Grading Detroit’s rebuilds, from promising to failing: Lions, Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Was it really just five years ago?

Detroit’s four professional sports teams simultaneously have been going through such slow rebuilds that it’s hard to believe it was only 2016 when all four teams were flourishing.

The Lions, Red Wings and Pistons made the playoffs that year. The Tigers finished second in the division and still had Justin Verlander and a 33-year-old Miguel Cabrera, who hit .318 with 38 homers.

And then – the dark times.

Pavel Datsyuk left for Russia after the Wings lost to Tampa Bay in five games. Andre Drummond slumped after his first All-Star season and Reggie Jackson struggled and missed time with a knee injury. Verlander was traded. The Lions finished with the same mediocre 9-7 record but this time didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

Yes, by the end of 2017, the run of success for all four of the Motor City’s teams stalled and came to a screeching halt as fans did a faceplant into their airbags. Only the Pistons have made a brief playoff appearance – a four-game sweep by Milwaukee in 2019 – since then.

So here we are. The Motor City has become Rebuild City. Teams can talk about the process and patience and culture. We’re here to talk about what we’ve seen so far and grade each team’s rebuild.

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Lions: How it started

I’m not going to make the “rebuilding since 1957” joke, even if it’s kind of true. You could argue the current rebuild started with the 2016 season, when Sheila Ford Hamp replaced Bill Ford Jr. as her mother’s main adviser and Rod Wood replaced Tom Lewand as team president, and general manager Bob Quinn was hired to recreate the Patriots.

But for now, let’s focus on the latest efforts under the latest regime. What’s most significant about this rebuild is it’s happening under Hamp, who took over as principal owner in June.

So far, the hallmark of Hamp’s stewardship has been her effort to be more involved and become more knowledgeable about how an NFL team operates. She has strived for more inclusiveness and better communication from her team’s decision makers.

WINDSOR: Lions’ Sheila Ford Hamp shows her inner swag with NFL draft

Hamp is well-spoken, open and relatable. She has made a strong effort to be a visible and vocal presence for a fan base that has always incorrectly assumed the Fords haven’t cared about the Lions because they’ve largely been quiet owners who haven’t meddled.

Hamp sought people who aligned with her vision, such as special adviser Chris Spielman, GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. Holmes and Campbell have spoken at every turn about how great their partnership has been in the few months they’ve been together.

How it’s going

This is the biggest makeover and rebuild the Lions have undertaken since 2009, when Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz sifted through the ashes of “0-16” and drafted Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall. Stafford had no desire to be part of this rebuild and was granted a trade request, which brought Jared Goff and three draft picks (including two first-rounders) to Detroit.

The Lions let their two best receivers, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, walk in free agency and jettisoned high-priced veterans like Justin Coleman, Desmond Trufant, Jesse James and Danny Shelton. They’ve added journeyman receivers like Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman on one-year deals but have most significantly focused their efforts on improving both lines.

They upgraded the defensive line by trading a 2023 seventh-round pick to the Rams for Michael Brockers, then spent Day 2 draft picks on Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill. But the team’s strength should be the offensive line, with No. 7 overall pick Penei Sewell making it three first-round picks on the unit.

He said it

Holmes, describing his plan for rebuilding the defense and the team at his introductory news conference: “Please don’t get mad at me if I don’t use the word ‘rebuild,’ if I just continue to pivot toward ‘retool.’ But I do think that there are some building blocks on this defense currently. Obviously, we will address that side of the ball just like we’ll address the offensive side of the ball. There is no area that we won’t work to improve in.”

Grade: C

The Lions have some elite and quality players like Pro Bowlers Goff, T.J. Hockenson, Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker and Jack Fox. Holmes had a good first draft while trying to find foundational pieces along both lines and addressing some areas of need. But the Lions have a lot of key people in first-time positions, most notably Holmes, Campbell and their owner. There are signs of promise in the rebuild, but it’s way too early to tell if this will lead to consistent competitiveness two or three years down the road.

BIRKETT: Inside the Penei Sewell pick and Brad Holmes’ tone-setting first draft

Pistons: How it started

The Pistons are in their 10th year of ownership under Tom Gores, with little to show for it. Since the 2011-12 season, they have made two playoff appearances, swept both times, and own an NBA-record 14 straight postseason losses. They’re on their fourth full-time coach and their fourth GM.

