The Detroit Pistons, at 4-21 through games of December 10, hold the dubious distinction of not just being the worst team in the NBA in absolute terms in 2021 (although the 5-21 Orlando Magic are nipping at their heels) but being well on their way to the worst season in franchise history.
They have zero double digit wins. The teams they have beaten have been terrible. They have the second-worst Net Rating—Orlando is worst. And it’s not like Dwane Casey is an awful coach. This is just a team that has had three straight years of the most utterly putrid roster in all of organized basketball.
Detroit was 20-46 in 2020, a 25-57 pace over 82 games. They were 20-52 last year, good for 23-59 per 82.
And now? 4-21 works out to 13-69. That would be the worst record in the NBA since the 2016 “Trust the Process” Sixers, the second-worst record in the last 10 seasons, and tied with the 2005 Hawks for the fourth-worst record of the 21st century.
The other two records worse than Detroit since 2000? The ’09-10 Nets (12-70) and the ’12 Bobcats (7-59, or 9-73 per 82.)
This team is horrific. Utterly putrid. Rotten to the core? But…how did this team get this bad for this long? They don’t have an MBA with more ego than merit in the general manager’s office—Troy Weaver is bad, but he’s not Sam Hinkie bad. Their coach took a team with more talent to the playoffs in 2019 and turned Toronto into a powerhouse before that.
And yet here they are at 4-21.
Let’s try to make some sense of this, shall we?
The Worst, Or Close to it, in Most Stats
If there’s any solace in Detroit, it’s that they’re not completely dead last in most categories except the won-lost record. The Oklahoma City Thunder have a worse offense. Six teams—including the 15-11 Atlanta Hawks!—have a worse defense. Orlando has a worse Net Rating. Portland is allowing a worse opponents’ eFG%. Detroit is 29th in 3-point percentage, again ahead of that dreadful Thunder team.
Detroit is last in their own eFG%—a gods-awful .473. They’re last in the league in dunks, with just 62 so far, a sure sign they can’t attack the basket effectively and finish. And other two-point shots aren’t much better, as they’re last in 2-point percentage.
And just to add insult to injury, it’s not like their inability to shoot threes means they should shoot more midrange jump shots—the “2 is more than 0” argument—because they’re hitting a truly atrocious 31.1 percent between 10 and 16 feet from the basket.
A Complete Lack of Talent
When Jerami Grant (0.5) is your best player by VORP and Hamidou Diallo (.116) is your best player by WS/48, that means you’re running a G-League team out there. Yeah, Diallo won the dunk contest a couple years back, but Detroit is last in dunks, like we discussed earlier. Diallo has to play actual NBA basketball for his share of the minutes.
And speaking of minutes, the only two Pistons besides Grant with measurable positive VORP are bench guys! The other four starters—Saddiq Bey, Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart, and Killian Hayes—are all in the minus-VORP club. Cory Joseph, the nominal sixth man, is 30 years old, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he was 40 after the past few seasons he’s had since he forgot how to shoot and got himself run off the Indiana Pacers in 2019.
But What About Youth?
Yeah, what about it? The oldest players on the Pistons—Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, and Rodney McGruder—are 30. Grant is 27, Trey Lyles is 26, and nobody else on the team is older than 24. And the 24-year-old getting minutes is Josh Jackson. Yikes.
When you have a bad team with veterans on it, those veterans can teach younger players in a trial by fire and elevate them. De’Aaron Fox got to develop in Sacramento in his second year because he had guys like Iman Shumpert and Harrison Barnes who had been on championship-caliber teams. Collin Sexton, before he got hurt, blossomed after an utterly gods-awful rookie season because Kevin Love has developed into the elder statesman and holdover from the LeBron years to teach good NBA habits to Cleveland’s younger players.
Detroit doesn’t have that. When you throw youth together on a trash team with no leadership, that’s how you end up with the 2016 Sixers, and it’s a big reason why the Sixers of today are such chronic underachievers. Without leadership to teach leadership, guys like Joel Embiid become clubhouse cancers, and even a coach known for developing good chemistry—Doc Rivers and the Celtics of 2008-12—can’t fix that.
Casey took a ragtag bunch of up-and-comers in Toronto and pushed them to be better. Detroit doesn’t have anyone who can help the coach on a level of connecting in the locker room that great teams need.
The Bottom Line
It’s really as simple as this. Detroit has a clear strategy of amassing young talent and hoping to Process their way to something better—intentionally or not, this is a complete teardown and rebuild any way you slice it. The team is young, it’s giving run to raw talent and hoping that talent develops…but it lacks the essential elements a rebuilding team needs to turn into anything other than a bunch of G-League guys who are just learning how to lose.
Congratulations, Detroit. You just set your ceiling at “second-round disappointment” in five years’ time. And that seems to be the best-case scenario.
I’m not saying Detroit should go into win-now mode, but a few veteran-minimum contracts doled out to guys who used to be on good teams willing to be clubhouse leaders? That’s how you keep this from becoming a train wreck.