A Look at the Detroit Losing Streak

Thankfully, the Pistons finally ended their excruciating 28-game losing streak Saturday night.  Let’s step back and process this whole debacle, FAQ style…

Is this the most embarrassing run of basketball in recent memory?

I guess that’s not the real question.  The real question is just how bad are the Pistons?  Subjectively, I don’t think they are really that bad relative to historically bad teams we’ve seen in the past.  In fact, the Pistons’ -10 SRS is basically dead even with the Spurs and Hornets, and pretty close to the Wizards’ SRS.  A -10 SRS clocks in at 19th worst SRS ever.  That’s bad but not anywhere near the ghastly -14.68 SRS put up by the 1992-93 Mavs (or the 2011-12 Hornets at -13.96).

Yes, Detroit is bad but they are more like a 20-win team.  The Pistons’ most glaring team stat deficiencies are as follows:

-Last in turnover percentage and 27th in defensive turnover percentage

-The Pistons are 28th in 3-point percentage (.334%)

-The Pistons give up the most free throws in the NBA and most fouls doled out

-Detroit has had the third hardest strength of schedule so far

So, you have a bad defense that gives up a ton of free throws, without actually forcing any turnovers.  On offense, they are at the bottom in three percentage and turn the ball over a lot.  They are a slightly worse team on offense (28th) than they are on defense (26th).  This team shouldn’t be quite as bad as its record so far.

Who is to blame for the offensive mess?

There has been much talk that the Pistons lack a true point guard and that running Cade Cunningham in a high usage Luka/Harden role is not a good idea.  Cade has the fourth lowest BPM (-1.4) of any player in the modern era with a usage over 30% (minimum 30 games played).  The only worse are some doozies:

Shawn Kemp, 1999-00: -2.1

Kobe Bryant, 2015-16: -1.6

Kyle Kuzma, 2023-24: -1.5

Cade Cunningham, 2023-24: -1.4

Yes, we have late-stage Kemp & Kobe, as well as Kuzma this season.  Cunningham also plays a lot more than any of the other players on the list do (35 mpg versus about 30 mpg for the others).  In Cade’s defense, he is surrounded by many non-shooters.  Ausar Thompson, Jaden Ivey, and Killian Hayes have played big minutes and can’t hit from three (Ausar is an active player but crazy raw and has shot more airballs than makes from three so far).  Vet backup Monte Morris has missed the entire season while, the only Detroit first rate shooter, Bojan Bogdanovic missed 20 games. 

Having said all that, it does not seem Cade as Harden works.  Cade just doesn’t shoot well enough off the dribble at this point to fill that role.  On the bright side, his shooting numbers are way up from the prior two seasons and it is possible that he could blossom further if he tries this experiment longer.  But Harden and Luka were much better at age-22 than Cade:

Harden 2011-12: 21.1 PER, .660 TS%, .230 WS48, 4.3 BPM

Luka 2021-22: 25.1 PER, .571 TS%, .159 WS48, 8.2 BPM

Cade 2023-24: 15.6 PER, .545 TS%, .014 WS48, -1.4 BPM

Cunningham is just not in that ballpark (Harden was still a sixth man at the time but his advanced stats were quite impressive).  Cade could continue to improve but even a reasonably improved version is just not efficient enough to stick with this offense.  It’s hard to change offensive schemes in the middle of the season and Detroit also lacks the actual point guard to turn to but it’s time to consider turning the page on this soon and putting Cade in an offensive role more suited to his skills. 

How many wins will the Pistons end up with?

Just for a little comparison, here is how the other teams with 20 or more losses in a single season did after the losing streak:

-2010-11 Cavs: 11-18 after streak (final record 19-63)

-2013-14 76ers: 4-6 after streak (final record 19-63)

-1995-96 Grizzlies:  4-7 after streak (final record 15-67)

-1997-98 Nuggets: 9-33 after streak (final record 11-71)

-2011-12 Bobcats: Streak ended with final game of season (final record 7-59)

-1972-73 76ers: 5-15 after streak (final record 9-73)

-1993-94 Mavericks: 12-46 after streak (final record 13-69)

-2020-21 Rockets: 6-25 after streak (final record 17-55)

With the exception of the execrable 2012-13 Hornets, the 20 game streakers played much better after this streak (though in the case of some of these teams, they had multiple lengthy losing streaks that same season).  Some of this improvement could be legitimate learning and development but it seems that these bad teams were able to bank wins late in the season due to tanking or disinterest of other teams.  If they are facing an epically bad overall record, the Pistons will be motivated to win later in the season when most eliminated teams are checked out.

If Detroit plays at a 20-win pace hereafter, they would get 15 wins for the season, which is horribly bad but not unprecedented.  There are 13 prior instances of a 15-win season in an 82-game season (only ten teams have won fewer than 15 games in an 82-game season).  I’m guessing the Pistons break 20 wins this season but this has been an ugly year.