The latest regime’s rebuild  starts with the May 2018 firing of Stan Van Gundy, who had organizational control as head coach and team president, but managed one playoff appearance in four seasons.

That led to the hiring of Dwane Casey as head coach. Toronto’s coach for seven seasons was fired after the Raptors were swept by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals and humiliated in Game 4, and days after he was named NBA coach of the year.

In 2018-19, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson each played at least 75 games. The Pistons won 41 games but were swept by the Bucks, losing by a combined 95 points in four games.

Drummond, a two-time All-Star, was traded in February 2020 to Cleveland. Jackson was waived the same month. In June, the team hired longtime Oklahoma City Thunder front-office executive Troy Weaver as GM.

On March 5, the Pistons got rid of their last bona fide star when they bought out Griffin’s contract after he struggled through 20 games.

A LESSON: What Troy Weaver can learn from Pistons’ failed Blake Griffin trade

How it’s going

Weaver has been working at a torrid pace to improve the roster, though it didn’t start great. The Pistons had the fifth-best odds to win the NBA lottery last year but fell two spots to No. 7 and drafted French point guard Killian Hayes, passing up fellow 6-foot-5 point guard Tyrese Haliburton, a Rookie of the Year frontrunner who went 12th to Sacramento. Hayes missed 41 games earlier this season with a hip strain but has shown his potential late in the season as a skilled passer and defender; recently, he became the first Pistons rookie since Joe Dumars to record a streak of 10 games with a least five assists.

But Hayes’ injury didn’t stop Weaver from still having a ROY contender: sharpshooting Villanova small forward Saddiq Bey, whom he drafted 19th overall after he acquired the pick in a three-team trade that sent Luke Kennard to the Los Angeles Clippers and Bruce Brown to Brooklyn.

The Pistons used the 16th overall pick — their second of three in the first round — to draft Washington center Isaiah Stewart, an intense rebounder and defender who’s also on some ROY watchlists. Along with second-round guard Saben Lee, the four rookies have shown promise.

Shortly after the draft, Weaver swung some more trades, none bigger than acquiring Jerami Grant with a three-year, $60 million deal in a sign-and-trade with the Denver Nuggets. The 27-year-old forward has been great and received All-Star consideration. He entered Sunday’s game averaging career highs in points (22.3), free-throw percentage (84.5%) and minutes (33.9).

Bey and guard Frank Jackson, a December two-way signing, have been part of a superb group of reserves that led the NBA in bench scoring with an average of 41.8 points through Saturday.

PISTONS MAILABG: Not getting a top-5 draft pick wouldn’t be end of the world. Here’s why

He said it

Weaver, in January after a 2-9 start discussing his approach to being competitive while building for the future: “You have to have the mindset of being aggressive and trying to improve the team. Sticking with your plan and making your plan work. When I was growing up, I didn’t stick my toe in the pool, I jumped in. I sit on the front of the roller coaster with my hands up. I’m not going to come in and be gun shy. My clip will be empty.”

Grade: B

Weaver has walked the walk and hasn’t stood still. He has made aggressive moves to build the roster, even if that hasn’t been reflected in the standings. The Pistons are in the running for a top-five pick. If Weaver scores another good draft class and Casey brings them all along by emphasizing more of the good habits and urgency the team has shown this season, a playoff run won’t be out of the question next season.

Hamidou Diallo making case for bigger Pistons role — or to get paid in free agency ]

Red Wings: How it started

The Wings have missed the playoffs for five straight seasons, but they didn’t really start their rebuild until 2017-18, a year after their 25-season playoff streak ended and GM Ken Holland overpaid Frans Nielsen and added Thomas Vanek before the 2016-17 season to help keep the streak alive.

Justin Abdelkader’s seven-year deal for $29.75 million in 2015 and Henrik Zetterberg’s $73 million deal for 12 years at age 28 in 2009 were bound to be a payroll and roster burden at some point.

When he was hired as GM in April 2019, Steve Yzerman inherited those contract problems on a team that had missed the playoffs three straight seasons.

HELENE: 19 thoughts on Steve Yzerman’s first two years running Red Wings

How it’s going

Not great. But not without some hope.

For the fourth time in five years, the Wings will finish in the bottom two of their division.

