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Which of the four major Detroit sports teams is closest to winning a championship?

Lions, Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers all trying to get back to postseason

Matthew Stafford, Christian Wood, Casey Mize and Filip Zadina are four reasons for sports optimism in Detroit.
Matthew Stafford, Christian Wood, Casey Mize and Filip Zadina are four reasons for sports optimism in Detroit. (Getty Images)

DETROIT – This is a strange time in the world of professional sports. Two of the four major leagues cut their seasons short due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Another is in the midst of an ugly financial negotiation. The fourth will be playing smack dab in the middle of when experts predict a second wave of the virus could hit.

But even though players aren’t on the courts, rinks, diamonds or fields, the last few months have been extremely important to the future of Detroit sports.

Sports headlines:

First, the Lions had one of their most important drafts in recent memory. Then, the Tigers took center stage at the MLB Draft with the No. 1 overall pick. On Thursday, the Pistons finally hired a general manager.

There’s really no way to sugarcoat the city’s recent struggles. None of the teams have won a single playoff game in four years. The last team to advance to the second round of the postseason was the Tigers in 2013.

Since Oct. 19, 2013, the Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings are a combined 5-25 in playoff games, with the Red Wings accounting for all five wins in first-round losses.

So the question everyone’s been asking for years remains: Which team is closest to bringing a championship to Detroit?

Detroit Lions

  • Record last season: 3-12-1 (30th out of 32 teams)
  • Last playoff appearance: Jan. 7, 2017 (26-6 loss at Seattle Seahawks)
  • Last playoff win: Jan. 5, 1992
Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions watches the pregame activities prior to the start of the game against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field on December 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Green Bay defeated Detroit 23-20.
Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions watches the pregame activities prior to the start of the game against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field on December 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Green Bay defeated Detroit 23-20. (2019 Getty Images)

This section is about the Lions and championship aspirations. It would be reasonable to laugh and move on to the Pistons.

The Lions have one playoff win in the last 63 years. They’re 0-8 in the postseason since 1992.

Some might argue those numbers don’t have any impact on the upcoming seasons, but 3-12-1 certainly does. The Lions were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, and this ownership and front office combination provide little reason for confidence.

Sure, Matthew Stafford returning to full health would immediately make the Lions much better. He’s been rock solid for a decade leading the franchise, but that hasn’t gotten Detroit any closer to a Super Bowl.

With the No. 3 overall pick this offseason, the Lions got one of the best defensive players available in Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah. They managed to get the consensus No. 1 running back prospect in the second round. Even their third-round picks seemed to fill immediate needs.

But will Okudah, Julian Okwara and free agent signees Jamie Collins, Nick Williams and Desmond Trufant be enough to fix what was an embarrassment of a defense last season?

The only argument in favor of the Lions being the closest to winning a championship is the year-to-year unpredictability in the NFL. Could Stafford go off next year and get the Lions into the postseason? Absolutely. Is this core group of players enough to win three or four playoff games? Give me a break.

Barring another year of catastrophic injuries, the Lions will improve in 2020-21, but they shouldn’t even utter the words “Super Bowl.”

Detroit Pistons

  • Record last season: 20-46 (26th out of 30 teams)
  • Last playoff appearance: April 22, 2019 (4-0 series loss to Milwaukee Bucks)
  • Last playoff series win: May 13, 2008
Sekou Doumbouya #45 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 28, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Pistons defeated the Suns 113-111.
Sekou Doumbouya #45 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 28, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Pistons defeated the Suns 113-111. (2020 Getty Images)

The Pistons technically made the playoffs a year ago, but they’d probably rather you just forget that ever happened.

The bloodbath at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks was a sobering reminder of how far the Pistons are from true contention. In four games, the Bucks won by a total margin of 95 points.

A few more games in that series and the Pistons probably would have been relegated to the G League.

During a stretch of six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2003 to 2008, the Pistons were the model franchise of the NBA. They didn’t need superstars or massive contracts to consistently be one of the top teams in the league. They won a championship and came one play away from another.

Much like the Bad Boys did to Michael Jordan, the Goin’ To Work Pistons kept LeBron James out of multiple NBA Finals.

But when the final buzzer sounded on May 30, 2008, marking the Pistons’ loss to the Boston Celtics in six games, that era gave way to whatever you call the last 12 years.

Since then, the Pistons have made just three brief cameos in the playoffs, going a combined 0-12.

It’s not just the postseason record that has been so miserable for Pistons fans. The blend of awful contracts and not-quite-as-bad-as-you’d-hope mediocrity has made the team unbearable to follow for more than a decade.

Not only were Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Reggie Jackson and, of course, Josh Smith, signed to terrible contracts. They were part of teams that always seemed to do just enough to keep the Pistons from locking up top draft picks.

Fans ended up watching the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Henry Ellenson, Stanley Johnson and Brandon Knight fizzle out despite being first-round picks. The only two values they really identified were Khris Middleton and Spencer Dinwiddie, and both were dumped and turned into stars elsewhere.

Oh right, this is supposed to be about the future.

On Thursday the Pistons made what appears to be an excellent hire at general manager, after leaving the position open for the last two years.

Troy Weaver is coming over from the Oklahoma City Thunder after 10 years of helping them stay in regular contention despite consistent roster turnover. Weaver has helped develop talent, sign free agents and negotiate contracts. Most importantly, he’s helped the Thunder draft well and knows how to turn current assets into draft picks and young talent.

On the current roster, the Pistons’ hopes lie in the hands of Sekou Doumbouya, Luke Kennard and Christian Wood. There isn’t much else to like right now.

But Weaver has all the credentials of someone who can lead a turnaround, and Arn Tellem and Ed Stefanski aren’t a bad duo to help him do the job.

