As we transition into 2018, the Detroit sports landscape is obscured by fog. It’s been a long time since the fortunes of the four Detroit professional teams were so uncertain. Fans are understandably cautious.
Where are the future stars to get excited about? When will a Detroit team play for a championship again? Or just host a playoff game? can we trust the people in charge of our favorite teams?
Here are four questions, one for each franchise, that may help you decide why you should watch in 2018.
#1. Are the young Red Wings exciting enough?
So far in the 2017-18 season, the Red Wings have shown what you usually see from a young team: inconsistency. At times they hang with good teams, at other times they get blow out. Sometimes they play uninspired hockey and look flat. Other times they are simply overmatched. Recently, the Wings have lost a number of games in the final period, teasing us with potential, only to fall short.
The Wings have a few good young players who can be cornerstones of the next championship team. Clearly Dylan Larkin is a talented player, but at the age of 21 he still has some maturation ahead of him before he can lead a team deep in the playoffs. In his third season, Larkin has taken giant steps forward as an offensive force in the league, which bodes well.
Denny DeKeyser, Justin Abdelkader, and Anthony Mantha are interesting players who could be important in a Detroit hockey revival. Resident future Hall of Famer Henrik Zetterberg is on his last legs, and the end of his great career seems near. Seeing as the franchise went to the playoffs for 25 straight years, it might be that their fans will be patient as they retool. And the new arena will be a decent distraction for a short time. But, patience and understanding only goes so far.
General manager Ken Holland has alienated many fans with his flippant attitude about the rebuild. He once famously called Red Wings fans “spoiled” and he also stated “I think if you expect Cups, you’re in the wrong league.”
Gee, thanks Ken, for all that optimism. With an attitude like that, why should fans get behind your team?
Ultimately, the emergence of Larkin as a superstar is worth watching the Red Wings. He won’t be Steve Yzerman (no one could be), but he’s a potential all-time great and he’s exciting to watch with a hockey stick in his hands. And as long as Zetterberg is in skates he can still display flashes of his brilliance.
#2. When will the Lions stop losing games they should win?
The 2017 Lions are the most disappointing team in a long time for this franchise. And that’s saying a lot. Everything was set up for the Lions: they won three of their first four games when many experts thought they’d struggle with their early season schedule. The Bears had a rookie QB, the Packers lost their running back and had some QB issues of their own. Then Aaron Rodgers was injured and the Packers season went in the toilet. The Lions won their first three games on the road against their division rivals. The NFC North should have been theirs for the taking. To quote an old time Saturday Night Live sketch (John Belushi): “Buttttttt noooooooooooooo!” The Lions blew it.
The Lions are 8-7 heading into the final game of the season and will finish out of the playoffs. They lost winnable games against the Steelers (thanks to terrible in-game coaching by Jim Caldwell), the Vikings (on Thanksgiving Day), and the Bengals (the damn Bengals!). The Lions will finish with their third winning season in four years under Caldwell, but they’re no closer to a division title or a home playoff game, let alone a playoff victory and their first Super Bowl trip.
The Lions have a great quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Don’t listen to the haters — Stafford is elite. He had another great season and continues to show his guts, heart, and talent on the gridiron. His detractors blame him for the lack of the running game, the defensive lapses, and everything else. His detractors are sad little football fans who want to point blame at an easy target. They don’t want to be bothered with logic or reason. His detractors are boobs.
The Lions should have won the NFC North and now they should fire Caldwell (though I don’t think they will). Four years under Caldwell proves that they will never reach the pinnacle with him as their head coach. GM Bob Quinn has proved to be very capable thus far. He’s built a deep, young, talented defensive core. He has a top-flight group of receivers and a great QB. His special teams unit is among the best in the league. But his coaching staff has failed to construct a running game and the players still make too many dumb mistakes. That’s on the staff.
I don’t know when (or if) the Lions will get their act straight, but if you’re not watching Stafford during his prime, you’re missing a great quarterback, the best signal caller to wear the Detroit uniform since Bobby Layne, and the best passer in team history.