If we look at Yzerman’s tenure, there’s a glimmer of hope. The Wings made a big jump from a .275 point percentage last season to .427 this season, and finished with two more wins despite playing 15 fewer games.

They also made huge jump in goals-against average, going from last in 2020 at 3.73 per game to 3.05, which ranked 20th after Saturday’s finale. The penalty kill also jumped from a league-worst 74.3% last year to 22nd at 78.7% this year. Their goal differential also improved vastly, from minus-122 last year to minus-44.

Still, scoring remains the big problem. Their goals-per-game went from 2.00 last year to 2.27 this year, but both were near the bottom of the league, and the power play  was second-worst this year, scoring at a horrid 11.4% clip.

Yzerman made a big statement at the trade deadline by sending promising-but-underperforming forward Anthony Mantha to Washington five months after signing him to a big extension. The message was clear: Get better or get out.

[ 3 weeks in, Red Wings winning Jakub Vrana-Anthony Mantha trade ]

In the deal, Yzerman received promising young forward and restricted free agent Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, plus a first-round pick this year and a second-rounder next year. Yzerman made three other trades in April, acquiring draft picks each time.

Yzerman’s feverish swapping gives the Wings an extra first-round pick this year. They’ll have seven picks in the first three rounds and 12 total in July’s draft; both are the most in the NHL.

He said it

Yzerman, on the eve of the season opener: “We’re just looking for everybody to get better — that we improve in the rebuilding of our team and in the becoming more competitive. I want us to be better in every area.”

Grade: C

This grade could easily be a B due to Yzerman’s hard work and his decisiveness over Mantha. But anyone who has watched the putrid results over two seasons would have a hard time saying the rebuild warrants more than a passing grade for now.

WINDSOR: Steve Yzerman is 2 years into Wings rebuild. His eye for talent is showing

Tigers: How it started

Al Avila took over for fired GM and president Dave Dombrowski in August 2015, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the team started the rebuild by hacking away at its exorbitant payroll of about $200 million.

Power hitter J.D. Martinez was the first major piece to go, shipped off in July 2017 to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospects Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King. Catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson were traded to the Chicago Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and prospect Isaac Paredes.

But the biggest move came August 31 when the Tigers sent Verlander – plus cash and left-hander Juan Ramirez – to the Houston Astros for catcher Jake Rogers, outfielder Daz Cameron and right-hander Franklin Perez.

Thanks to the Tigers’ consistently terrible record since 2017, Avila has gotten plenty of high draft picks and has mostly done well, with several holding prominent places on MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings. Infielder Spencer Torkelson (third), outfielder Riley Greene (17th) and Matt Manning (20th) are in the top 100.

ON THE FARM: Ranking Tigers’ top 15 prospects entering minor league season

How it’s going

While there’s promising talent in the system, it hasn’t looked that way on the field. For all the high picks and moves, the product remains awful. And owner Christopher Ilitch has said he won’t break out the checkbook to sign big-time free agents until the team is closer to competing.

Some of Avila’s trades have been better than others, and the draft has produced excitement and contributors like pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. He also seemingly scored a coup by taking outfielder and hitting sensation Akil Baddoo in the Rule 5 draft.

But there are no clear stars on the team, no apparent Verlanders, Alan Trammells, Kirk Gibsons or Lance Parrishes. They might reveal themselves in time, but how long can you ask a fanbase to wait? We must acknowledge the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped players’ development.

It was a good sign the team hired manager AJ Hinch, an obvious signal there’s organizational hope that the team isn’t far from being competitive.

So far, the Tigers can’t hit and can’t score, and were the last team in the majors to reach 10 wins, making it on Saturday, a week after the next-last team. FiveThirtyEight projects they’ll finish last with 62 wins — they went 47-114 in 2019.

WINDSOR: How have Tigers become a mess during rebuild? Al Avila bears most of the blame

He said it

Ilitch in March, discussing the state of the rebuild: “Our organization is moving forward with a win-now mentality. It’s exciting that a lot of our top prospects are on the cusp. Obviously, there is development that needs to occur. But it doesn’t feel like it’s very far away. It’s getting closer every day.”

Grade: D

Maybe it’ll all turn around when Torkelson arrives or Matt Manning or — who’s the latest catching savior, Dillon Dingler? Ilitch has promised there’s a plan and commitment to it. But with little evidence to support progress over five years, it’s hard to have faith.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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