DETROIT – Is it finally happening? Could this long, dark era of Detroit sports misery be nearing its end?
None of our teams have made the postseason since 2016, and it’s been a full eight years since a Detroit team actually advanced in the playoffs.
But right now, for the first time in years, there are legitimate signs of hope.
We love our four major professional sports teams here, but the last several years have been... let’s just say “difficult.”
The Tigers haven’t made the playoffs since 2014, and in the last four seasons finished with the worst, fifth-worst, worst and third-worst record in the sport. Typically, competitive baseball has been swept from our minds by the end of April.
It’s been even uglier for the Pistons. They’ve managed just one winning record in 12 seasons, and their two playoff appearances were so short you might have missed them. Both times -- 2016 and 2019 -- Detroit was a No. 8 seed that never had a chance and got swept right out of the first round.
Seven times during that 12-year stretch, the Pistons haven’t even been able to surpass 30 wins. Even more frustrating, they’ve always managed to win just enough games to stay out of the top five of the draft.
Eight years have passed since the Red Wings made it out of the first round of the playoffs. After losing in the first-round three years in a row from 2014-2016, the team has finished last or second-to-last in the division every year but once (fifth).
The Lions, well, we all know how that goes.
Here’s a look at some signs that the Detroit sports scene is about to get a whole lot brighter:
Troy Weaver’s roster overhaul
How long have we been waiting for someone to roll up their sleeves and do what needed to be done with the Pistons?
After the incredible run of seven straight season of at least making the Eastern Conference Finals, it was clear the Pistons needed to hit the reset button by 2010. Instead, the team floundered in mediocrity for five years, finishing with between 25 and 30 wins.
Then, the Stan Van Gundy disaster struck. He inherited an obvious rebuild situation and tried to win immediately. We got one winning season out of the deal, and to be honest, that only made the next few years even worse.
But Troy Weaver knew exactly what to do when he was hired last June. The roster disgusted him so much he made dozens of moves in the span of a month, and as it stands, the longest-tenured Pistons player is 2019 first-round pick Sekou Doumbouya.
Weaver had me writing headlines like, “Who’s actually on the Detroit Pistons’ roster right now?” and “Here are 27 moves the Pistons have made in the last month.”
Finally, someone was willing to tear it down.
The result was a perfectly executed tank. Weaver brought in young players who grew throughout the season and veterans to fit into roles around them. The Pistons were almost always competitive, and almost always lost -- the perfect recipe for a rebuild.
By the end of the year, Detroit was the second-worst team in the NBA with a 20-52 record. That’s terrible. Yet somehow, everyone came away thinking the team looked pretty strong.
How in the world did Weaver pull that off?
But the cherry on top of the rebuild was that the Pistons received the...
No. 1 NBA draft pick
That’s right: After decades of bad luck in the NBA lottery, the Pistons caught a huge break Tuesday night, earning the top choice in the 2021 draft.
Ben Wallace was the team’s representative at the lottery. Even all these years later, he’s still coming through.
The Pistons were tied for the best odds to land the No. 1 pick, but nobody believed it would actually happen. Now, Weaver can add Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham to the roster.
Cunningham has all the tools to be a bonafide star in the NBA. He’s a 6-foot-8 point guard with excellent passing ability, a nice jump shot and all the qualities a franchise could want in its leader.
When Oklahoma State needed a big basket late, the ball was always in Cunningham’s hands. He was perhaps the most clutch player in college hoops, and despite his high usage, he shot 40% from beyond the arc.
From being the No. 1 recruit coming out of high school to the top prospect in the draft, Cunningham is a no-brainer choice. Tuesday was a great day to be a Piston, and it’s been awhile since anyone could say that.
NBA All-Rookie honorees
By the way, Cunningham won’t be joining a roster of nobodies. Two of the three players Weaver drafted in the first round of the 2020 draft earned All-Rookie honors this year.
Saddiq Bey was the most impressive. He averaged 12.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 38% from three. On a team without many offensive threats, Bey grew tremendously throughout the season and proved in the final months that he can take and make big shots.
Isaiah Stewart is also an exciting prospect. He averaged 7.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in just 21.4 minutes, and by the end of the season, he emerged as a threat from three-point range, as well.
Stewart has a high motor, shot 55.3% from the floor and blocked 1.3 shots per game. At only 19 years old, Pistons fans should be excited about his future.
50 days of winning baseball
Have you been paying attention to the Tigers?
If not -- if you only check the standings every once in awhile -- you probably aren’t getting the full picture. The team is still 10 games below .500 and well out of playoff contention.
But since May 7, when the Tigers were an MLB-worst 9-24, they’ve ripped off a 23-18 record, including sweeps of the Royals (twice), Mariners, Yankees and Cardinals.
It’s the first sustained success since 2016, when the Tigers finished just outside the playoff picture.
Early in the season, the Tigers had a stretch where they lost 18 of 21 games. It looked like the rebuild was going to have to restart from square one, and frankly, there weren’t any positives.
Now, the Tigers have turned into a team that handles adversity well. When they lose a series, they’ve been able to bounce back quickly -- each of their last two three-game losing streaks have been answered by three-game winning streaks.
The next 10 games will be critical because they come against the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. The Indians and White Sox have been absolute nightmares for the Tigers this season, while the Astros have won 10 straight and own the best record in the American League.
