Detroit Pistons avoid franchise's worst 50-game mark — which has roots in Dick Vitale
Rejoice! The Detroit Pistons’ road victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night left them at 13-37 on the season.
While that’s still the NBA’s second-worst record — 1½ games ahead of the Houston Rockets, who come to town Saturday — it avoided tying the franchise record for the worst 50-game start, set by three teams: The 1980-81, ’93-94 and ’21-22 Pistons all started 12-38, finishing with 21, 20 and 20 wins, respectively. Still, this year’s iteration tied the second-worst mark in franchise history, set by the 1979-80 squad that finished 16-66.
In celebration, or maybe to remind us the Pistons could always be worse, we examined how those four teams finished their dreadful campaigns. Of course, the Pistons play in a wildly different era than their predecessors; just consider the 3-pointer, which became official for the 1979-80 season. The next season, over their first 50 games, the Pistons hit five 3s on 37 attempts (their opponents hit 17 in 38 tries — 44.7% — over the same span.) This season, the Pistons have made at least five 3s in every game. Likewise, all four of the previous teams with the worst start lost at least 13 games in a row; this season’s worst skid topped out at seven games (Nov. 9-20).
There are still 32 games remaining, plenty of time to get another good streak going. But before that cold realization numbs you too much, let’s exhume the dumpster fires of yore, in hopes of finding a little warmth this chilly January weekend:
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The prelude: The first year under coach Dick Vitale — hired away from his nationally successful program at the University of Detroit — hardly went according to plan. The Pistons finished 30-52 (eight wins fewer than the previous season) and the team’s veteran talent defected through free agency. The last to leave was M.L. Carr; the forward signed a five-year, $1.7 million deal with the Celtics in late July, leaving 1970 No. 1 overall pick Bob Lanier as the only Piston with more than three years experience. As part of the NBA’s free agency compensation system, and looking to restock the roster — at least in the paint — Vitale and co-owner Bill Davidson worked out a deal with Boston general manager Red Auerbach: Two 1980 first-rounders (which ended up being Nos. 1 and 13) and Carr for Bob McAdoo, who was making $500,000 a year but wanted out of Boston. Vitale hyped the trade, telling the Free Press: “The fans around here are tired of hearing coaches talk about, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.’ Bob McAdoo is today. And by getting him, the Piston prove they are serious about making this a better team. Now we are a playoff contender.”
The first 50: Of course, while McAdoo had wanted a trade, he hadn’t wanted to go to Detroit in August, telling the Freep, “I don’t want to play there because they got rid of their good players, the guys I know can play. … It would be nice to play with Bob Lanier, but you’ve got to have more than a center and a forward.” Unfortunately for the Pistons, McAdoo knew what he was talking about. Over the Pistons’ first 50 games, he averaged 21.3 points and 8.4 rebounds a game — well off his career averages of 27.4 and 12.2. Lanier averaged 20 and 9.2, off a bit from his previous career averages of 22.8 and 11.9. The Pistons opened with wins in three of their first four, then lost seven of eight, culminating in a five-game skid. The next day, 12 games into his second season, Vitale was fired. The reason? Co-owner Oscar Feldman put it on Vitale’s personality, saying, “I don’t think the maximum was being gotten out of the players. I think we have the best overall talent we’ve had in the six years we’ve owned the club.” Assistant Richie Adubato didn’t fare much better; after winning his first game, he dropped four straight, followed soon after by a 3-23 run. But changes were afoot. In mid-December, Davidson and Feldman hired Jack McCloskey, formerly an L.A. Lakers assistant and Portland Trail Blazers head coach, as general manager. Soon after, Lanier requested a trade to a contender, then suffered a broken hand.
The final 32: Lanier’s injury froze an agreed-upon deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, set to bring back 1977 No. 1 overall pick Kent Benson and the 1980 No. 17 pick, which became Larry Drew. Finally, with the hand healed in early February, the deal went through. Benson averaged 12.1 points and 7.1 rebounds in his 17 games as a Piston. McAdoo, meanwhile, suffered a steep decline without Lanier; in 15 games (Jan. 25-March 4), he averaged 17.5 points and 5.4 rebounds before pulling a muscle in his stomach. And the losses kept piling up. Game 51 was a win, but the next 13 — covering all but a few hours of February — were not, to set a franchise record for consecutive losses that would last … two months. The Pistons won just once more, on March 5, and lost their final 14 games for the new record, and a 3-29 mark to close the season.
