We don’t need to rehash the reasons for the misery, do we? Whether it’s a deserved fate or a quirk in timing, Detroit’s pro sports teams are historically bad right now, and that’s not even the story.
The story is, how do they get out of this, and who gets out quicker?
As the Tigers report to spring training to begin a new season, they and the Lions, Red Wings and Pistons are in virtually identical situations. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen, unlike almost anything any American sports city has seen. All four are rebuilding at the exact same time, at almost the exact same rate, with almost the exact same impediments.
No one has a bona fide star to build around. No one has a line of free agents eager to grab their salary-cap stash. New plans are in place and new leaders in charge, but there’s no such thing as a clear path to success.
All four have a chance to concurrently be the worst in their leagues, which is astonishing. It would be the most dubious “honor” ever but also amazing if four teams from the same city landed the top pick in their respective drafts.
None have won a single playoff game since 2016. The Wings could post the NHL’s worst record for the second straight year. The Pistons, despite a recent hot spell, are lurking at the bottom of the league. The Tigers, whose pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday, haven’t made the playoffs since 2014 and carry the longest or second-longest World Series odds. The Lions will make their third straight top-10 draft pick and carry the longest or second-longest Super Bowl odds.
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The sad and ironic truth is, you create assets — high draft picks — by losing. The tricky truth is, you’d better have smart people to utilize them, and that’s where the franchises might be headed in the right direction after years of mismanagement and muddled plans.
In the absence of standout players, these are the guys who must deliver: Steve Yzerman, Al Avila, Brad Holmes, Troy Weaver. Not exciting, I know — let’s go general managers! But along with the coaches — Jeff Blashill, A.J. Hinch, Dan Campbell, Dwane Casey — they’re the ones toting hope.
I mean, who’s the most accomplished athlete in Detroit right now? No knock on young players finding their way, but who? Miguel Cabrera, at 37? It could’ve been Blake Griffin, but the Pistons are planning to deal him. Jerami Grant, who’s having a career revival with the Pistons, or Dylan Larkin, trying to lead the Wings? When newly hired Holmes traded Matthew Stafford, it was a sharp admission the Lions were joining the restart.
At least no one is fooling anyone with promises of quick turnarounds. The outcry from fans is muted partly because of the pandemic’s empty-arena atmosphere, partly because the teams have confessed their sins and copped to the plea. Guilty of faking competitiveness, guilty of patching and praying instead of shrewdly strategizing.
Patience isn’t limitless, and just saying it’ll take a while doesn’t mean they get to take their time. That said, I guarantee it will get better, based on the fact it has never been this bad. The Red Wings won four championships between 1997 and 2008. The Pistons won three between 1989 and 2004. The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006 and 2012. The Lions, uh, had Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson.
“It’s all cyclical, and we’re gonna get back there one day, and that’s what’s exciting about sports,” Yzerman said recently. “We’re in these situations now, and we’re gonna work our way through and get there. I believe all four teams will get back on top at some point.”
This is an unprecedented coincidence, not something in the fabric of the city, or in the geography. That’s the encouraging part, that the ingredients are still here for success. There’s nothing inherent in any of the teams that should prevent a rebound. All have wealthy, committed owners, albeit with varying degrees of competitive zeal. All have entrenched and loyal fan bases. All have relatively new facilities that rank in the upper half of their leagues.
The race to rebuild semi-officially began in 2019, which was the last time a Detroit team participated in a postseason game. The Pistons were swept by the Bucks that spring. The last playoff victory by a Detroit team? The Wings beat Tampa Bay 2-0 on April 17, 2016, but lost the first-round series 4-1. Upon Mike Ilitch’s death in 2017, there was no more hanging on and holding off, after 25 consecutive playoff appearances. Thanks to Ilitch’s drive, the Wings and Tigers were contenders for a long time, and it became Chris Ilitch’s tedious task to start over.
The Pistons’ downturn began after owner William Davidson’s death in 2009. A novice owner with good intentions, Tom Gores, tried to build on the fly and was flying blind. Now he finally might have the right GM-coach combo in Weaver and Casey.
“I don’t enjoy the losses, but it’s part of where we are as an organization, and it was a long time coming,” Casey said. “Troy (Weaver) is doing an excellent job putting things in the right place, identifying the needs of the team going forward. I totally trust what his vision is, but it starts with Tom (Gores) and his decision to make sure we build this program back to the championship level that it’s accustomed to.”
The Lions are the classic middle-ground wafflers, never good enough to win, usually not awful enough to convince them to rebuild the right way. New owner Sheila Ford Hamp seems to be changing that, hiring a young, aggressive tandem in Holmes and Campbell and allowing them to tell the truth. Holmes calls it a “retool” but we get the point and so do they, as the Stafford trade showed.
Detroit is the ultimate rebuild city, and most of it was necessary. As hopeful as that might sound, there’s no guarantee it will work. Against that backdrop, let’s play the new game: Rate the Rebuild. This isn’t about which local teams are in better shape right now, but which are better positioned for the future. You’ll probably disagree with the one that tops my timetable, but please let me explain. (And stick around: Cast your vote for the Team Most Likely to Succeed after my analysis.)
How can a franchise with one playoff victory in 64 years be in the lead position at the moment? Well, we’re grading on a curve here, and the Lions play in a league designed to help the hopeless. The Ford family historically has been way too passive, squandering draft picks and hiring poor leaders, but at some point, NFL parity has to be a factor.
