It’s not a curse. I swear, it isn’t. It’s not a curse that Detroit’s professional sports teams currently are mired in mediocrity, banished from the playoffs, stricken by injuries, haunted by history, dogged by untimely departures and destined to drop in every draft lottery even if they somehow snuck into league headquarters and stamped their logo on each %&$#@* ping-pong ball.
Oh, there are ample curse candidates, going all the way back to the Lions’ Bobby Layne, whose expired curse was immediately granted an extension by Matt Millen. The Wings had Darkness with Harkness in the ‘70s and the Pistons had Draft Darkness with Darko. But all the Ls in the standings actually are about two Ls — Leaders and Luck.
The Red Wings, Pistons, Lions and Tigers appear to be solving their leadership issues, and in fact, have finished pouring the cement on their rebuilds and are starting to rise. All they need are studs and stars. And a little luck would help.
Not to hyperbolize, but in the next three weeks, Detroit’s sports fortunes could change dramatically.
The Wings enter tonight’s NHL Draft lottery with the sixth-best odds (7.6 %) for the No. 1 pick, which could be Michigan 6-6 defenseman Owen Power. They have a 15.4% chance of landing in the top two. In the NBA lottery June 22, the Pistons are tied with Houston and Orlando for the best shot at No. 1 (14% each), with a 40.1% chance at a top-three pick.
It’s fun to hold a ticket as long as you don’t count on cashing in, especially around here, where the lottery misery is astounding. The Pistons have never moved up in 13 lottery appearances (the Darko Milicic pick was from Memphis). Since their 25-year playoff run ended, the Wings have dropped in each of the ensuing four lotteries.
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Naturally, the NHL changed its format too late, after the Wings posted the worst record last year and plummeted to No. 4, missing out on top prize Alexis Lafreniere. Steve Yzerman got a promising player anyhow in Lucas Raymond, just as he selected a promising player in Moritz Seider at No. 6 the previous season.
And that’s the point. You can’t plan for luck. You can hire competent leaders who aren’t waylaid by bad luck. In Yzerman, the Pistons’ Troy Weaver and the Lions’ Brad Holmes, we’re seeing shrewd aggressiveness. Al Avila has been a GM here longer and earns more criticism, but he did hire a top manager in AJ Hinch and the Tigers have the framework of a stellar pitching rotation.
If you simply pin misfortune on curses and cruddy luck, you let the franchises and owners off the hook. Sheila Ford Hamp got the message and revamped everything with the staid old Lions. Same with Tom Gores, who finally realized Stan Van Gundy actually did draft Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell, so he decided to hire a real front office. We’ll see if it’s the same with Chris Ilitch, who still has to earn his aggressiveness tag.
Yzerman didn’t lament when the Wings were jobbed by a lame system and he won’t complain if they end up with the sixth or seventh pick, the most likely scenario. It’s considered a balanced talent pool and two other Wolverines — forwards Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson — are rated in most top 10s.
The Tigers and Lions don’t have to worry as much because when you stink in the lottery-less MLB and NFL, you earn your rightful spot at the top of the stink pile. Where would the Tigers’ rebuild sit without No. 1 overall picks Casey Mize — fulfilling his enormous potential of late — and Spencer Torkelson, who’s heating up in the minors?
Collecting draft picks is one thing, using them correctly is that whole smart-leadership thing. For instance, it’s fruitful to have three NFL top-10 picks in seven years. It’s not quite as fruitful if you select a cornerback and multiple tight ends (although T.J. Hockenson could be a star). In his first spin in the GM chair, Holmes used the No. 7 pick on a cornerstone tackle, Penei Sewell, a classic case of not over-thinking an obvious choice.
There’s no doubt — NONE — that most of Detroit’s drafting woes have been self-inflicted. If you’re so inclined, trace it to the Curse of Darko, selected No. 2 in 2003. Since then, the Pistons have waded through a litany of Stanley Johnsons and Henry Ellensons. You waste a Lotto ticket, you don’t deserve another for a while.
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But the penance has been paid, right? It would be nice if the “Detroit Vs Everybody” slogan was just sarcasm, not a rallying cry. In Weaver’s first draft, the Pistons fell from the fifth-best odds to seventh. So what’d he do? Upped his wireless phone plan and starting dialing and dealing, ending up with three first-rounders — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey — and a second-rounder — Saben Lee — who immediately bolstered the roster. Bey, taken at No. 19, already is a premier shooter, and Dwane Casey is the ideal coach to guide a young team.
Of course, darn the luck, if the Pistons and Wings win the lotteries this time, it’s not a mega-millions jackpot. You want the No. 1 pick even as a trade asset, but there’s no transcendent prospect in the NBA and NHL talent pools.
Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham is the consensus No. 1 but not likely a franchise-changer, no LeBron James or Anthony Davis or Zion Williamson. He might not even be the Pistons’ choice, with USC 7-footer Evan Mobley a possibility. There are four or five prime prospects, so it’s no surprise the Pistons are most likely to draft fifth or sixth (47.9% chance). But the truth is, you don’t have to win the lottery to hit it big. Last year, Charlotte moved from No. 8 to No. 3 and nabbed the likely Rookie of the Year in LaMelo Ball.
Meanwhile, the Wings got jobbed so badly — the Rangers leapt from the qualifying round of the playoffs to No. 1 — the NHL altered its rules so the worst team can drop no lower than third. Beyond their own pick this summer, the Wings have the Capitals’ first-rounder (23 or 24), part of Yzerman’s thievery when he traded Anthony Mantha for Jakub Vrana.
Sorry to report, there’s only one way to avoid lottery misfortune — avoid the lottery. You know, build a team that makes the playoffs most seasons, instead of lining up to check your Lotto ticket. As the Wings and Pistons are learning, you can curse the alleged curses, or make your own luck.