The 10 worst teams in Detroit professional sports history

Detroit News

Not a single one of Detroit’s four professional teams can even sniff contendership right now, and that’s all right. We’ve all suffered this long, what’s another year or two while we wait for one of these teams to figure it out?

In the meantime, we’ve compiled the worst teams in Detroit sports history for your reading pleasure. This list is sorted by winning percentage, with one massive caveat: The Detroit Lions actually ruined the whole system. If we were to only rank based on winning percentage, they’d take up the first seven spots on this list. That’s partially on the Lions and their historical incompetence, and partially on the nature of football, where almost every year there’s a team (or multiple) that could make this list.

More: Wojo: Tigers, Pistons, Wings, Lions all rebuilding; who will get out of basement first?

So to make room for all units of stink, we’ve limited them to three spots, one for each record that could make this list: One 0-16 team (thankfully we weren’t forced to make a choice on this one), one 2-14 team and one 3-13 team.

With that out of the way, it’s time to get on with some good ol’ fashioned masochism. Here are our 10 worst teams in Detroit professional sports history:

10. 2019-20 Red Wings

Record: 17-49-5 (.275 winning percentage)

Years until next championship: TBD

Draft pick earned: Lucas Raymond (No. 4 overall)

We’ll start this list with a familiar friend. And by “familiar friend,” I mean “ruthlessly aggressive stranger whose brutal trauma still lingers.” Seriously, though, for those who grew up watching the Red Wings in the 90s and 2000s, this 71-game stretch — cut short by the pandemic — was a near-inconceivable low. They finished minus-123 in goal differential as goaltender Jimmy Howard, ranked third all-time in franchise wins behind Terry Sawchuk and Chris Osgood, ended his NHL career on a 20-game losing streak.

To top off the sadness, the Red Wings fell the maximum three spots in the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery while a playoff-bound mystery team won first overall.

9. 2003 Tigers

Record: 43-119 (.265)

Years until next championship: TBD

Draft pick earned: Justin Verlander (No. 2 overall)

All things considered, the Tigers have to be pretty happy with how this list is about to shake out. Despite their awful 2003 season being the worst in modern baseball history — challenged only by the 1962 expansion Mets (40-120) — they land on this list just once.

But boy, did they really earn this spot: The Tigers had a team ERA of 5.30; their three winningest pitchers, Mike Maroth (9-21), Jeremy Bonderman (6-19), Nate Cornejo (6-17) finished first, second, and third for the most pitcher losses in baseball that season. And their bats? They finished with a league-low .240 team batting average, three points below the Los Angeles Dodgers at .243.

But the thing is, while both hitting and pitching were bad within the context of a single season, neither unit was historically bad. Even the Texas Rangers (5.67) had a higher team ERA than the Tigers (5.30) in 2003. But working in tandem? They created one of the ugliest monsters baseball has ever seen.

7. (TIED) 1980-81 Pistons

Record: 21-61 (.256)

Years until next championship: 8

Draft pick earned: Isiah Thomas (No. 2 overall)

It’s somewhat amazing that no Pistons team in the last decade even really came close to making this list. It’s truly a testament to the success of their purgatorial pursuit.

There is something impressive about this 1980-81 Detroit basketball squad, though: They finished seventh (seventh!) in team defense, giving up just 2.2 points per game (106.0) more than the league-best Philadelphia 76ers (103.8). They just couldn’t put the ball in the hoop.

Not even Hall-of-Fame center and three-time scoring champion Bob McAdoo could help this offensively inept Pistons team, as they finished last in scoring on their way to the league’s second-worst record.

7. (TIED) 1976-77 Red Wings

Record: 16-55-9 (.256)

Years until next championship: 20

Draft pick earned: Dale McCourt (No. 1 overall)

Despite the Hall-of-Fame tandem in net of Eddie Giacomin and Jim Rutherford, these Red Wings got putrid netminding. The team’s league-low .869 save percentage set the tone for an offense that just couldn’t score a lick. A saving grace for this team’s reputation — if there was one — is that it faced the toughest strength of schedule in the league that season, but even so, Detroit’s minus-126 goal differential that season really encapsulates the height of the Dead Wings era.