The aftermath: The Pistons’ overall 16-66 record was enough for the No. 1 pick in the days before the draft lottery — a full eight games worse than the next worst team — but the Pistons’ pick rested with Golden State, dealt to the Warriors along with the Pistons’ other pick (Rickey Brown) for four-year veteran Robert Parrish and the Warriors’ No. 3 overall pick: Kevin McHale. That duo were future Hall of Famers; the Pistons, meanwhile, were left with the No. 17 pick, Larry Drew, who averaged 6.6 points in 76 games with the Pistons during the 1980-81 season.
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The prelude: McCloskey had some work to do; his biggest offseason move was hiring coach Scotty Robertson, who brought 15 games of experience as the then-New Orleans Jazz’s first coach. The coaching search took more than two months, stymied by McCloskey’s pursuit of at least three others: Blazers coach Jack Ramsay, former Lakers coach Jack McKinney and a top Philadelphia 76ers assistant … Chuck Daly. Robertson was optimistic at his June 5 news conference: “I think we’re a better team than 16 victories. There are a lot of skeptics who don’t think we are. Let’ show ‘em.” One of those skeptics? McCloskey, who responded with a laugh, “Frankly, I think he’s a lot higher on our personnel than I am.”
The first 50: Benson and Drew combined to average 23 points and 10 rebounds in 54.9 minutes a game over the Pistons’ first 50 games. McAdoo was injured again and appeared in five of the 50 (and averaged 14.4 points). Still, there were signs of progress; after ending the 1979-80 season on a 14-game skid and opening ’80-81 with seven straight losses — a span of 232 days without a win — the Pistons managed to keep the losing streaks to no more than five games … until January 1981, when they dropped nine straight. Still, even that brought some dim light into the darkness; facing the NBA-leading Philadelphia 76ers (41-8), with 8,584 in attendance at the 22,366-seat Pontiac Silverdome, the Pistons triumphed on the second night of a back-to-back, 83-75. “We’ve got eight guys with character and a little heart now,” Robertson told the Freep, after the shocking win over Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins.
The final 32: One guy the Pistons wouldn’t have for much longer — McAdoo, who went scoreless in 10 minutes in the next game, then didn’t play again until he was waived on March 11. The move saved the franchise approximately $47,000. It was a rough end to a saga that saw McAdoo declare he was healthy in February, only to be benched and then sent home when he complained about taunting from fans, then threaten a union grievance if he wasn’t allowed to play. All of it — and the bath on his contract taken by the Pistons — was summed up in one word by Feldman: “Horrendous.” The rest of the Pistons weren’t much better, with just nine wins the rest of the way — including an eight-game losing streak from Jan. 26-Feb. 8 — to finish 21-61, better than only the Dallas Mavericks (15-67).
The aftermath: Perhaps the Pistons’ biggest win of the season came more than a month after their final game — and it was still a loss: The NBA flipped a coin on April 30 to determine whether the worst team in the East (Detroit) or the West (Dallas) would get the No. 1 pick. The Mavs won the toss, giving them their choice of the top underclassmen to declare — DePaul’s Mark Aguirre, Indiana’s Isiah Thomas or Maryland’s Buck Williams — with an eye on the power games of Aguirre (the eventual No. 1 pick) or Williams. That left Thomas — and his 12 future All-Star nods and two NBA titles — for the Pistons to scoop up.
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The prelude: Thomas’ arrival in 1981 heralded a streak of nine straight playoff appearances (1984-92) that ended in 1993, the franchise’s first season since 1979 without either McCloskey or Daly. After head coach Ron Rothstein, was fired following a tumultuous 40-42 season, assistant Don Chaney was elevated to the top spot, with hopes that a former NBA Coach of the Year (1991, Houston Rockets) would bring a blast from the past.
