- The Detroit Pistons want to restore its winning legacy, and owner Tom Gores tells CNBC he's committed to the current rebuild.
- Gores purchased the team in 2011 for $325 million, and the Pistons are worth more than $1 billion today despite a losing record under his ownership.
- The Pistons selected Cade Cunningham first overall in the 2021 NBA Draft and want to build a tough, defensive roster to match the "Bad Boys" era that once represented the city.
When a team loses track of its identity, bad things usually happen.
Isiah Thomas, the pro basketball legend turned businessman, perfectly explained the consequences. And Thomas' words have extra significance given the latest sports team that lost its identity is his former club, the Detroit Pistons.
"Two things happen – you get your ass beat, and your fan base 100% rejects you," said Thomas.
The NBA begins its 75th anniversary season on Oct. 19, a time for teams to start their yearly reset to produce a winning product and attract more business. The once iconic Pistons are the latest sports franchise attempting to emerge from a rough cycle, which saw the team's brand and culture decline.
The Pistons once ruled the NBA and created some of the most feared teams during the "Bad Boys" era of the 1980s. And from 2003 to 2009, it was one of the top NBA teams for attendance, averaging roughly 889,945 fans per season during that span. But the franchise abandoned its foundation and suffered for it over the last decade, only making the playoffs twice in the last 12 years and sitting at 25th or below in attendance.
In sports, teams can lose sight of identities and it hurts their brand. The Oakland Athletics and New York Knicks are two of two examples former sports executive Andy Dolich used. The A's stadium issues continue to plague their brand.
"And the Knicks of today are not the Knicks of the 70s, 80s, or 90s," said Dolich, the former A's executive and National Basketball Association team president. "Players don't last forever and you don't win a championship every year. But when you lose connection -- that's the heart and soul that a team has in any sport as it relates to its community," Dolich added.
The Pistons want to rule again and return to their culture with the help of a new roster that includes the 2021 NBA first overall draft pick. But it's a daunting task. The East is stacked, starting with the defending champs Milwaukee Bucks and its league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Also, repairing a brand doesn't come over night.
It's why the Los Angeles Lakers or Yankees don't touch their showtime "go big, or go home" brand Dolich added. And the San Antonio Spurs structured their culture around team, family, and discipline. It's helped the Spurs become one of the winningest franchises in sports with five NBA championships.
"Teams lose their way with their heart and soul whether its because of ownership, management, the players, the venue that they play in," Dolich said "You don't push a button and get that back, just like you don't push a button and lose it."
And in Detroit, "there is a fan base that says, 'This is the standard of play and commitment that we expect,'" Thomas said. "And they measure it against our Pistons bad boy team. That's the criteria -- and the team and players that come through have to live up to that standard."
Restoring the 'community asset'
The Pistons were one of the more dominant NBA franchises from 1983 to 2008, winning three titles in 21 playoff appearances and making six conference finals. The team is worth over $1 billion, according to Forbes. But under current owner Tom Gores, the team hasn't produced a winning product. His tenure includes questionable front office decisions, a mismanaged roster and bad contracts.
In the 2018-19 season, the Pistons had the 10th highest payroll in the NBA ($126 million), with former All-Star Blake Griffin making a team-high $32 million. The result of that expensive team: a quick first-round playoff exit.
Gores, 57, took responsibility for his role in the Pistons' decline. The Michigan native and Platinum Equity founder is known for his dealings in mergers and acquisitions, but as Pistons owner, he didn't apply long-term thinking. He said he took shortcuts to revive the Pistons, which Gores labeled a "community asset."
One of the shortcuts came in 2018, when the Pistons traded for Griffin. That deal included forward Tobias Harris, who went onto flourish with Steve Ballmer's Clippers. The Pistons also saw potential with eventual NBA All-Star Khris Middleton, who they drafted in 2012. But they didn't see through and traded Middleton to the Bucks in 2013 in a package for Brandon Jennings.
"I should've been better about the idea that you can't always win, and you don't win fast," Gores told CNBC. "I think I've grown from that perspective. I'm not sure I understood the magnitude of the responsibility when you own a sports team in a town that is looking to you for inspiration."
Detroit's economic problems last decade didn't help matters, either. In 2013, it became the largest U.S. municipality to file for bankruptcy, with debt reaching $18 billion. In addition, Detroit's long history of racial tension, political corruption and an economy dependent on autos contributed to its decreasing population.
