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The Pistons are bad, but are they historically bad?

Investigating where the Pistons rank among the worst in franchise history

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons have now lost 11 games in a row.

The latest, a shellacking at the hands of the also-bad New Orleans Pelicans, was another particularly ugly loss. It’s the third time in as many games that the Pistons built a big lead only to be outworked and overwhelmed in the second half.

GM Troy Weaver is selling the fanbase on restoring the mentality and mindset of the championship teams of the past. So far this season, we’ve seen none of that.

The Pistons are bad, unequivocally. The question is how bad?

Through 25 games, they’re the worst in franchise history, at least according to Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), a team rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. For reference, a zero is average.

This team is -9.29... yikes.

But are they really the worst? After talking with resident Pistons Twitter historian @Charlottean28 (follow him if you have not!), it’s not quite as simple as being really bad 25 or so games into the season.

We’ll start with today.

These Pistons are bad at everything. They’re 29th in OFF RTG and 23rd in DEF RTG. Their NET RTG is -9.6 and only better than the -10.8 of the Orlando Magic. The numbers align with the record, but the record itself isn’t even the worst part about this season.

This was never going to be a competitive team, no matter what the organization said or what idiots (like myself) thought in the preseason. This was, and is, another attempt to tank their way to a top pick in order to land one of Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero or Jabari Smith.

So far, so good on that front. This is tanking.

But, what made last year’s tank so palatable was that the team played their asses off. The young guys showed tangible improvement throughout a rough season. It felt like they were building something the right way, not just losing because their players stunk.

Well, this year, it feels like everyone stinks. That’s the difference.

The Pistons’ losing streak has exacerbated these feelings of anger and frustration from the fanbase. The organization’s longest losing streak actually dates back to the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons when Detroit dropped 21-consecutive games.

Let’s start there.


Detroit Pistons v New Jersey Nets
Bob McAdoo, a former NBA MVP, led the Pistons to the worst record in team history in 1979.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 1979-80 team was pathetic, finishing with a 16-66 record. They lost 14 of those 21 consecutive games to end the season, one that started under the tutelage of Dick Vitale (yes, that one) and ended under Richie Adubato.

Interim coaches are rarely a solution.

Adubato wasn’t a good head coach — his 115-182 record outside Detroit confirms it — but the locker room he inherited was untenable. Despite having two future Hall of Famers in Bob Lanier and Bob McAdoo, the Pistons had chemistry issues.

McAdoo went from winning an MVP and playing in NBA All-Star Games to wallowing on this terrible team in Detroit. He wasn’t loving it. He didn’t report the following season and was eventually waived after a cavalcade of injuries and infighting. Meanwhile Lanier, one of the franchise’s greatest players, was productive for some meaningless Pistons teams in the 70s and it was always known that he unhappy with the team.

Detroit finally cut ties midway through the 79-80 season, trading him to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Those Pistons could score, though. McAdoo averaged 21.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while John Long pitched in with 19.4 points per game. The team had no clear alpha at point guard, splitting duties between Jim McElroy and Eric Money.

Greg Kelser, the Pistons current color commentator, averaged 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds as a rookie on that team. His knees would betray him the next year and his career would end shortly after.

They couldn’t defend a lick, though. Detroit had one of the worst defenses in the league. Combine that with the chemistry issues, the in-over-his-head coach and the Lanier/McAdoo duo combing for just 95 games total and you can see why they finished eight games worse in the loss column than any other team in the NBA.


Detroit Pistons v Washington Bullets
Don Chaney’s .293 Win% is the worst in Pistons’ history amongst head coaches with more than one season at the helm.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The other contender is the 1993-94 team. I have a theory here, but we’ll get to that later.

That season was the end of the Bad Boys era, though you could say Michael Jordan put an end to it a few years earlier in 1991. Either way, this team was terrible.

Don Chaney, coming off a run as the Houston Rockets head coach where he was named NBA Coach of the Year, flopped in his two seasons in Detroit. The Pistons win total was cut in half from the previous year, dropping from 40 wins to 20 wins in his debut.

If Adubato was the worst coach in Pistons history, Chaney might have been second with John Kuester and Earl Loyd in a close race for third.

You still had the Bad Boys’ mainstays like Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. The latter two were on their way out pretty much as soon as the season started. Laimbeer called it quits and retired a month in as the losses piled up.

Thomas, in what was his final season, battled injuries and ineffectiveness all year as he came into camp out of shape. He hyperextended a knee, broke a rib, strained an arch, injured a calf and cut his left hand before suffering a torn Achilles in his final home game.

That left Joe Dumars — still playing like an All-Star and scoring 20 points per game — with a combination of young guys and journeyman. Dudes like Olden Polynice averaged 13.1 points and 12.3 rebounds while Terry Mills did his thing with 17 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Lindsey Hunter was a rookie, averaging a modest 10.3 points and 4.8 assists per game while fellow rookie Allan Houston endured a rough season.

There were pieces, but again, a toxic locker room and a coach who couldn’t handle it. The real villain here was Sean Elliott, traded to the Pistons for Dennis Rodman. Elliott loved playing for the San Antonio Spurs, he still works for the team today, and a combination of mailing it in and kidney issues doomed his tenure in Detroit.

The Pistons even tried to cut bait in 1995 but a trade with the Rockets fell through because he failed a physical.

Coincidentally, after two rough years in Detroit, Elliott picked up right where he left off in San Antonio when the Pistons traded him back to the Spurs in 1994 where he helped lead them to a 62-win season before putting up a career-best 20 points per game the following year.


Washington Wizards v Detroit Pistons
Tanking isn’t fun, but knowing you may have an ace in your hand with Cade Cunningham is better than chasing that first one in the draft.
Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Soooooo, yeah.

Bad coach + bad locker room + lacking talent = worst team.

That’s my formula, I’m sticking to it.

Here’s that theory I was talking about with today’s team and the ‘94 team.

That Pistons team stunk, and so did the next one in 1994-95. The difference was the latter had found its golden goose in Grant Hill. They had the next star in place alongside a few young guys who showed promise the previous year. Hill was really good as a rookie, but not good enough to lift the Pistons as a team.

However, the next season, they won 46 games and lost in the first round.

The teal era, as the kids like to call it, really didn’t yield much. They never won anything.

But it shows that even the worst teams can find a way to move forward. The 1979 team, in my estimation the most miserable team in franchise history, was on the right track two years later because they landed the No. 2 overall pick and drafted Isiah Thomas.

The current Pistons aren’t good.

I think they’ll be better once Kelly Olynyk returns next month. I don’t think they’ll break the 21-game losing streak record. They won’t be the worst team in league history, despite what some of y’all are screaming on Twitter dot com.

The Pistons have young guys who’ve shown promise right now, despite their struggles.

They have their Grant Hill, their Isiah Thomas, the guy they will build around for (hopefully) years to come. They have a coach in Dwane Casey, despite his warts, who is leaps and bounds better than Adubato and Chaney.

And they don’t have a toxic locker room. Based on what’s reported and what we see on the court, these guys genuinely seem to like each other. We’ve seen what a bad locker room looks like, most recently under John Kuester in 2013 when there was a FREAKING MUTINY!

It sucks right now, I know. But this isn’t the worst team in franchise history. It’s just bad.

And we’re gonna have to deal with it because this is what a rebuild feels like. Buckle up.

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