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How Did Detroit Basketball Get Reduced to This?

The Pistons have somehow lost a staggering 27 straight games, setting a new NBA record for futility. What’s even more chilling about their demise? Nobody could have seen this coming.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In one depressing sense, it was a fitting scene at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. On the precipice of something truly historic, the entire Brooklyn Nets lineup played out the final three minutes of the game as though each player were auditioning for the role of Brutus—you know, if Julius Caesar weren’t the archetypal dictator and more of, like, a legendary pincushion. Each of the Nets’ final five field goal attempts in their 118-112 win over the Detroit Pistons was a 3-pointer. Nets players were all too eager to be the one to land the finishing blow, less to drive the Pistons deeper into ignominy and more to make sure they wouldn’t be the ones to let history off the hook. It was Dorian Finney-Smith who ultimately delivered the dagger: a corner 3 to bring the lead up to five with 39 seconds remaining.

With that, the Pistons’ fate was sealed: Tuesday’s crushing defeat brings them to an unfathomable 27 consecutive losses, the longest single-season losing streak in NBA history. It seems, cosmically, as though Lady Justice has made her ruling: Between the Lions and Wolverines, Detroit-area football may reign as long as Detroit’s basketball team flirts with being the worst in history. Scales don’t lie.

It’s an undoubted low point in one of the league’s great and storied franchises, yet those who flipped on League Pass on Tuesday expecting a burning car crash were treated to a legitimately compelling basketball game—and one of the best second-half performances from any player all season. Cade Cunningham turned in arguably the strongest game of his young career (41 points on 71.7 percent shooting, nine rebounds, and five assists), showing all the promise of a true three-level offensive player: deep range, assuredness in the midrange, touch, and the ability to finish through contact in the restricted area. Cunningham played the entire second half, scoring 35 points after the break and turning the ball over only once in those 24 minutes. It was a proud display of talent in a game that should have stripped away the tattered remains of what was left. These are the kinds of moments worth keeping in mind and the kind of performance that has you sympathizing with Cade. There is a cognitive dissonance that he’s acknowledged, that the Pistons are entombed within these days: This team is bad, sure, but it isn’t that bad.

“We wanted to be competing every day, a chance for the play-in, playoffs. We wanted our players to grow. That would have been success for us,” Pistons owner Tom Gores told the media last week after the team’s 25th consecutive loss; deafening chants of sell the team had essentially forced Gores to address the public. “That’s what we discussed. We knew that we had a lot of growing to do. Those were the expectations: to compete, grow, and be near the playoffs. That’s how you grow the most. Make no mistake about it, that was the expectations.”

Gores’s words sound pat given how things have played out, yet it’s not too difficult to imagine the many alternate timelines in which the team’s expectations more or less fell into place accordingly. In losing to the Nets, these Pistons have leapfrogged the 2013-14 76ers and the 2010-11 Cavaliers in the all-time losing ranks, which feels … wrong. This team isn’t a radical sociological pressure test the way the Process Sixers were. It isn’t the Christian Eyenga–era Cavaliers, who emerged as the last remaining life-forms from the crater that a LeBron-sized asteroid imprinted on the franchise in 2010. In design, the Pistons are not an exceptional cautionary tale. That’s what makes this historic losing streak so chilling. This timeline that the Pistons find themselves in is far closer to home for most of the league’s have-nots than they would care to admit.

Teams hemorrhage points all the time by playing their reserves too much, especially when they don’t have a healthy or viable backup point guard. Teams love trying their hand at reclamation projects. Teams constantly overvalue their aging role players and misread the trade market as a result (that both Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks are still Pistons is beyond me—yet, for the sake of winning enough to evade WOAT conversations, can they even afford to trade Bogdanovic at this point?). The Pistons have been a step slow at every structural level—from ownership to the front office to the coaches to the players—to adapt to the challenges of this season. This season, of course, is in the middle of the biggest offensive boom in league history, and Detroit enters the arena on a nightly basis with a roster full of players who can’t shoot. These are common issues. If it can happen to these Pistons, it can happen to anyone in this era.

The optimist in me can’t help but think about the little things that could easily nudge the team off the course leading to the worst team in NBA history, even without major cosmetic changes at the deadline or front office ousters. Things like Cunningham’s continued development in the face of abject failure (à la Devin Booker). Or the growth of Jalen Duren, who made an immediate impact in his return from injury. At some point, hometown hero Monte Morris will make his Pistons debut, and his bulletproof assist-to-turnover ratio will cut into some of their ball-security woes, right? But the shame of this moment will invariably lead to something more drastic, as it probably should. GM Troy Weaver hasn’t held up his end of the bargain as an architect, favoring big bones rather than good bones, depriving Cunningham of the proper foundation on which to grow as a modern initiator. For what it’s worth, Monty Williams took full responsibility for these 27 consecutive losses (unfortunately, his admission sure as hell isn’t worth a record $13 million a year).

“Nobody wants this kind of thing attached to them. I was brought in here to change this thing, and it’s probably the most on me than anybody,” Williams told reporters after the game. “The players are playing their hearts out. I got to get them in a position where they don’t feel tight or heavy. But it’s where we are. That’s the reality of the situation.”

That heaviness is palpable. There was a collective groan in the arena when Mikal Bridges hit his familiar slanted pull-up to give Brooklyn its first lead of the game with seven minutes left in the second quarter. The overwhelming sense of fatalism 17 minutes into the game was surreal, mirroring the fragility of the team’s resolve leading up to Tuesday night. Over the past 10 or so games of this recurring nightmare, there’s been a point each night when belief seems to leave the body of every Piston on the floor. That pessimism fortunately never quite manifested against the Nets at home, which is something, even if it didn’t result in the only thing that really mattered. There is nothing this team can do to absolve itself of the dubious record it has set, and certainly not much can be done to keep this from feeling like the culmination of the past 15 years of front office ineptitude. What’s left to wonder is how the Pistons might metabolize the pressure of this historic losing streak moving forward compared to how they played in the moment on Tuesday night, with the weight of history not yet made, with their destiny still subject to change. Now that they are living history, will it be as heavy to fight against themselves as it was to fight the looming record? Or is there a strange sort of freedom in that?

“This is painful,” longtime Pistons announcer Greg Kelser said at the end of the Detroit broadcast. Special K is one of the longest-tenured broadcast analysts left in the business, having called Pistons games across four decades, through triumph and tribulation. But this—this seemingly endless trifle, layer after layer of soul-rotting losses—is something new altogether, even for him. And as the time on the clock dwindled, you could understand the numbness in his tone: “No one could have anticipated this.”