The Pistons have rarely captivated this town. But when they have, it’s been exquisitely timed.
The first time, in the late-1980s, the sports landscape in Detroit was pretty barren.
The Lions were awful, coming off a 4-12 season in 1988 where the coach got fired.
The Tigers were stumbling out of the gate on their way to a 59-103 season in 1989.
The Red Wings were a major disappointment following two straight trips to the conference finals. They were blasted out of the playoffs in the first round in April 1989.
But thank goodness for the Pistons—and that was literally the first time Detroit sports fans could say that about their basketball team.
The Pistons went 63-19 in the regular season in 1988-89 then plowed through the playoffs with a 15-2 record to capture their first world championship. They repeated the following year—again when the other Motor City teams were scuffling.
During most of the 1990s, the Red Wings were strong Stanley Cup contenders (consecutive Cups in 1997-98) and the Lions made the playoffs six times in the decade. The Tigers weren’t special and the Pistons were in no man’s land, trying to rebuild after their exciting play of the 1980s.
The third Pistons championship, in 2004, was also well-timed.
It was a time where the Tigers were slapstick (43-119 in 2003) and the Lions were still wandering in the desert. The Red Wings were two years removed from a Cup but having trouble advancing deep into the playoffs. And, a labor lockout loomed for the 2004-05 season.
The Pistons nearly repeated in 2005, and again they were pretty much the only thing worth watching in town. You couldn’t even watch the Red Wings—their season canceled.
So here we are in the fall of 2016 and the Pistons again have a chance to capture our hearts.
They tip off another NBA season tonight in Toronto and if you look around you, which Detroit sports team clearly stands out from its brethren?
The Red Wings are off to a nice 5-2 start but question marks still swirl over their roster and direction. There’s a feeling that 5-2 is overachieving, for now. And the new arena is still a year away from opening.
The Tigers might be in payroll-slashing mode and who knows where that may lead, in terms of wins and losses?
The Lions are on a nice roll, but does anyone really think that they’re on their way to glory? With that defense?
There’s no toast of the town at the moment.
The rapture of the fans is there for the taking. The Pistons might be the best bet to snatch it.
This is Year Three of the Stan van Gundy Era. The roster is virtually unrecognizable from what it was when SVG (we haven’t used initials to reference a Pistons coach since Bill van Breda Kolff was known as VBK in the early-1970s) took the reins in May of 2014.
Unrecognizable is good when, prior to Stan’s arrival, the Pistons had missed the playoffs five straight springs.
Unrecognizable is good when the product on the court was cringe-worthy.
The Pistons can’t sneak up on folks this season. They’re not a ragamuffin, little engine that could unit any longer.
They’re coming off 44-38 and a playoff berth. Yes, they were swept by the eventual world champs in the first round but as far as sweeps go, it wasn’t a joke of a series. The Cleveland Cavaliers had to break out a sweat.
This is SVG’s third year and it says here that it’s likely to be his most important, even after history closes the books on his time in Detroit.
If things break the way they should and the way that the Pistons want, we’ll likely look back at this season as the one where the young ballers from Detroit came of age.
I don’t want to hear about taking one step back to take two steps forward. The Pistons should be done with taking any steps back for quite some time.
The roster is young, talented and ready to grow together. By all accounts, team camaraderie and morale are hallmarks. SVG has a system and he’s determined to acquire the players with which to play it. The owner is engaged but he’s keeping his nose out of things.
There is, for the first time in forever with the Pistons, clear direction.
Coach Ray Scott, a treasure in this town, was speaking to Al Beaton and me on The Knee Jerks podcast last Sunday. I asked coach what his prime concern was about the Pistons in this pivotal basketball season.
“Injuries,” Ray said with little hesitation. He mentioned nagging ones to Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris. And, of course, the starting point guard—Reggie Jackson—is out for several weeks due to a knee injury.
Coach knows about losing point guards to injury. He lost Kevin Porter to a knee injury in December of 1975 and the Pistons quickly went down the tubes, tumbling from first place like a stone. Scott was fired in late-January.
I asked him about dealing with such a loss to such a key player.
“Well, I didn’t have to deal with it too long,” Scott chortled.
But the coach nailed it. If the Pistons can withstand the Jackson loss (journeyman Ish Smith replaces Jackson for now) and keep their heads above water until he returns, the expected playoff run in the spring of 2017 should be longer than four and done.
The Pistons have a chance to rule Detroit once again. They could captivate us.
There was a 14-year gap between the 1990 and 2004 world titles.
It’ll be 13 years come next spring since the Goin’ to Work Pistons won it all.
SVG himself said it as the Pistons gathered for media day last month.
“Why not us?”