Edwards: After 20-game skid, Pistons are on the wrong side of history

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DETROIT – Some faces were defeated, others in shock. Some eyes looked towards the ground, others looked into the abyss. The only noise heard was that of the players taking off their shoes. The spirit of a young and vibrant basketball team, the Detroit Pistons, heard just hours before, was absorbed by each and every one of them and now lay next to the dirty laundry in the locker room.

It was November 1, and the respectable Pistons (2-2), who had only lost to last year's Eastern Conference champions, the Miami Heat, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, current No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, They were welcoming the Portlanders. Trailblazers. That night, the Pistons had a 15-point lead seconds into the third quarter. They had dominated in all aspects. For another 24 minutes, the Pistons showed that they were no longer in the same discussions as the bottom of the NBA. It seemed to be a great bounce-back response to the loss a few days earlier to the Thunder. Something that would make a good team.

Then, in the snap of a finger, Detroit returned to a sunken place. It happened so suddenly. The Pistons turned the ball over 10 times in the final 24 minutes of the game. They made just two of their 13 3-point attempts, while allowing the Trail Blazers to make every other shot they took. It was almost as if the Pistons were hypnotized into believing things were better, like waking up from a good dream. Instead, they found themselves back in the nightmare that had kept them awake for the past year, and with some changes.

“There was a change of energy,” Pistons wing Ausar Thompson said after the game.

At that moment, the rookie had no way of knowing how powerful those words would be.

Three losses in a row became seven. That became 12. Then a franchise record 15. And so on. Detroit proceeded to fall apart in the fourth quarter. The Pistons continued to turn the ball over at an atrocious rate at the beginning, middle and end of games. The rebuilding team that had never learned to win at this level looked up and realized it was in a situation you only see once every few years. This is a “deer in the headlights” in human form. Nobody has answers because, well, they only know how to lose at this level.

The last time Detroit won a game, the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers was tied at one game each. The United Auto Workers has since ended a month-long strike. Representative George Santos was expelled from Congress and began making cameos.

The Pistons have not won a basketball game since October 28. There are 46 days, 20 consecutive games without being victorious. How does that happen?

Well, how much time do you have?

Today's disastrous Detroit season began last year, about 13 months ago, when 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham was shut down after 12 games and underwent season-ending shin surgery. For Detroit, last season was supposed to be about group development. The “restore,” as general manager Troy Weaver likes to call it, was going to boost Cunningham, rookies Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey, veteran Bojan Bogdanović and a handful of other players the organization had high hopes for. It was supposed to be the seed of something special.

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Cunningham's injury, however, essentially led the Pistons to wipe out their season. His absence led Detroit to try to capture lightning in a bottle and pursue once-touted prospects in hopes of resurrecting their careers. The franchise went from hoping to build continuity to, once again, prioritizing individual development.

The loss followed. Players who could help Detroit be respectable most nights started showing up on the injury report toward the top of the calendar year. The result? The Pistons won just seven games from Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season in April. It also didn't help that the prize for winning the NBA Draft Lottery a season ago was Victor Wembanyama, arguably the best prospect since LeBron James.

Cunningham's injury, more than people realized at the time, may have delayed the franchise's rebuild for another season.

“It's been a challenge for us,” Weaver said. The Athletic in January when asked how Cunningham's injury affected the team's development. “I don't know how many different starting lineups the coach has had. From a team development standpoint, we have not been able, for lack of better words, to find a consistent identity. That has been the challenge.”

Fast forward to October of this year, and Weaver, for the first time during this rebuild, called it quits at the end of the season. He said the team hopes to “play meaningful basketball” until the end. But we are in December and that already seems like a chimera.

Fans, however, needed words of encouragement after what they endured last season, but no one really knew what was in store for the Pistons this season. Not the new coaching staff. Not the main office. Not property. This team was basically strangers to each other on a basketball court.

The Pistons have four players with All-Star potential (Cunningham, Ivey, Duren and Thompson) who will determine whether this storied franchise can become relevant again. To date, those four have played 11 games together. If we remove rookie Thompson, the slightly more experienced trio has only played 20 games together due to various health reasons. There was not a sufficient sample size to suggest that Detroit was, indeed, ready to enter the next phase of its restoration.

The Pistons were frugal this offseason in free agency because of what happened last season. They were unable to properly evaluate their group due to Cunningham's injury. This year, Detroit's front office once again opted to prioritize youth development and see what they had in-house, with the expectation that a few added veterans would help get everyone on track.

Instead, what Detroit got was a group of injured veterans and even more young players who were asked to do something they had never done as professionals: win.

Bogdanović, one of the most efficient and most-used offensive players in the NBA last year, has been largely out of the picture due to a calf injury. He played his first game of the season on December 2. Monté Morris, the veteran guard Detroit acquired this offseason, who was expected to be the adult in a very, very young defensive room, has not played all season due to injuries.

The only person who has been around as the Pistons' losses piled up is coach Monty Williams, who signed a massive contract this summer that could earn him up to $100 million. However, and he will be the first to tell you, even he has had a difficult time figuring out his new team considering the youth and all the injuries.

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Williams and his coaching staff have been slow to discover what the best version of this team is. The Pistons had their best offensive performance of the season in Monday's 131-123 loss to the Indiana Pacers, who are not a good defensive team by any means. However, the highest-scoring game of the season coincided with the first time Williams unleashed a small, friendly lineup for Detroit (it happened due to injuries to Duren and Marvin Bagley III). It also coincided with him stunning Cunningham and Bogdanović together for the first time so that there was always one on the court. It coincided with Ivey, who has struggled to find a role with Williams despite being one of the NBA's best rookies last season, playing a season-high 34 minutes, which was only the third time this season he played. more than 30 minutes.

“I think we're starting to realize that we can score when we space the floor properly,” Williams said after the Indiana loss. “I'm learning to use certain guys on the team.”

It's too early to say whether or not hiring Williams will work in the long run, but owner Tom Gores should have made sure Williams was the right man at the right time instead of wanting to win the press conference and, in turn, , handing over a contract that won't be cheap to get out of if you discover it's not a good marriage.

As for the front office, they were too premature in putting that goal line on this team before the season. There was nothing to suggest this team was ready to take a leap, even before the injuries hit. It also wouldn't have hurt to try to turn one of the two top prospects Detroit has on its roster into proven forward depth.

The blame should be distributed among everyone, like Oprah Winfrey distributes cars. You don't get to 20 losses in a row without everyone having something to do with it.

The NBA's longest losing streak in a single season is 26. The longest losing streak (over two seasons) is 28.

The Pistons, one of the most successful franchises in the league, are on the wrong side of history.

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(Monty Williams Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images)



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