Even if this turns out to be an ugly stretch, at least there’s hope that the Tigers will be able to bounce back in July.
The Tigers are a bit reminiscent of the Pistons in that they aren’t winning at a high level right now, but they’re getting encouraging contributions from the right players. The guys that need to be building blocks for the future are the ones spurring this recent winning stretch.
Casey Mize leads the way with a 3.61 ERA, 1.117 WHIP and eight quality starts in his last 10 outings. The 24-year-old hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start since April 23, and he’s gone five or more innings every time during that stretch.
Mize isn’t quite an ace yet. He needs to up his strikeout rate, and the starts haven’t been dominant, per se. But this has been a season of immense growth, which is encouraging.
Meanwhile, Tarik Skubal is doing everything the Tigers could have hoped for over his last nine outings. He’s only allowed more than three earned runs once in that stretch while lasting five innings four times and six innings four times.
Most importantly, Skubal is missing bats. He’s racked up 67 strikeouts over 48.2 innings since April, while generating a 14% swinging strike rate. That bodes well for the future.
Mize leads the team in WAR (wins above replacement), and Skubal is the most improved player on the team. The Tigers needed both to take strides this season, and it’s clear they’re doing just that.
“So we’ve got the pitching, but how are we going to score runs?” That’s a fair question. My answer: Check out the Erie SeaWolves.
Each of the team’s top three hitting prospects are currently in Double-A Erie, and early signs are extremely positive.
Riley Greene, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, has been with the SeaWolves all season. He’s currently sporting an .880 OPS (on-base plus slugging) with eight homers, four doubles, two triples and 24 walks in 40 games. Greene is 7-for-8 in stolen base attempts and putting together quite the defensive highlight reel in center field.
Oh yeah, and he won’t turn 21 until September.
Spencer Torkelson and Dillon Dingler were the team’s first- and second-round picks, respectively, in the 2020 draft. Both were promoted to Double-A last week after tearing up the High-A Central League.
Torkelson posted a 1.009 OPS through 31 games in West Michigan, with 11 doubles, five home runs and 24 walks compared to 28 strikeouts. The combination of power and plate discipline is why all outlets rank Torkelson as a top-five prospect in all of baseball.
Since his promotion, Torkelson has hit three home runs, two doubles and four singles in nine games while drawing three walks and striking out six times.
Dingler hit eight home runs and six doubles before being promoted, and has since racked up seven hits and two walks in six games with the SeaWolves.
The Tigers will need to add some more offense to the organization this offseason, but the emergence of Akil Baddoo at the MLB level gives them another legitimate power-speed threat, especially against right-handers.
Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro are serviceable long-term pieces. Don’t give up on Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron and Kody Clemens, either.
Smart (well, at least new) Lions leadership
It’s hard to judge new Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes before we get a glimpse of his team on the field, but it sure seems like he has a plan.
The Lions have been a disaster and an embarrassment for so long. They haven’t given the city hardly any success for a half-century in a league that’s built on parody. The fact that Detroit hasn’t stumbled into a single NFC North Division title is a disgrace.
Luckily, the front office was overhauled this offseason, and Holmes surrounded himself with smart football minds, such as Chris Spielman, Ray Agnew and John Dorsey.
Holmes and Campbell have said all the right things this offseason, but that doesn’t mean much. What has fans cautiously optimistic is they have conviction behind their moves.
The draft wasn’t necessarily sexy, but the Lions added depth on both sides of the line. They extended Frank Ragnow and used the No. 7 pick to select Penei Sewell -- the top offensive lineman available.
It’s also hard not to love the return Holmes got by trading Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. Not only did he replace Stafford with a serviceable short-term quarterback in Jared Goff, he also acquired...
Two extra first-round picks
This is the key. Holmes will have two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts to really turn his vision into reality.
The Lions should be pretty bad next year, and maybe even the year after that. At least two of those four picks are likely to be in or around the top 10.
In the meantime, Glenn will be working with the likes of Jeff Okudah and the Okwara brothers. Lynn has a strong offensive line and deep running backs group to build around.
If the Lions can find a quarterback and hit on those first-round picks, there might be something brewing for the first time since Barry Sanders retired.
I would still put my money on the Pistons or Tigers -- and heck, probably even the Red Wings -- winning a title before the Lions. But at the very least, there’s some hope for a change.
Yzerman’s blank slate
I genuinely think there are reasons to be optimistic about all four Detroit franchises, but hockey rebuilds take time, so right now, the Red Wings might be the furthest away from actually competing for a title.
That doesn’t mean things aren’t heading in the right direction. Enter: Steve Yzerman.
By now, everyone knows Yzerman’s resume. Not only is he a legend because of his playing days, he’s also got excellent credibility as a general manager.
When Yzerman took over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, the franchise was coming off three straight losing seasons. In years four through 10 of the team Yzerman built, the Lightning finished with a winning record every single season. It won two division titles, finished second four times, made four conference finals appearances and two Stanley Cup appearances.
The year after Yzerman came home to Detroit, the roster he built in Tampa Bay won its first Cup since 2004.
It’s only been two years since Yzerman took over this mess, so he’s still in the process of putting the building blocks in place. Filip Zadina is just scratching the surface, and prospects like Moritz Seider, Joe Veleno and others are in the pipeline.
The Red Wings have the right man pulling the strings, and he’s already starting to stockpile talent. At the very least, the team will be much more interesting to watch in the coming seasons.