The Bucks, Lakers and Clippers aren’t going away soon, so even the most optimistic timeline for the Pistons to contend for an NBA title is well down the road.

Detroit Red Wings

  • Record last season: 17-49-5 (31st out of 31 teams)
  • Last playoff appearance: April 21, 2016 (4-1 series loss to Tampa Bay Lightning)
  • Last playoff series win: May 12, 2013
Filip Zadina #11 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Chicago Blackhawks during a pre season game at Little Caesars Arena on September 20, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Filip Zadina #11 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Chicago Blackhawks during a pre season game at Little Caesars Arena on September 20, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Calling the Red Wings awful this season would be an understatement.

Not only were the Wings the worst team in the NHL, they finished 23 points behind the 30th-ranked Ottawa Senators without even finishing the season. The Wings had a minus-122 goal differential -- SEVENTY points worse than any other team.

Seventy!

But as bad as it looks right now, there’s one bright, shining beacon of hope: Steve Yzerman.

The former Red Wings legend has traded in his sweater for a suit and tie to bring Hockeytown back to glory. But it certainly won’t be easy.

Detroit hasn’t finished better than fifth in the Atlantic Division in any of the last four seasons, going a combined 112-164-41 over that span. The current roster reflects those years of losing.

Luckily, Yzerman knows how to build a winner. He proved as much with the Tampa Bay Lightning. While Yzerman was there, Tampa Bay was a perennial contender, leading the league in wins and goals scored from 2013-14 through 2018-19. The franchise was fifth overall in wins with Yzerman at GM.

He earned the NHL General Manager of the Year award in 2015.

The Red Wings have had the No. 6 overall pick each of the last two years, selecting Filip Zadina in 2018 and Moritz Seider in 2019. They headline a crop of prospects Yzerman hopes will lead the franchise back to the postseason.

Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek and Anthony Mantha form a decent group to build around, but most of the NHL roster needs to be reconstructed.

That will take at least a few years.

After floundering in the latter years of the Ken Holland era, Red Wings fans can feel optimistic about the direction of the franchise. They just might not like what they actually see on the ice for a couple more seasons.

Detroit Tigers

  • Record last season: 47-114 (30th out of 30 teams)
  • Last playoff appearance: Oct. 5, 2014 (3-0 series loss to Baltimore Orioles)
  • Last playoff series win: Oct. 10, 2013
Tarik Skubal #87 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Facility on February 17, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida.
Tarik Skubal #87 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Facility on February 17, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida. (2020 Mark Cunningham)

Try not to think about the Tigers of the early 2010s, or how Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are still two of the best pitchers in baseball, or how J.D. Martinez and Eugenio Suarez are elite sluggers.

Instead, think about the future.

For the second time in three years, the Tigers were the worst team in baseball in 2019. It’s been hard to watch, but the farm system is certainly grateful.

The result of those two No. 1 overall picks: Casey Mize and Spencer Torkelson.

Mize is a top 10 prospect in all of baseball and Torkelson was the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2020 draft. They join the likes of Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Riley Greene, Isaac Paredes, Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz in a system that’s suddenly loaded with talent.

Did you get a glimpse of Mize, Manning, Skubal and Faedo during the abbreviated spring training this year? They’re close to MLB ready, and when they join the likes of Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull in Detroit, the team should have a rotation that can compete with any in the league.

Meanwhile, this is all coming together as the landscape of baseball changes. Salary spats between players and owners have led to what will almost certainly be a 16-team postseason at least through 2021. When the new CBA is signed after next year, playoffs expanded beyond 10 teams are expected to become the new norm.

That means teams will have better odds to make the postseason. It also means shorter series in early playoff rounds which benefits -- you guessed it -- strong pitching staffs.

The one knock on Al Avila’s rebuild has been the lack of offense at any level of the organization. That’s starting to look like less of an issue after he stole the show at the 2020 draft.

After taking Torkelson at the top, Avila went with four more college bats in Dillon Dingler, Daniel Cabrera, Trei Cruz and Gage Workman. Then he added a stud high school prospect in the fifth round.

Quick Tigers draft links:

Torkelson, Dingler, Cabrera, Greene and Paredes give the Tigers five legitimate upper tier offensive prospects. Dingler, Cabrera, Workman, Cruz, Colt Keith, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro, Kody Clemens, Parker Meadows, Bryant Packard and a handful of others could emerge as contributors in the future.

If all goes right, the Tigers could have an exciting young pitching rotation in 2021 that turns into a star-studded one by 2023, which is when some of these hitters should be at the heart of the lineup.

Don’t get me wrong: A lot has to go right. The current MLB roster is awful and only has a handful of players -- Boyd, Turnbull, Niko Goodrum, Joe Jimenez and Jake Rogers -- who really project to be part of the future.

But unlike with the Lions, Pistons and Red Wings, there’s a path to championship contention for the Tigers that actually includes players who are already in the system.

The Houston Astros won the World Series in 2017, four years after losing 100 games three seasons in a row. The Chicago Cubs won it in 2016, three years after losing 101 and 96 games in back-to-back seasons.

Both of those teams used a similar formula: endure losing to stockpile prospects through trades and the draft, and then when the team is back in contention, bring in free agents to put the roster over the edge.

Well, the Tigers have the prospects to possibly compete for an AL Central title in two or three years. It doesn’t hurt that in four months, the only post-arbitration salary on the entire payroll will be Miguel Cabrera’s. That means the Tigers will soon have young talent on the big league roster and a ton of money to spend on free agents.

Obviously, several prospects still have to pan out and Avila has to continue making the right moves, but compared to the other teams in the city, it seems obvious the Tigers are Detroit’s only real hope over the next five years.


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