It’s one of the Detroit Pistons’ worst seasons ever. What happened?

Detroit Free Press

HOUSTON — In late September, Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver declared the franchise had finally reached “ground zero.” The bad contracts were off the books, the roster was stocked with young talent and veteran leadership and the franchise was prepared to take a step forward after several years of work.

Six months later — with just one week remaining in the 2022-23 season — there is seemingly just one question from the outside looking in: What happened?

The Pistons are 16-61; it’s not only the NBA’s worst record, but tied for the fewest wins in franchise history (with the 1979-80 Pistons, who lost their final 14 games, setting the franchise record for consecutive losses in a season). They haven’t just been bad — they’ve been historically bad.

At least, with only five games remaining, and the Pistons riding an eight-game losing streak, they can’t match that 14-game skid (which was also matched by the Pistons during the 1993-94 and 2021-22 seasons). Those ’93-94 and ’21-22 Pistons finished with the second-fewest wins in franchise history, at 20 (as did the 2019-20 Pistons). Still, unless this year’s squad closes with a five-game winning streak, it will finish with its second-worst record ever.

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Friday’s 121-115 loss to the Houston Rockets leaves the franchise with losses in 19 of its past 20 games. The Pistons are continuing to look at the big picture as losses pile, but this certainly isn’t what they expected going into the season.

“You don’t want to get used to losing,” Marvin Bagley III said after the game. “I don’t care whatever it is, where we’re at in the standings. We don’t care about none of that. We want to win. That’s where we are.”

A confluence of factors can be blamed for Detroit’s historically bad season. Here’s how we got here.

A catastrophic injury

The Pistons’ season will officially end April 9, when they play the Bulls in Chicago. But one could argue their season actually ended on Dec. 16, 2022 — the day Cade Cunningham underwent surgery on his left shin, with just 12 games played this season.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2021 out of Oklahoma State, Cunningham had been dealing with persistent shin soreness, which the Pistons eventually identified as a stress fracture. Cunningham played his last game on Nov. 9.

As a rookie, Cunningham quickly became a leader both on and off the floor. Already arguably the best player on the roster, he was poised to be the focal point of Detroit’s game plan this season. His combination of playmaking, scoring and floor spacing — and even occasional shutdown defense — was impossible to replace on short notice.

“The Cade injury really hurt us and it changed our season,” Pistons forward Bojan Bogdanovic said in January. “He was our leader and the main guy on the floor. Our strategy offensively and defensively was based around him.”

His brief time on the court this season serve as a reminder that despite his youth, he’s still a productive player. He opened the season with 18 points and 10 assists against the Orlando Magic in Oct. 19’s season-opening win. A little over a week later, he tallied 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 28. Two days after that, he had 23 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a win over the Golden State Warriors.

Without Cunningham’s steady hand, the Pistons had to rely on rookie Jaden Ivey and third-year guard Killian Hayes (as well as veteran Cory Joseph). Although Ivey’s passing has improved, the results from the young guard duo have been mixed. Ivey has been turnover-prone, and Hayes had two hot months as a scorer — November and March — surrounded by months of familiar struggles.

Hayes and Ivey have grown. But that hasn’t translated directly to wins.

“We knew it was going to be ugly, we knew it was going to be tough when you start as many rookies and play as many rookies big minutes, and playing through some of the mistakes we’re playing through,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said Friday. “It’s going to be tough. We don’t have Bogey and Alec (Burks). “I didn’t expect it to be pretty. I think our guys are playing hard, they’re competing, trying to do the right thing and this league is unforgiving when you don’t.”

Too level a playing field

A record 26 teams entered Monday still in the postseason hunt. The NBA’s basement has never been this small. Even a few days after that, just three NBA teams — the Pistons, the Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs— still had fewer than 20 wins. Of the league’s 30 teams, 25 have at least 32 wins entering the final week of the season. There’s a wide gulf between the rebuilding teams and, well, everyone else.

Almost every game, the Pistons have faced a team with at least one All-Star, all without one of their own, past or present. They’re one of five teams without a player with at least one All-Star nod. The others: The Rockets, the Spurs, the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz. All teams are on pace to miss the postseason.

Then again, not even having an All-Star guarantees a trip to the playoffs (or the play-in tournament for seed Nos. 7-10). The Dallas Mavericks, led by Luka Doncic and (recent addition) Kyrie Irving, are 37-40, outside of the play-in in the West. At least the Pistons have fared better against teams closer to the bottom: Their two most recent wins came against teams also positioned to miss the postseason — the Indiana Pacers (who were without 2023 All-Star Tyrese Haliburton on March 13) and the Spurs (in a double-overtime thriller back on Feb. 10).

Adding injury to insults

On Dec. 31, 2022, the Pistons were 10-29 overall — not great, but still on pace for 21 wins this season. But since New Year’s Day, Detroit has just six wins in 38 games. And it’s largely because of their injury report.

Bogdanovic, Detroit’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game, hasn’t played since March 1 due to left Achilles tendinopathy. Alec Burks — their other veteran scorer, who led the bench unit — has sat since March 7 with left foot soreness. Likewise, injuries have knocked out Hamidou Diallo, Rodney McGruder and Isaiah Stewart for extended periods, while Ivey and Isaiah Livers have missed time before returning.

The open minutes have let the Pistons evaluate some of their late-season acquisitions, such as trade-deadline picku James Wiseman and free agents R.J. Hampton and Eugene Omoruyi. But it’s tough to win while operating in evaluation mode. Bogdanovic, Burks, Diallo and Stewart are all unlikely to play again this season, completely depleting Detroit’s depth.

The Pistons exuded confidence in September, but their 2022-23 campaign has highlighted what’s needed in their “restoring” — as Weaver put it upon his hiring in 2020 — and how small the margin for error is in the NBA. Nearly every team has star power. The Pistons don’t. The other teams that don’t have some depth. Injuries have cost the Pistons even that cold comfort.

Now, with the season nearly over, they’re left waiting to move on.

“Same message we’ve been having all year,” Casey said after Friday’s game. “Same message as far as learning, getting better, competing, playing hard. No matter what you do, make sure it’s hard. I wish I could give them the experience to say, ‘OK, we have five or six years of experience in late game situations.’ You can talk about it, show it, go through it in practice but nothing duplicates going over and over and over again. That’s what our guys are going through now. It’s not an excuse.”

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