6. 1985-86 Red Wings

Record: 17-57-6 (.250)

Years until next championship: 11

Draft pick earned: Joe Murphy (No. 1 overall)

Up next, the Dead Wings’ last ride. This team couldn’t score, finishing last in goals per game (3.33). This team couldn’t defend, finishing last in average goals against (5.19). But they loved to beat the living daylight out of folks, leading the league in penalty minutes as a 21-year-old Joey Kocur protected his soon-to-be captain Steve Yzerman with ruthless aggression en route to earning the league’s individual penalty-in-minutes crown.

5. 1993-94 Pistons

Record: 20-62 (.244)

Years until next championship: 10

Draft pick earned: Grant Hill (No. 3 overall)

This Pistons team was just four years removed from back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, and just 10 years away from another title in 2004. It’s extremely justifiable to say that this was the natural valley of a smaller-market team that’s found success without big-money free agents.

This season would end the career of Isiah Thomas, whom they drafted with the No. 2 pick in their second-worst season in team history. The ensuing selection of Grant Hill set wheels in motion for their next contending squad, as Hill later returned future four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace alongside Chucky Atkins in a 2000 trade with the Orlando Magic.

4. 1979-80 Pistons

Record: 16-66 (.195)

Years until next championship: 9

Draft pick earned: N/A (Traded to Boston)

A lot of the same characters from the 1980-81 team filled out the cast from this group, but the extra twist in the knife is in knowing that Detroit had traded two first-rounders to Boston in return for the shell of Bob McAdoo. The Celtics traded that pick to the Warriors — who selected Joe Barry Carroll — moved down to third, and drafted Hall-of-Famer and three-time NBA champion Kevin McHale.

3. 2019 Lions

Record: 3-12-1 (.188)

Years until next championship: TBD

Draft pick earned: Jeff Okudah (No. 3 overall)

What sets this Lions team apart from two other three-win teams are expectations. In 2002, they were coming off a 2-14 season and were breaking in a third-overall pick at quarterback, Joey Harrington. In 2006, they had a first-year head coach in Rod Marinelli and, in moving on from Harrington, put Jon Kitna under center.

The 2019 Lions, though? They had postseason aspirations.

Matthew Stafford missing the final eight games certainly dictated that three-win mark, but they went just 3-4-1 with No. 9 under center. They then closed the season on a 1-13 run and losers of nine straight.

Of all the “How did we get here?” moments on this list, this might take the top spot.

2. 2001 Lions

Record: 2-14 (.125)

Years until next championship: An eternity, probably

Draft pick earned: Joey Harrington (No. 3 overall)

The 2001 Lions earned this spot over two teams: The 2009 squad, who (spoiler alert) actually added two wins to their total from the year before; and the 1979 Lions.

I mean, seriously, who could pass on a chance to talk about the elite quarterbacking trio of Charlie Batch, Ty Detmer and Mike McMahon? Or the domination of a backfield made up by James Stewart and (non-sarcastically) Cory Schlesinger? Heck, this team even had former Michigan star Desmond Howard returning kicks!

This Lions team did have some interesting playmakers, including defensive lineman Robert Porcher, who’d earn All-Pro honors this season. But it also gave up more points (424) than anybody except Indianapolis (486) and finished 26th in points scored.

1. 2008 Lions

Record: 0-16 (.000)

Years until next championship: TBD

Draft pick earned: Matthew Stafford (No. 1 overall)

Picture this: It’s August 2008.

The Lions have improved from 3-13 in 2006 to 7-9 in 2007, starting that year 6-2 before plummeting in typical Lions fashion. But hey, that’s just a bump in the road, which is traveling in the right direction. And Kitna proved himself at age 35, throwing for 4,000 yards and leading an offense that is exactly average.

Sure, they barely made any additions to a defense that gave up 32.4 points per game over the final eight matchups and finished last in points and yards allowed, but Rod Marinelli knows how to rattle the cages. They’ll be ready for Week 1.

Then Detroit goes 4-0 in preseason, only confirming your optimism. You poor fool.

2008 was a crescendo of the team’s fanbase. Some either dove fully into apathy or gave up hope completely. Others dug their heels in, and in a weird psychological way, probably became further attached to the payoff of rooting for a historically bad team.

Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, in hindsight, this season almost feels necessary. After years of flirting with the distinction of ‘Worst Franchise in NFL History’, they ended the debate once and for all.

And at the end of the day, isn’t it nice to be able to tell yourself that things can’t get any worse?

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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