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America Has Pistons Fever, And It Is Terminal

12:53 PM EST on December 27, 2023

Nic Antaya/Getty Images

This was Victor Wembanyama's year. Everybody said so, and if you can't trust everybody, who can you trust?

But nobody mentions him any more, or any of the other San Antonii. He works hard on a team that loses six of every seven games on its schedule, and by the most lopsided average in the league. Whatever you make of his talents, you acknowledge they are on a slow burn because the Spurs are, well, deeply and profoundly undergood.

Just not undergood enough. For that, there is the story du jour, the Detroit Pistons. Their fruitlessness reached a new artificial high in a six-point loss to Brooklyn, their 27th in succession, 28th in 30 games, and 54th in 58. They have gone multi-platinum in failure, and they are now the NBA's chief conversation point—the only conversation point, to be honest. Draymond Green's temper management is now back-burner stuff; the Lakers have lost six of eight since winning the Vegas Semi-Invitational; Tyrese Haliburton has not yet cured the Pacers of their essential Pacerhood; the Wizards are still on their own less spectacular but persistent journey toward 12-win-hood.

But the Pistons are the cultural thing we love most: the celebration of the extreme. That's what Wembanyama was, being 7-foot-4 and all, and while he is still 7-foot-4, his game is in its larval state on a team that loses almost as persistently as Detroit, but not quite. Wembanyama requires patience of his admirers, while the Pistons give you what you want right now: unarguably worst in show, no matter what show you're talking about. Nobody misunderstands that, whether you get your sports from ESPN, YouTube, or NPR. Indeed, we are not far from a reexamination of the professional team with the longest losing streak of them all, the equally Detroit-y Mechanix of the American Ultimate Disc League.

Yep, the Pistons still 44 straight losses away from being worse than the worst ultimate frisbee team since the formation of Wham-O.

The Pistons won't get there, of course; we don't live that well, and anyway most of us have other teams we would rather see lose 70 straight. But the Pistons are a national news story, a refreshing break from all the feelgood holiday blah-de-blap and the massively depressing world-on-fire that the holiday was supposed to momentarily suppress. The Pistons are what you didn't see coming because they have accomplished this while not trying to do so. They are organically dreadful, not because they need another first pick (this draft is supposed to be deeply sub-optional, and the Pistons probably need an old hand or two to guide them through the physical, mental, and emotional improvements that would ideally get them to 15, maybe even 20 wins.

This is not an educational losing streak any more than it is a tactical one. They've learned how to be awful on a nightly basis, and now they have the eyes of even the non-basketball world staring at them, rooting for them to fail just out of morbid curiosity. Thirty losses? Thirty-five? What's the right number once you get this far? Maybe the Pistons will become so unusually bad that they become tedious rather than extraordinary. After all, who got wrapped up in the Mechanix story? Doing the same cruddy thing over and over in hopes of a good result isn't a sign of insanity as much as it is a sign of lack of imagination.

But for now, the Pistons are The Thing because they are newly, freshly, innocently horrid, and their window will get wider and then shut entirely, all well before Valentine's Day. They are what Victor Wembanyama was going to be: the thing you've never seen before, until you see it all the time. Ask a Mechanix the next time you're in town.

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