Scotty Robertson was the coach of the Pistons the same way that Kevyn Orr is an emergency manager—a man who inherited a mess of immense levels.
Scotty was a heart attack survivor, which usually isn’t a desired background to be a professional basketball coach—especially that of the Pistons at the time.
It was the spring of 1980, and Scotty was tabbed by GM Jack McCloskey to take over a Pistons team that had won a grand total of 16 games the season before—a team decimated by the gutting it was given by predecessor Dick Vitale.
The Pistons were bereft of talent and draft choices. Vitale had left the franchise stripped bare.
Robertson must have wanted to be an NBA coach again in the worst way; for that’s exactly what being the coach of the Pistons was when Scotty took the reins.
Scotty put his team through the paces in training camp—his collection of marginal NBA talent and wannabes, and gave a brutally honest assessment to Jerry Green of the Detroit News on the eve of Opening Night in October, 1980.
“We’re gonna try. We’re gonna work hard,” Scotty told Green. “But we’re not very bleeping good.”
The coach was right. The Pistons soldiered through the 1980-81 season, winning at a pace of about once every four tries. Their record was 21-61.
Scotty nailed it. The Pistons weren’t very bleeping good.
There is an ugly word floating around the NBA today—one that wasn’t part of the lexicon back in 1980.
The word is “tanking.”
The NBA’s playoffs aren’t like their winter brother’s in the NHL.
In the NHL, every team from first seed to eighth fancies itself as capable of winning the Stanley Cup. That feeling has been fed by recent history, as lower seeds have managed to skate their way to the Cup Finals.
But in the NBA, a low seed has to be blessed by the basketball gods to win a single playoff game, let alone an entire series. Thoughts of ascending to the Finals are mere fantasy.
The gap between the haves and have-nots in the NBA is Grand Canyon-like in scope.
You can’t fluke your way to the Finals in pro basketball. You can’t ride a hot goalie. There aren’t crazy bounces. There’s no sudden death overtime.
In the NBA, you can pretty much name the conference finals participants when the basketballs are tipped off on Opening Night. There aren’t too many surprises come June.
Hence that ugly word, tanking.
The tanking theory says that since you’re unlikely to score an upset in the playoffs as a low seed, then why try to make the playoffs at all?
Why qualify, when by your exclusion, you get thrown into the draft lottery?
And the lower you finish in the standings, the more ping pong balls you get with your team’s name on it come lottery time.
It’s a twisted reality, but a reality nonetheless.
Scotty Robertson’s 1980-81 Pistons weren’t good enough to “tank.” They were just bad naturally, the old-fashioned way.
Today’s Pistons talk publicly of playoffs and some sense of urgency to qualify. They have been hovering at between two-to-four games out of the no. 8 seed for weeks.
It may all be talk, it may be sincere. We’ll likely never know.
It’s painfully obvious that even if the Pistons wiggle into the post-season, all they’d be doing is extending their season by four games—five if they get incredibly lucky.
The first round of the NBA playoffs is filled with David and Goliath match-ups, with Goliath winning every time.
There really is no incentive for the Pistons to make the playoffs. The comical thing is, there really isn’t any incentive for those “battling” for the final seed to make the playoffs, either.
The withering Pistons fan base in Detroit appears to lean heavily on the side of their team “tanking,” that ugly word that means, basically, lose on purpose. Or, at the very least, don’t try all that hard to win.
It goes against every fiber of what competition is supposed to mean, but there you have it.
The Pistons, if they are indeed “tanking,” really can’t be blamed for simply playing the system—which makes the system all wrong, of course.
On Saturday night at the Palace, the Pistons hosted one of the Goliaths, the Indiana Pacers. And for 24 minutes, the Pistons must have forgotten that they were supposed to be mailing it in.
At halftime, the Pistons led the beasts from Indiana, 60-41.
By the end of regulation, the game was tied, 100-100.
By the end of overtime, the Pacers had won, 112-104.
The Pistons must have remembered to tank just in the nick of time.
Scotty Robertson survived the Pistons, just as he survived his heart attack. After the 21-61 season, the Pistons grabbed Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka in the 1981 Draft.
Scotty’s second and third seasons saw the Pistons win 39 and 37 games, respectively. Then he got fired. Someone named Chuck Daly replaced him.
Pistons interim coach John Loyer is today’s Scotty Robertson, though it looks highly unlikely that Loyer will survive the Pistons.
Elevated to the head coaching position following the cashiering of Maurice Cheeks, Loyer is 4-12 after Saturday’s loss.
Maybe the problem wasn’t Cheeks, after all.
Want another laugh? Pistons owner Tom Gores, after declaring a “playoffs or else” mandate last summer, still expected the team to make the post-season even after firing Cheeks and replacing him with a no-name assistant.
Loyer is history after the final 16 games are mercifully crossed off the schedule.
A new coach, yet again, will take over the Pistons.
He will be someone who fancies himself capable of turning the franchise around and installing that elusive “winning culture.”
He will be someone for whom “tanking” is not an option.
But the NBA is a player’s league, so how much control does a coach truly have anymore?
The Pistons continue to play fourth fiddle in a four-fiddle town. Their irrelevance is sardonic.
Whether they’re tanking or not, one thing is certain.
They’re not very bleeping good.