The Pee Stains Alone
11:46 AM EST on December 17, 2023
The three worst teams in the NBA—the Washington Wizards, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Detroit Pistons—carried an astounding run of combined futility into Friday night. The last time any one of them had won a game was way back on Nov. 27, when the Wizards took one on the road—in Detroit, over the Pistons. That win was the lone one for this triumvirate of poop stretching all the way back to Nov. 10; the Spurs had not won a game after Nov. 2; the Pistons last won on Oct. 28. In games against the rest of the NBA, these three teams had gone a mind-boggling 0-56.
It looked, by Friday's schedule, like this improbable streak would continue for at least another night. The Pistons were in Philadelphia, facing an unstoppable Joel Embiid and a 76ers team with far and away the NBA's best point differential. The Spurs were at home, but facing a Lakers team that just coolly swept its way through the new in-season tournament and had beaten the Spurs the night before. The Wizards were also at home—or, anyway, at the doomed downtown arena they are in the process of abandoning—but facing the in-season tournament runner-up, a Pacers team that thumped the bejeezus out of Washington on opening night. Each team was likely to lose, but they would at least have the cold comfort of knowing that their fellows in putrescence would also lose.
Unfortunately, not everyone held up their end of the bargain. The Spurs jumped out to a 20-point first-quarter lead, held off a Lakers charge in the second quarter, then lengthened a seven-point halftime lead through the second half, finally securing a relatively breezy 129–115 victory in front of a deeply relieved home crowd. The win broke up an 18-game losing streak, the longest in the franchise's 48 NBA seasons. San Antonio's adorable youths were so unfamiliar with victory they could barely process what had happened.
"It didn’t feel like a normal win,” said fourth-year wing Devin Vassell. “You seen people jumping around on the side. I’m trying to stay composed. It’s special. This is a special group." Special, yes, in the sense that winning once in 41 days, against a team missing three starters, feels to them like summiting Mount Everest.
"Feels like a playoff game for me,” said sweetly naive noodle youth Victor Wembanyama, who, of course, has not yet experienced an NBA playoff game. “We love this feeling."
The Wizards also accomplished the improbable, surging to a first-half lead over the Pacers, lengthening the lead in the third quarter, and then coasting to a comfortable 137–123 victory. Their formula for success Friday night is absolutely not repeatable, in that it relied on both Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Poole playing well and in the same game. Tyus Jones had a triple-double; Buddy Hield missed eight of 11 three-point attempts. It was a weird and wacky game, and it produced a weird and wacky result. Nevertheless the Wizards had their first win against a non-Pistons team in 36 days. The Washington Post described the Wizards as "downright giddy." There was celebratory dancing.
Which brings us, at last, to the Pistons. Detroit entered their Friday game with the 76ers riding a 21-game losing streak, which included a recent loss to the 76ers at home by 18 points. Philadelphia busted it open in the second quarter, made it into a laugher during a dominant third, and kept stars Embiid and Tyrese Maxey off the court altogether for the fourth-quarter formalities, cake-walking to a 124–92 victory. The loss was Detroit's 22nd in a row, the new longest streak in franchise history. For good measure, Detroit went out Saturday night and gave up 146 points in regulation to a Milwaukee Bucks team missing two starters, the Pistons' second consecutive 32-point blowout loss.
Looking ahead, the schedule does provide some opportunities for relief. Detroit's next two games are against the sloppy and underwhelming Atlanta Hawks and the horrendous and rebuilding Utah Jazz; they then swing out west for a four-game road trip on Jan. 1, which will feature another tilt with those Jazz. If nothing else, the Pistons can look ahead to Jan. 15, when they will play history's most dismal 3 p.m. holiday showcase game against the Wizards. They might not be favored in any of these games—at this point, you would not feel very good picking them to beat a well-rested Atlantic Sun team—but, eventually, lightning must strike.
"It's deflating," Pistons head coach Monty Williams said after the Sixers loss put his team into the record books. This time last year, Williams was coaching a title-favorite Suns team coming off a 64-win campaign.
One of the real dizzying quandaries of this season is whether any of these three teams actually intended to tank. The Pistons probably did not lavish an expensive long-term contract on a head coach two seasons removed from a Finals appearance so they could start the year with a gut-churning 2–24 record. Williams acknowledged after the Bucks loss that there might be a compounding psychological effect on the players from all this unceasing losing. Williams remains an optimist. "I keep believing that we’re due for a big game shooting the ball and defending and rebounding the ball at a higher level," he said. Heartbreaking.