Wojo: As Lions, Tigers’ rebuilds stall, Red Wings, Pistons offer reasons to believe

Detroit News

There was a nagging numbness to Dan Campbell’s words after the Lions’ worst loss of the season to the Patriots. Almost like we’ve heard them before, and before, and before.

“I did not anticipate us being 1-4 going into the bye,” Campbell said. “I did not. But I know what we’re capable of when we get it right.”

When we get it right. Hmm. We heard similar sentiments from AJ Hinch all summer, as the Tigers wrapped up another nifty 96-loss season and fired GM Al Avila. They felt good in the spring and were done by mid-May. We heard some of it from the Lions two months ago, and although it’s a long season, they’re already stalking the No. 1 pick. Nothing gets stomped quicker than optimism in Detroit sports.

Now as the Red Wings and Pistons prepare to open with rebuilt rosters and restocked interest, it can’t happen again, can it? Well, I suppose it could. Traumatized fans might fear the worst, understandably. But I think there are notable differences, starting with aggressive GMs in Steve Yzerman and Troy Weaver, and young talent packed with promise. Enough for either team to make the playoffs? Don’t push it. Enough to stay relevant longer than a quarter of the way into the season? Yes.

The Wings have a new coach, Derek Lalonde, solid free-agent additions and bubbling hope for the opener Friday night against Montreal. They should be better, perhaps significantly better if their defense is even moderately better.

The Pistons open next Wednesday against Orlando with exciting draft picks and rising expectations. They should be more athletic and potent, with first-round picks Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren joining Cade Cunningham on a young, eclectic and potentially electric roster.

The four teams’ fates aren’t technically related, no matter how it looks, but they all face one nasty truth: Rebuilds are not linear, one step up, then another, then another. With the Lions, it’s been four steps forward, 17 steps back and one step sideways under Campbell (4-14-1 in two seasons) and GM Brad Holmes. The four other second-year coaches in the NFL — the Eagles’ Nick Sirianni, Chargers’ Brandon Staley, Jets’ Robert Saleh and Falcons’ Arthur Smith — are a combined 13-7 this season, which rightly adds to the angst.

“Hard Knocks” has transitioned from an entertaining reality show to an exasperating reality. Detroit fans feast on distractions, from draft discussions, to home run chases, to endless fourth-down debates. Nothing wrong with colorful side issues, except when they become the primary issues. Campbell’s gambles don’t all hit but they’re not all wrong, and the Lions have to get to a point where they don’t need them.

When is that point? Haha. Trying to pin me down, huh, just like we’re always trying to pin down the teams’ time frames?

Progress, not hope

I really hope the GMs and owners in this town aren’t unwittingly getting addicted to hope-peddling, which could lead to Rebuild Rehab. Tearing down and building steadily was the plan, but steadily shouldn’t be “slooowwwly.” There have to be signs of progress. The Tigers showed none. Major injuries were a factor, sure, but even the healthy players regressed. New GM Scott Harris is making front-office changes, but inherits a barren everyday roster.

The Lions have showed sudden progress in one area (offense) and stunning regression in another (defense). Injuries also are a factor, but when you have first-timers across the board — GM, coach, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson — it’s difficult to fully trust the plan. And while Holmes has plucked some draft gems, he oddly seems to whiff on second-rounders, who are struggling or injured.

Many teams in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have been torn down and rebuilt while Detroit is still fiddling with the architectural drawings. When the Tigers were 64-98 in 2017, they were slogging around with the Phillies (66-96), Mets (70-92), Braves (72-90), Padres (71-91), Mariners (78-84), Blue Jays (76-86) and even the Rays (80-82). All seven of those teams made this year’s playoffs.

So, why might the Wings and Pistons be different? It starts with the specter of legitimate stars.

The Lions are lacking, obviously. They have some solid pieces in Penei Sewell, Frank Ragnow, D’Andre Swift (when healthy), Amon-Ra St. Brown (when healthy), Jameson Williams (if healthy) and Aidan Hutchinson (eventually). The Tigers have Riley Greene and a few aching, promising arms.

More: Ranking the worst offensive, defensive units in Detroit sports over the last 5 years

Taking flight?

Yzerman’s plan is taking shape. He has drafted impactful players in Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond to grow with established mainstays Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi. He made solid veteran acquisitions in Andrew Copp and David Perron, and defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta. The Wings finally might have options and stability at goalie with Ville Husso, acquired from the Blues to compete with Alex Nedeljkovic. Thanks to good drafting, they’re also stockpiling talent in the minors.

Yzerman tapped his successful Tampa Bay lineage and hired Lalonde, who’s charged with coaxing defensive responsibility out of players. The Wings upgraded virtually every area through free agency and trades, and people have noticed. They were 25th in the league with 74 points last season, and Vegas now pegs their over-under total at 84.5.

“I believe we’ll be a better hockey team this year,” Yzerman said. “But with a lot of changes, it can take some time for things to settle in, for everybody to get familiar with one another. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

“Cautiously optimistic” is the phrase of these days in Detroit. Yzerman isn’t ready to talk playoffs, and neither is Weaver. That’s not a cop-out, but if they’re saying the same thing next year, it’s a concern.

Weaver’s relentless dealing and drafting has completely remade the roster in two seasons, and coach Dwane Casey is fully on board with the plan. Uber-quick guard Ivey, the No. 5 overall pick from Purdue, fell nicely to the Pistons and should form a dynamic pairing with Cunningham. Saddiq Bey could develop into an elite shooter. Just to be safe, Weaver went out and acquired a top marksman in Bojan Bogdanovic, one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. The Pistons’ starting five will be among the youngest, but with enhanced athleticism.

“We reshaped the roster and got out of the red,” Weaver said. “I think now we’re at ground zero. I think we finally have a full complement of players to compete every night. You gotta be able to compete before you can contend, and I think we’re at the competing stage.”

The rest of the NBA seems to think so, too. The East is loaded, so progress record-wise might be modest. The Pistons were 23-59 a year ago and their Vegas over-under victory total this season hovers around 29.5.

That’s not good enough, but around here, where progress is fleeting, it actually would be a positive sign. The Tigers dropped miserably and the Lions are still tumbling. The Wings and Pistons are trending up, with compelling young players seemingly primed to pop. Reaching ground zero is a relevant step for both. The next one is to turn small steps into legitimate leaps.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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