#3. Does anyone care about the Pistons?
Well, do they? It’s hard to understand basketball fans in this state. When the Pistons were great (in the 1980s Bad Boys Era and the Go To Work days of the early 2000s), support was solid for this franchise. But when the team is bad, the fans disappear quicker than Kevin Spacey’s movie career. Forget bad years: even if the Pistons are average, the fans tune out. What gives?
Detroit isn’t a great basketball town. Let’s face it. It’s a good basketball town, they’ll support good basketball, but when there’s rebuilding going on, the fans skedaddle.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy is in his fourth season as master of all basketball for the franchise and so far he’s made steady, albeit clunky progress. His credentials are strong: in his nine full seasons as a head coach in the league, SVG has made the playoffs eight times, including Detroit’s first postseason appearance in six years a year ago.
But the Pistons are trying to play a game no one else is playing: the game of “dump it to the big man.” That’s not necessarily a terrible strategy, but with his current cast of players, SVG is woefully undermanned. Andre Drummond is not a star, he’s a supporting player, and every year that becomes more apparent. In a league where it’s easier to rebuild by tearing it all apart than retool via trades and free agency, the Pistons are struggling along in the middle of the pack hoping to develop a championship team. That seems unlikely.
#4. Does a Tigers rebuild sound like fun?
The last three years for the Detroit Tigers has been a train wreck. Actually, that’s probably an insult to train wrecks. Choo choo.
Late in the 2015 season when it was apparent the team would not win a fifth straight division title, general manager Dave Dombrowski had a fire sale: trading a few veterans for young prospects. The move was wise and proved to be fruitful, but it didn’t sit well with team owner Mike Ilitch, who promptly fired Trader Dave over the phone.
On the final day of the 2016 season the Tigers were eliminated from the playoffs. A few of the chips received in the ’15 fire sale had been important in helping the veteran team contend for a wild card spot, but the bats died as the season progressed and the Braves swept the Tabbies away on the final weekend. It was a crushing disappointment, and it felt like the last true chance for that core of players to make a run at a title.
In 2017, buttressed by a few big contract signings by GM Al Avila, the Tigers talked the talk. But they never walked the walk and were out of contention by mid-summer. At the July trade deadline they dumped their only two All-Stars (J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton) and at the final trade deadline they sent shock waves across Michigan by trading ace Justin Verlander. The white flag firmly in place above Comerica Park, the team limped to a last place finish, losing 22 out of 26 after dumping JV.
Manager Brad Ausmus was fired, replaced by Ron Gardenhire, a placeholder manager if there ever was one. Avila trotted out to explain that the good times were over and fans should expect a period of rebuilding. He seemed to have learned his public speaking skills from Ken Holland, barely concealing his contempt for spoiled fans. Avila has tempered any sort of optimism for a quick rebound by telling everyone that it’ll be a long haul, while also dumping any contract and any valuable player he has, save for Miguel Cabrera. He’s even entertaining offers for Michael Fulmer, the young ace who the team has under contract control for four more years. Apparently the rebuild will extend well past the next presidential election. Yeehah.
Well, I don’t care to take part in five-year rebuilds, thanks very much. And any fan who buys into the “sit and wait while we develop prospects” line is a sap. GM Al Avila almost seems giddy at the thought of suffering with youngsters. He’s had the audacity to tell fans that they’ve “had it very good around here for years.” Excuse me, but I thought that was the point? I thought your job was to make sure the team was competitive.
Make no mistake about it: when a team sells the idea of a long-term rebuild, they’re admitting that they messed up. The job of the front office to try to win now while also keeping an eye toward the future. When a tear-down and grounds-up rebuild is needed, it’s evidence that the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing.
So why should you watch the Tigers in 2018? There’s still Miguel Cabrera, one of the greatest righthanded hitters in baseball history. Can he rebound from his worst season ever and return to All-Star, MVP status? Miggy is approaching 500 homers and 3,000 hits. Only five players have ever reached both of those milestones. Is history enough to keep you interested in the Tigers?
Tell me what you think in the comments section below, and Happy New Year.