have?
Detroit’s disastrous season of today started 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 was supposed to be about group development. The “restoration,” as general manager Troy Weaver likes to call it, was going to propel forward with Cunningham, rookies Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey, veteran Bojan Bogdanović and a handful of other players the organization had high hopes for. It was supposed to be the seed planting for something special.
Cade Cunningham is back and ready to take Pistons to next stage of rebuild
Cunningham’s injury, though, essentially led to the Pistons punting on their season. His absence led to Detroit trying to capture lightning in a bottle and go after once-touted prospects in hopes of resurrecting their careers. The franchise transitioned from hoping to build continuity to, once again, prioritizing individual development.
Losing ensued. Players who could help Detroit be respectable on most nights started showing up on the injury report around the top of the calendar year. The result? The Pistons won just seven games from Jan. 1 until 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’s been a challenge for us,” Weaver told The Athletic in January when asked about how Cunningham’s injury impacted the team’s development. “I don’t know how many different starting lineups coach has had. From a team development standpoint, we haven’t been able to, for lack of better words, find an identity consistently. That’s been the challenge.”
Fast forward to October of this year, and Weaver, for the first time during this rebuild, put a finish line at the end of the season. He said the team expects to “play meaningful basketball” until the very end. But it’s December, and that already feels like a pipe dream.
Fans, though, needed words of encouragement after what they endured last season, but no one truly knew what the Pistons had coming into this season. Not the new coaching staff. Not the front office. Not ownership. This team was basically strangers to one another on a basketball court.
The Pistons have four players with All-Star potential — Cunningham, Ivey, Duren and Thompson — who will dictate if this historic franchise can return to relevancy. To date, those four have played 11 games together. Take out the rookie Thompson, and the slightly more seasoned trio has only played 20 games together due to various healthy reasons. There wasn’t enough of a sample size to suggest that Detroit was, indeed, 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 weren’t able to properly evaluate their group due to the injury to Cunningham. This year, Detroit’s front office opted to once again prioritize the development of the youth and see what it had home, with the expectations that a few veterans sprinkled in would help everyone be on track.
Instead, what Detroit got was a bunch of injured veterans and even more young players asked to do something that they’ve never done as professionals: win.
Bogdanović, one of the most efficient, high-usage offensive players in the NBA last year, has been mostly out of the picture due to a calf injury. He played his first game of the season on Dec. 2. Monté Morris, the veteran guard Detroit acquired this offseason, who was expected to be the adult in a very, very young backcourt room, hasn’t played all season due to injuries.
The one person who has been around the block as the Pistons’ losses have piled up is coach Monty Williams, who signed a massive contract this summer that could earn him up to $100 million. However — and he’ll be the first to tell you — even he has had a tough time figuring out his new team considering the youth and all of the injuries.
Monty Williams has turned around a franchise before. The Pistons will be different
Williams and his coaching staff have been slow to figure out what the best version of this team looks like. The Pistons had their best offensive showing of the season in Monday’s 131-123 loss to the Indiana Pacers, who aren’t a good defensive team by any means. However, the highest-scoring game of the season coincided with the first time Williams unleashed a small-ball, spacing-friendly lineup for Detroit (it happened due to injuries to Duren and Marvin Bagley III). It also coincided with him staggering Cunningham and Bogdanović together for the first time so that one was always on the court. It coincided with Ivey — who has struggled to find a role under Williams despite being one of the best rookies in the NBA last season — playing a season-high 34 minutes, which was only the third time this campaign he played more than 30 minutes.
“I think we’re starting to figure out that we can score when we space the floor properly,” Williams said after the Indiana loss. “I’m learning how to use certain guys on the team.”
It’s far too early to say if hiring Williams will or won’t work in the long run, but owner Tom Gores should have made sure that Williams was the right man at the right time rather than wanting to win the news conference and, in turn, handing out a contract that won’t be cheap to get out of if he learns this isn’t a good marriage.
As for the front office, they were a bit too premature in putting that finish line on this team before the season. There was nothing to suggest this team was ready to take a leap, even before the injuries hit. It also wouldn’t have hurt to try and turn one of the two big-man prospects Detroit has on its roster into proven forward depth.
Blame should be spread around, like Oprah Winfrey passes out cars. You don’t get to 20 straight losses without everyone having a hand in it.
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 doorstep of the wrong side of history.
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(Photo of Monty Williams: Jason Miller / Getty Images)