The Detroit Pistons made history on December 28, 2023, when they lost to the Boston Celtics in overtime. With their 28th consecutive loss, they tied with the 2014-2016 Philadelphia 76ers for the longest losing streak in NBA history. The Pistons’ struggles extend beyond merely a challenging season, surpassing the standards of inadequacy set by other NBA teams. In fact, they could be considered one of the most underperforming North American professional sports teams of all time.
Pistons In Peril
How bad does a team need to be the worst pro-sports team of all time?
Professional sports in North America have a rich history spanning over a century. In the past 148 years, the four major sports leagues – NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA – have flourished, expanding to encompass 124 teams spread across two countries. Despite this extensive timeline, with thousands of individual team seasons, the inevitability persists that one team will emerge as the worst. Currently, that team is the Detroit Pistons.
The performance of the Detroit Pistons in the current season transcends mere disappointment; it represents a statistical anomaly. Their recent victory over the Toronto Raptors on December 30, 2023, breaking the 28-game losing streak, offered only a glimpse of relief in an otherwise dismal season.
So, how does this dreadful Pistons season compare to some of the worst seasons across the four major sports in North America?
The infamous 2016-2017 Cleveland Browns, who went 0-16, hold only the 62nd-longest losing streak in North American sports history. To find this year’s pistons on that same list, you have to scroll all the way to the top through some of the worst teams imaginable until you’ve reached rock bottom, the second-longest losing streak of pro sports. The only team that strung together more consecutive losses was the mid-1940s Chicago Cardinals of the NFL, who spent four seasons losing 29 games.
The Pistons have the worst win percentage of any North American professional sports team ever, winning just 6.5% of the games they play. To put into perspective just how bad that is, the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats put together one of the worst seasons ever in a shortened 66-game lockout year when they finished with a 7-59 record. Their win percentage was 10.6%, and had it been a full 82-game season, they were on pace for double-digit wins. The 2024 Pistons are on pace to win just five games the entire season this year.
The NFL has witnessed several winless teams throughout its history, with the 2016-17 Cleveland Browns being the most recent example. During the 2017 season, despite failing to secure any victories, the Browns maintained an average point differential of -11.0 points per game. This implies that, on average, they experienced an 11-point deficit in each game that season. While this may sound grim, it merely ranks as the 109th-worst team point differential in NFL history. The Browns, despite their winless record, remained competitive compared to some other struggling teams in the league’s history. There were instances where teams were losing games by twice as much as the zero-win Browns but managed to luck into a win or two.
The Pistons, on the other hand, have a similar point differential of -11.53 points per game, which is the fifth-worst team point differential in the history of the NBA. So they’re not only losing nearly every game, but they aren’t even competing. The four teams with more significant differentials than the Pistons still achieved double-digit wins, except for the 2012 Bobcats in the shortened season. The Pistons are not just on the losing end but they are consistently being dominated in nearly every game.
Now that it’s apparent just how bad the 2023-2024 Detroit Pistons are, it’s safe to say that at the pace the Pistons are on, they could finish the season as the worst major league professional sports team that North America has ever seen.
How exactly can a team be this bad?
To begin, this team is notably youthful; the Pistons rank as the NBA’s third-youngest, boasting an average age of merely 23 years old. The majority of playing time has been entrusted to these young players, who lack significant NBA experience and no real opportunity or guidance to learn the ropes before being thrown into the lion’s den and fed to the wolves every game. Part of this is because of injuries, with two of their oldest and highest-paid players, Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Harris, missing the majority of this season so far due to injuries. The absence of veteran leadership in the locker room and on the court appears to have adversely affected the team’s morale and its capacity to overcome adversities.
The majority of these young players haven’t experienced leading or carrying a struggling team to victories. Acquiring such skills is a gradual process, and currently, every player on the roster is undergoing this learning curve simultaneously. The question of whether they possess the capability is another matter altogether. This explains why Alec Burks, a seasoned role player, frequently takes charge in late-game situations. With 12 years of NBA experience and substantial playing time under his belt, he has gained insights into navigating close and competitive NBA games.
This team struggles to secure victories in crucial moments. Even the least successful teams can often eke out tough wins, relying on sheer luck if nothing else. The Pistons have encountered clutch situations 14 times this season – games within five points with five minutes or less remaining in the fourth quarter. In these critical moments, the Pistons have recorded a league-low 23.3% field goal percentage and have managed to score only 4.2 points in clutch time, both figures falling below half of the league average. Consequently, the Pistons have emerged victorious in just one of the 14 games that were within their reach. Had they performed better in the final minutes of these games, their overall win total would have seen a significant improvement.
While it might seem like an oversimplification, the Pistons struggle both offensively and defensively. Among the 11 players attempting at least one three-pointer per game on their roster, merely three are shooting at a league-average percentage, with one of these players being their starting center, Isaiah Stewart. The remaining eight players collectively have a dismal three-point percentage of just 29.2%, positioning them as one of, if not the poorest, three-point shooting teams since the surge in popularity of the three-pointer a decade ago.
Combine this with the team’s dismal defensive performance, allowing an average of 121 points per game while only managing to score 109 points per game, and a recipe for disaster emerges. The Pistons have absolutely no depth, and outside of Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, they don’t have anyone who can create their own shots. And to add fuel to the fire even further, they are leading the league in turnovers and fouls committed. Consequently, the team struggles to maintain possession of the ball and concedes more free points to their opponents than any other team in the league. The Pistons aren’t just deficient in one aspect of the game; they are virtually the worst in every facet.
Compounding the severity of this situation is the fact that many underperforming teams in NBA history, as well as recent sports history, deliberately lose to pursue a strategy known as tanking. Tanking becomes evident when a team refrains from significant financial investments, accumulates draft picks, and offloads assets to facilitate a rebuilding phase. However, the Pistons find themselves in a dire situation without intentionally tanking; their poor performance is genuine, and they are actively striving for victories.
In the recent offseason, they brought in Monty Williams, offering him the highest coaching salary in NBA history at that time. Their roster boasts five players who were top 10 picks in the last four seasons: Ausar Thompson, Jaden Ivey, Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, and James Wiseman. Despite their efforts to secure victories, the team finds itself unable to do so.
In the NBA, where double-digit point swings can occur within seconds, the Pistons’ season struggles – embodied by a 28-game losing streak – transcend mere difficulty; they verge on statistical improbability. This underscores the significance of the Pistons maintaining this performance throughout the rest of the season. If they persist in their current trajectory, the 2023-2024 Detroit Pistons won’t merely hold the title of the worst NBA team ever; they will stake a claim as the worst professional sports team in North American history.
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