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COLUMN: Mediocre Motown

Josh VanDyke • Apr 16, 2018 at 11:56 PM

April used to be an exciting time for Detroit sports fans.

Until recently, April usually meant the Red Wings were in contention for the Stanley Cup, the Pistons were in the playoff hunt and the Tigers were beginning a promising season with plenty of big names on their roster to warrant World Series aspirations.

Now, the only thing more dreadful than a mid-April snowstorm is the general outlook of what we as sports fans have to look forward to from our teams in the Motor City.

The Red Wings, once the model of consistency, have fallen on hard times as the organization attempts to "rebuild on the fly" with a wide gap on the roster between aging veterans and young prospects. As exciting as the NHL Playoffs can be, it lacks a little luster when the winged-wheel logo isn't out on the ice in HockeyTown.

The Pistons, once a proud franchise akin to the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls, have dabbled in irrelevance for the better part of a decade. Awful salary cap management, free agent moves and draft picks have anchored the franchise to the bottom of the league with the only saving grace being a few flashy names to help sell tickets in an otherwise empty arena.

The Tigers have been the closest organization to a championship recently when they advanced to the World Series in 2012. Since then, the organization has gone from a title contender to a middle-of-the-pack squad to a bottom dweller. Unlike the Red Wings and Pistons, however, the Tigers seem to be in a full rebuilding mode. A 100-loss season isn't out of the question and seems likely given the talent on the roster.

The only bright spot in the city is at Ford Field, where the Lions made a tough decision to part ways with Jim Caldwell a year after helping the franchise to two straight playoff appearances because they believe they have the pieces in place to build a championship contender. Under the vision of general manager Bob Quinn and the leadership of new head coach Matt Patricia, the Lions could save the sanity of a snake-bitten fanbase with a new level of optimism.

REBUILDING RED WINGS

The Red Wings might be the most frustrating of the four franchises, due to the expectations of past success and the inactivity of the front office to build on what has been a talented core of players for some time.

After budding stars like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk helped the Wings win the Stanley Cup in 2008 and return to Game 7 of the finals a year later, the organization has mismanaged its roster to the point that the team had to fight to even sneak into the playoffs in 2014 and 2015.

It was clear that the front office had no long-term plans for when Nicklas Lidström retired, as the team has been scrambling to assemble a respectable defensive group for years after his departure. Combine that lack of vision with some absurd contract decisions, like signing Johan Franzén to a 10-year deal instead of re-signing Marián Hossa after a 70-point season, and you can quickly understand why the Wings have fallen off the tracks.

This past season, the Wings compounded those bad decisions by trading away a talented, young goaltender in Petr Mrazek for fourth- and third-round conditional draft picks. Many experts viewed the move as selling low on someone who was viewed as a cornerstone piece of the franchise just a season prior. The Wings decided to keep 34-year-old Jimmy Howard in net, citing past success as a key factor in the decision.

Living on past success exemplifies the current state of the Detroit Red Wings. The organization decided to retain general manager Ken Holland for another two years shortly after the season ended and Holland quickly brought back head coach Jeff Blashill for another season amid questions of the direction of the franchise.

It's clear that Holland and Blashill's futures are intertwined, which is fitting since both are to blame for the current state of the franchise.

Holland, once viewed as a visionary GM when star players would take pay cuts to join the Wings in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup, is one of the lowest-rated general managers in the league according to polls done by ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Hockey-Graphs.com. Blashill, with a lackluster 104-105-37 record as the Red Wings' head coach, doesn't seem to be the right fit, but it's also difficult to evaluate a coach when he is given such a talent-deprived roster to work with.

Maybe after two more disappointing seasons, the organization will take a good, long look in the mirror and realize that it's time to actually rebuild and not just put duct tape on the holes in the wall.

PITIFUL PISTONS

It might be difficult to believe, but the Pistons were once considered the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Before LeBron James rose to his dominant state, the Pistons reeled off six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2002-08.