The first 50: The Pistons were indeed blasted by the past, in that the ages of Thomas (in his 12th season), Joe Dumars (eighth season) and Bill Laimbeer (13th season) — and all the extra postseason games they played in, including five straight East finals trips and three straight NBA Finals berths — began to show. Thomas missed two weeks in November with a broken hand, then two weeks in late December and early January with a strained arch and a dislocated toe; Dumars missed four games with a hamstring strain and never got fully healthy; and Laimbeer realized just after Thanksgiving — 11 games into the season — he didn’t have it anymore and abruptly retired. Without their leaders, and with rookie guards Allan Houston and Lindsey Hunter not quite ready to carry the load, the losses piled up: First, an eight-game skid that started the day before Thanksgiving, then, on Dec. 20, a 14-game streak that lasted more than a month and tied the franchise’s single-season record, culminating in a 32-point loss to the woeful Bucks, who themselves were 11-32 entering the game. Only a win in Miami the next game kept the streak from hitting 21, as the Pistons then lost their final six games of January.
The final 32: Games 51-52 were a bad omen, as the Pistons split a home-and-home with the dreadful Mavericks (they’d finish with 13 wins) to start another seven-game skid. After a mid-March run that saw the Pistons win five of six, they won two of their final 18 games to end the season 20-62. Even the home finale (ahead of three final road games) — a de facto farewell party for Thomas featuring 60 of his guests in attendance — wound up a depressing affair: With 98 seconds left in the third quarter, Thomas tore his right Achilles tendon driving past Penny Hardaway. Still, Thomas was stoic in his postgame interview: “I left it on the floor, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” the 32-year-old told reporters. “I left my heart, my soul, my guts on the floor. I left everything on the court. I gave everything to this sport and this team, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
The aftermath: All that losing landed the Pistons the No. 2 spot in the draft lottery, once again behind the Mavs. No coin flip for the top pick this time, just a ping-pong ball drawing among the 11 worst teams. The Pistons, who’d had a 16.4% chance at No. 1, dropped to No. 3, with the Mavs getting knocked to No. 2. Luckily for the Pistons, two Hall of Famers went in the top three of the draft: Cal point guard Jason Kidd at No. 2 and Duke forward Grant Hill at No. 3. Hill and Kidd split Rookie of the Year honors the next season, and Hill lifted the Pistons to the playoffs in four of his seasons in Detroit.
The prelude: After decades of lousy luck, the Pistons finally hit it big, getting the lottery combo that moved them from No. 2 to No. 1 for Cade Cunningham.
The first 50: Luck? What’s that? Cunningham promptly missed almost all of the preseason with an ankle sprain, as well as the first four games of the regular season (all Pistons losses). His debut Oct. 30 brought a win … followed by four more losses. But the real skid hit in mid-November, as the Pistons dropped 14 straight (seven by double digits), then — after avoiding setting the single-season franchise record with a win over the Heat — lost four more. By mid-December, the Pistons were suffering from a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak, taking the roster down to three NBA veterans — Saddiq Bey (in his second season), Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson — and five scrubs. Eventually, the Pistons’ starters returned, as did the losses: seven of nine games to get to Game 50 (yes, a loss) on Feb. 1.
The final 32: Buoyed by a rapidly improving Cunningham in March, the Pistons did something they hadn’t in nearly three years: Win three games in a row. They strung together wins over the Raptors, Pacers and Hawks in early March, then did it again against the 76ers, Thunder and Pacers from March 31-April 3. Cunningham averaged 19.7 points, 5.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds over the final 32 (albeit while missing eight games), and the squad nearly matched their win total from the first 50, going 11-21 to finish 23-59.
The aftermath: That surge, if you will, kept the Pistons at No. 3 in the draft lottery, with a 14% shot at No. 1. But instead, they dropped to No. 5, as the Thunder and Kings jumped ahead of them. Draft night brought Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, a trade for teen center Jalen Duren and a host of plaudits from pundits issuing draft grades. Unfortunately for the Pistons, the summer didn’t bring a healthy shin for Cunningham; he played just 12 games this season to drop the Pistons into a run at the franchise record for losses once again.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: NBA Detroit Pistons avoid worst 50-game mark — tie Dick Vitale's team