From championship contenders to historical cellar dwellers, the Detroit Pistons' descent from grace is a cautionary tale of miscalculated moves, squandered talent, and a broken organizational culture
I moved to the Detroit area in the summer of 2005. When I arrived the Detroit Pistons had just beat the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and were headed to their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance. For people in my generation, the Pistons were a gold standard of NBA success. From 1987-2008 the team only missed the playoffs 5 times. In fact, the Pistons rank 4th in Conference Finals appearances behind only the Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs. In other words, the Pistons are right there with teams that are associated with the word dynasty.
Since 2010, the franchise has hit hard times. The team has only made the playoffs twice and has not won a playoff game in that span, let alone a playoff series. The Pistons have only won 36% of their games since then, which is the worst in the league. As of this writing, the Pistons have lost 23 games in a row this season and are heading towards surpassing the infamous 2016 “Trust the Process” 76ers who lost 26 games in a row. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that things will get better in Detroit, which is a true shame for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.
The Disassembly of a Team
Dismantling a team that has had tremendous success in any sport is always difficult. There is a history of overcoming adversity throughout an organization and relationships that are built. More often than not, these teams are kept together longer than they probably should. We are seeing this manifest this season with the Golden State Warriors for instance. It is even more difficult when your successful run is defined by not having elite superstars on the roster. The Detroit Pistons of the 2000s enjoyed a run of success that led to a championship in 2004 and 8 consecutive seasons of 50+ win seasons, and a stretch of 6 seasons where they reached the Eastern Conference Finals. They were a team that was defined by a collection of talent as opposed to the magnificent exploits of a superstar. A dynamic that is infectious for a fan base.
This era of Pistons basketball was known as the “Going to Work” era. In the absence of a true superstar, the team was defined by players that had been discarded by other teams. Chauncey Billups played for 4 teams in 4 years before arriving in Detroit, Rasheed Wallace was considered damaged goods after the “Jail Blazer” era in Portland, and Ben Wallace was written off as an undersized center that went undrafted. But a commitment to defense and timely shots from Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Rip Hamilton was a formula for success for the Pistons. In a city like Detroit, a group of overachievers finding success plays very well. The city is often counted out and defined by its grittiness, and this team embodied that.
That very same embodiment is what made it so difficult to know when to hit the reset button. After 2005, the inevitable rise of LeBron James was coming and Dwyane Wade was making the Miami Heat a formidable foe. The cracks started to appear when Ben Wallace, the team’s defensive anchor and soul of the Pistons signed with Chicago in free agency. The nail was truly in the coffin when Chauncey Billups, the teams floor general and clutch shot maker was traded to Denver for Allen Iverson, in a move that felt incredibly uncharacteristic of that era of Pistons basketball.
The Iverson experiment was a disaster, resulting in his fewest points per game until that point in his career. The mistake that the Pistons made was not realizing that it was time to rebuild, and not reload. The team opted for the latter, however, signing players like Josh Smith, Ben Gordon, and Charlie Villaneuva to try and continue competitiveness. They even tried a big swing for Blake Griffin that led to one playoff appearance in 4 seasons. These failed moves have led to 8 different head coaches in the last 14 years. What fans have been left with is a team that feels aimless, directionless, and void of any positive takeaways.
A Culture of Ineptitude
Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Khris Middleton have all carved out respectable, if not excellent, NBA careers. All four of them were drafted by the Pistons and traded elsewhere before they fully realized their potential. The way that the Pistons have handled their draft picks is a symptom of just how badly run the organization has been. The team passed on Tyrese Haliburton and Devin Vassell to draft Killian Hayes. The future of the franchise Cade Cunningham has disappointed when compared to other players taken after him like Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, and Franz Wagner. Much of this can be attributed to the chaotic nature of the team and the culture of losing that has become the norm, that has hindered prospect after prospect from developing.
The Pistons have always been a formidable team in the NBA when they have an identity. The “Bad Boy” era was defined by attitude and the “Going to Work” era was defined by toughness. Both teams were a reflection of the city of Detroit, one that feels counted out with a built-in underdog mentality when compared to other markets like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Currently, the identity of the Detroit Pistons is bad basketball and losing a lot of basketball games. The hiring of Monty Williams was supposed to be the elixir, just as the hiring of Dwayne Casey before him was supposed to be. Instead, the team is racing towards historical infamy.
In 4 of their past 5 games, the Pistons have lost by at least 18 points. They are not only being beaten, they are being dominated. Looking at the team's current roster it is a bin of spare parts, with journeymen likely biding their time before their next contract is up. The team also has young players like Jaden Ivey that have been lost in the shuffle, which is confusing considering he was a high lottery pick only a couple of years ago. It seems that Ausar Thompson, Marcus Sasser, and Jalen Duren are positive building blocks, and yet they are limited in their ability to get more meaningful playing time due to the nature of the roster construction and who is getting the minutes on this team.
The Pistons are a proud franchise and organization that has hit the darkest of dark times. It is a shame to see this level of on court product for an organization that has meant so much in the history of the modern NBA. This was the team that was the final roadblock that Jordan had to face before he ascended, it is the team that ended the Lakers dynasty with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. But today they are wandering aimlessly, and will continue to lose games in an increasingly embarrassing fashion, likely contending for the worst record of all-time when it’s all said and done. And that is the true tragedy of it all, because this city, team, and fanbase deserve so much better. They deserve a team with a pulse, something that they have not had in Detroit for over a decade and counting.