After falling to the eventual champion Boston Celtics in the Conference Finals in 2008, the Pistons began their road to irrelevance by not bringing back the late Flip Saunders as head coach and trading away All-Star point guard and fan-favorite Chauncey Billups for a washed-up Allen Iverson. The hard-working mantra of the Pistons during the 2000s was epitomized by Billups, whose perseverance after a long career as a journeyman point guard helped the team capture the 2004 NBA Championship.

Allen Iverson, an uber-talented and often polarizing personality, seemed to fly in the face of everything that the Pistons had hung their hard hat on in that era. Add in the fact that Iverson wasn't nearly the same player that he was when he willed the 76ers to an NBA Finals appearance in 2001 and you had a recipe for disaster in Motown.

After several failed coaching hires from 2008-11, the organization was sold to billionaire Tom Gores. Under his leadership, the Pistons failed to make the playoffs until 2015 under now-head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy.

Van Gundy brought some coaching clout to the organization, but his moves as a general manager have left a lot to be desired. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the Pistons could have selected players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo (2013), Devin Booker (2015) or Donovan Mitchell (2017), but instead chose the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2013), Stanley Johnson (2015) and Luke Kennard (2017).

The Pistons made a lot of noise this season by trading for All-Star forward Blake Griffin in January, but the move also puts the team in a financial bind. The organization will be paying Griffin (age 29) more than $30 million a season through the 2021 season, while also paying Andre Drummond more than $25 million a season during that same time frame.

Filling your salary cap with two frontcourt players in a league that is more guard-dominated than ever seems like a risky proposition. Maybe it will work out, but the proof is definitely not in the pudding after the team failed to make the playoffs in its original incarnation this winter.

TERRIBLE TIGERS

The Tigers have already had six postponed games this season, which might be a good thing because the team is 4-9 in games they have actually played.

The team is a bottom dweller in the standings and power rankings, and are hitting just .216 on the season as a team, which is third worst in the majors. They have just five home runs as a team, tied for fewest in the league.

We knew the rebuild was coming after the team traded away every movable asset they had last season, including J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander. With tanking becoming an acceptable practice in baseball, the Tigers are one of the teams in the driver's seat for a top pick in next year's draft class.

They'll need a youth movement because they have some terrible contracts on their bill at the moment. Miguel Cabrera, once a Triple-Crown winner, hasn't aged well. Multiple lower body injuries have made him a frequent visitor to the disabled list. Those visits are costly, too, as the team is on the hook to pay the 34-year-old slugger $30 million a season for the next six seasons.

I would expect the Tigers to continue to be sellers in the coming years as their mission to accrue young talent in any way possible could mean some long summers for those visiting Comerica Park.

The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one. The Tigers clearly understand their position in the world of baseball and are going through a tough process for any organization. The fanbase won't like it for the next few seasons, but the Tigers future seems more promising than the Pistons and Red Wings due to their clear long-term vision.

LAME LIONS NO MORE

The Lions have had their fair share of miscues under the likes of general managers Matt Millen and Martin Mayhew, but that appears to be a thing of the past. Bob Quinn has done his best to fix the errors of past regimes and put his own imprint on the organization.

This year's draft will be his third with the team. While the Lions are still looking to establish a consistent run game, Quinn has attempted to fix the offensive line's woes via free agency. An injury to first-round draft pick Taylor Decker last fall short-circuited the group before the season even began, and the result was another lackluster season.

With the additions of head coach Matt Patricia and free agents LeGarrette Blount, Luke Willson and DeShawn Shead, the team appears to be pushing for playoff contention. If they can draft a playmaker at running back and add some quality depth on the offensive and defensive lines in the later rounds, the Lions could put themselves in a favorable position to challenge the Vikings and Packers for the NFC North Title.

The Lions haven't won a divisional crown since 1993, and they have reinvented ways to lose winnable games, so putting your hopes on them seems like a foolhardy venture.

However, for the Detroit sports fans, they appear to be our only hope.

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