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The Pistons Are So Good At Losing

9:02 AM EST on December 29, 2023

Monty Williams watches his Pistons lose again.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Detroit Pistons lost again. They have lost an incredible 28 consecutive games, and 29 of 31 played so far this season. What can you, a rational basketball fan, do with this information? Where does it go in your brain, unbidden and unchecked, tracing a bore-hole of charred devastation through your tender brain-meat, the way lightning leaves a sintered vein of fulgurite in soil? What happy memories are wiped out forever and replaced by this terrible knowledge, that the 2023–24 Detroit Pistons haven't won a basketball game in two entire months? What even are the names of your children?

The Pistons were in Boston Thursday night. This was, on paper, about as hopeless a task as these desperate goobers have faced all season: The Celtics entered the game fresh off a dominant road trip, winners of eight of nine overall, with a top-five offense and a top-five defense, and with the NBA's only unblemished home record. They recently flattened three consecutive very good Western Conference teams, beating the Clippers, Lakers, and Kings by an average of 24 points. The closest they've come to losing at home this season was a three-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in late November; apart from that game their average margin of victory in Boston is 17 points. Meanwhile—and this probably goes without saying—the Pistons have the worst road record in basketball.

Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla nevertheless warned his players that this could be a classic trap game. "Everybody comes into a game like this and it’s just like, ‘Oh, the Celtics are playing the Pistons, so they should win the game, and they’re just going to win the game.’ And they look at the record, and they create this emotional mindset of like, ‘Oh, this is easy,'" he recalled Thursday night. "I expected this to be one of the hardest games of the year."

The scoreboard tells me that this was, in fact, not one of Boston's hardest games of the year—the Celtics have lost six times, after all—but for a home win over the worst team in the history of the NBA, it was relatively complicated. The home team was lethargic early on, and the Pistons uncharacteristically waited a few minutes before they began throwing the ball exclusively to the opposition, and as a result Detroit took an early six-point lead.

Extravagantly overpaid Pistons head coach Monty Williams responded to this early success with the incomprehensible and possibly fireable decision to roll out the first of several all-bench lineups. It cannot be overstated how insanely bad an idea this was. The Pistons may sincerely not have one lineup's worth of bonafide rotation-grade NBA players. Williams's bench is a horror show: Killian Hayes and James Wiseman are approximately as bad at basketball as it is possible to be while playing it every day; Isaiah Livers is the ultra-rare NBA player who has gotten sharply worse in each of his first three seasons in the league; veteran Alec Burks is perhaps the least ethical hooper in the game today; Ausar Thompson, bless him, is a proud and talented and hardworking rookie who appears to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Putting any two members of this group into a game at the same time is a harrowing risk. Putting all five of them into a game at once is like playing Russian roulette, alone, with a fully-loaded blunderbuss.

Detroit held off the Celtics for a while, aided by Mazzulla's choice to roll out a bench-heavy lineup of his own, and by Celtics gremlin Payton Pritchard going on an extended, psychedelic, 0-for-1 million heat-check in the second period. The Pistons ripped off a 10–0 run, went crazy on the offensive glass, and went into halftime with an improbable 19-point lead. It never looked organized or intentional, not for a moment, but even for teams as abjectly horrendous as the Pistons the sport can still, at times and for fleeting stretches, be reduced to makes and misses. "They play chaotic," explained Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis, per The Athletic, by way of an explanation for that upside-down first-half scoreboard. It's the nicest thing anyone has said about the Pistons all season without lying through their teeth.

It's hard to say that lineup mismanagement is what doomed the Pistons in the second half, because they are in every possible configuration a mound of crud, but it didn't help. With a sharpened and newly focused Celtics team suddenly taking big chunks out of the lead, Williams once again dared to send out Livers, and then Wiseman and Thompson, and then Burks, and then finally Hayes, for another dreaded all-bench lineup. Boston finished off a dominant third-quarter comeback on a fast-break bucket from Porzingis, triggered by a catastrophically bad live-ball turnover from Livers, which followed closely a slapstick pass into the stands from Hayes. Williams appeared to be a genius when he was leading the Suns to the rarefied air of real-deal title contention but there is a strong and growing likelihood that he might in fact be as bad as his team's record. He is at least glaringly ill-suited to this moment: Detroit's roster is bereft, comprehensively, but a coach can at least not organize his awful players into the worst possible combinations. That seems like a reasonably low bar to clear for the investment of $80 million.

The Pistons made several valiant pushes in the fourth quarter to stick close to the Celtics, got six clutch points from second-year guard Jaden Ivey, and forced overtime. Truly, hang a banner in Detroit's arena; it may sincerely get no better than this. "I’m unbelievably proud of the group, the way they bring it,” said Williams, after his team lost its record 28th consecutive game, by eight points, to a team missing an All-Star and that spent an entire half of the contest almost literally napping on cots at mid-court. “They’ve heard all the stuff about our team and they just keep bringing it." It's probably better not to know precisely what Williams means by "it" here.

The Pistons host the Raptors on Saturday before swinging out west for a tough five-game road trip; they do not play another clown team until Jan. 10, when they will welcome Victor Wembanyama and the Western Conference-worst Spurs for the NBA's worst available matchup. There's really no telling how bad this could get; when you're this good at losing, anything's possible.

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