There’s no ridiculous draft lottery, like the ones that have tortured the Wings and Pistons. An unhealthy amount of luck is needed in those leagues. Somehow, the Wings had by far the worst record last season and picked fourth. In the NFL, you don’t get doubly punished for losing. Thanks to Holmes’ swift moves, the Lions have loaded up on draft capital and snapped most links to a forgettable past.
What are the building blocks? Signs of boldness and cohesiveness in the new regime and a respected coaching staff compiled by Campbell. As far as players, offensive linemen Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow, running back D’Andre Swift, tight end T.J. Hockenson, defensive end Trey Flowers.
What are the stumbling blocks? The franchise’s history, although I refuse to call it a curse, no matter how it looks. Lack of depth and playmakers. Uncertainty at quarterback. Receiver Kenny Golladay and defensive end Romeo Okwara are pending free agents.
X factor: Jared Goff, obtained in the Stafford deal, is a former No. 1 overall pick who started in the Super Bowl two years ago. It wouldn’t be a shock if he turned his career around. And if he doesn’t, the Lions have plenty of first-round opportunities, including the No. 7 overall pick now, to find someone else.
Earliest playoff contention: 2022
How can a team that lost 114, 98 and 98 games the past three full seasons turn it around? Boosted by high picks — four top-10 selections in the past five drafts — the farm system has dramatically improved. Avila hasn’t pulled masterful moves but hasn’t whiffed on the most valuable picks, and that counts for plenty. The Tigers have five of the top 25 prospects in baseball according to MLB Pipeline — Spencer Torkelson, Casey Mize, Riley Greene, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning — and a proven manager in Hinch.
The Tigers aren’t ready for the top slot for one major reason — young pitching is so difficult to project. Chris Ilitch gradually is getting more aggressive — hence, the Hinch signing — but eventually has to prove he’ll spend big. That time is coming.
Building blocks: Not much on the major-league level — Jeimer Candelario, Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd qualify — but plenty of high-end prospects. The farm system finally should start feeding the parent club, and perhaps a touted position player, Torkelson or Greene (or both), arrives and shows signs of stardom.
Stumbling blocks: The franchise mortgaged the future trying to win and the current roster is way short on talent. Baseball’s top-heavy spending structure makes it difficult to get good quickly. Cabrera has three years and $94 million remaining on his contract and is no longer a formidable hitter.
X factor: To accelerate a rebuild, you have to uncover hidden gems. Based on glimpses, maybe it’s infielder Willi Castro or reliever Gregory Soto.
Earliest playoff contention: 2023
How can a long-successful franchise that endured hard times for more than a decade find its way again? It’s all about the front office, and Weaver has shaken it up dramatically, positively. “Trader Troy” has dealt away a bunch of middlin’ pieces and is looking in the right places for new ones. He struck it big with Grant, who’s 26 and rejuvenated. Weaver maneuvered to get three first-round picks and all show varying degrees of promise.
The Pistons are in position for a top-five pick, but in case the lottery shafts them again, Weaver is running his own lottery. He brought in a trio of former first-rounders — Josh Jackson, Dennis Smith Jr., Jahlil Okafor — eager to ditch their bust labels. If the Pistons hit on just one — Jackson is intriguing — it’s a significant boost.
Building blocks: Grant and a bunch of youth. Sekou Doumbouya is only 20 with room to grow. First-round rookies Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey have shown legitimate flashes, and Bey could be an elite shooter. Casey is a smart, stable leader.
Stumbling blocks: Griffin did admiral work as a mentor, but he and the team recognize it’s time to move on. With another year on his contract at $39 million, he’s a salary-cap clog and not much of a trade chip. Point guard remains a puzzle, with first-rounder Killian Hayes out for the year because of a hip injury.
X factor: Maybe a little lottery luck for a change. The Pistons could end up with the best chance to land the No. 1 pick, and the expected prize, Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, could alter fortunes quickly.
Earliest playoff contention: 2023
4. Red Wings
How can a storied franchise coming off the worst season in franchise history get better, after years of trading picks and kicking the competitive can down the road? For starters, you trust the savvy of Yzerman, who built a team in Tampa that won the Stanley Cup. He’s made a series of decent small moves and loaded up on picks here. It’s all about drafting and developing, and that remains a work in progress.
Building blocks: A whole batch of prospects, topped by Yzerman’s surprise 2019 first-round pick, defenseman Moritz Seider. His 2020 first-rounder, Lucas Raymond, is only 18 but could be special. Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi need to make the leap from blocks to productive locks.
Stumbling blocks: The team has no fast-tracked goalie of the future. And while Blashill has been a steady voice for six rough seasons, Yzerman has to decide if a new voice will be needed. Young players haven’t developed at the rate you’d hope.
X factor: Maybe Mantha’s immense potential stirs to life and the Wings have the premier scorer they lack. It also would help if a first-rounder, say, Filip Zadina, makes an impact.
Earliest playoff contention: 2023
I don’t know if the rebuild rates are encouraging, discouraging or merely exhausting. The optimistic view is, all four franchises finally have a direction, a destination and respected leaders. They might only be halfway there, but recent hires and moves suggest it will turn, painfully, slowly and eventually.