Gores was praised for moving the team back to Detroit in 2019. The Pistons play at Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, returning to the area after leaving in 1978 and eventually moving to Auburn Hills, Michigan in 1988.
The Pistons' return cost taxpayers about $34 million to improve the sports complex shared with the Red Wings hockey team. In addition, the Pistons got $16 million in tax incentives for its new $90 million practice facility in Detroit.
Thomas praised Gores for bringing the team back "when the city needs it." Asked what he sees when he drives through Detroit, Thomas responded: "I see opportunity. And I also see hurt and pain."
Thomas said resources are still needed to rebuild Detroit, so he's working with Stellantis, the automaker that's a merger between PSA Group and Fiat Chrysler, to help drive programs and capital investments to the city. Stellantis opened Detroit's first automobile assembly plant in 30 years and is looking to fill positions.
Thomas, who founded investment company ISIAH International, also sits on the board of Michigan-based housing lender United Wholesale Mortgage. The company went public last January via a SPAC and has a market cap of $11 billion. UWM finalized a deal with the Pistons to take over jersey patch rights last June, and these NBA agreements usually include community-related initiatives to help underserved communities.
Thomas said company UWM CEO Mat Ishbia and Gores "have an opportunity to make a profound impact" in Detroit over the next decade.
"You need committed resources, and you need it from the people who have the money," he said. "Private dollars infuse capital, and that should provide better opportunities."
Restoring the Pistons
In a previous era, NBA rules were different and less catered to offenses. Thomas' Pistons took advantage and played a style of defense that inflicted harm to opponents mentally and physically. With the help of Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman, the Pistons became known as the "Bad Boys."
These Pistons won championships in 1989 and 1990. Then they battled Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers and initially derailed Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
Dumars helped resurrect the Pistons from their previous rough cycle when he took over in 2000. He built a roster that was one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference from 2002-2008. This era of Pistons resembled Thomas' bad boys and won the NBA Finals in 2004.
And the fan base supported the team. During the last Pistons title run, viewership averaged a roughly 4.02 household rating. This means, in the city's over 1 million television market, more than 4% of TVs were tuned into Pistons games on then Fox Sports Detroit, according to Home Team Sports, a sports and media marketing firm.
"That market loves sports," said Gregg Liebman, Home Team's head of research. "When their teams are competitive, the ratings and interest are through the roof. It might not be the biggest market in terms of market size. But it is in terms of sports passion.
But since 2008, the Pistons are 412-612, and the ratings average dropped to 1.45 households. And over the last seasons it dropped to a 0.80.
When discussing what occurred to the Pistons following the last championship, some in NBA circles point to the trade of team captain Chauncey Billups in 2008. That started the culture shift. Former owner Bill Davidson died in 2009 which left the franchise inactive. Dumars departed in 2014, and Pistons lost their way.
"The glue pieces left," said former Pistons executive Tom Wilson.
"They lost their roots and tried to experiment with their culture," added Thomas. "Our era defined and set a culture for how the Pistons would play, how our community would respond to us. That was rooted in defense, commitment, playing as a team and not playing as individuals."
Wilson, who served as Pistons CEO from 1987-2010, credits Thomas' "toughness, determination, and a blue collar ethic," that helped establish the Pistons culture. "The city really responds to hard-nosed basketball and toughness," Wilson added.
For this rebuild, Gores gave complete control to respected NBA executive Troy Weaver in 2020. Weaver helped establish the Oklahoma City Thunder, which once had stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. He labeled the Pistons a "restoration process," borrowing the term from watching his dad restore older cars. A Washington, D.C. native and football fan, Weaver also recalled watching a legendary coach revive an iconic franchise in the National Football League.
"The way Joe Gibbs came and restored the Washington Football Team was unbelievable," Weaver said. "And he did it with a hardworking, blue-collar mentality, but he also had high character guys. The Pistons had greatness here, and we want to restore that greatness."
Weaver wasted no time commencing the Pistons restoration. He negotiated a buyout with Griffin last March, extended head coach Dwane Casey's contract last May and used then Pistons' 2021 draft pick to select forward Cade Cunningham first overall over the summer. On the free agent front, the Pistons signed veteran defensive guard Cory Joseph to help with culture, and the team will count on forward Saddiq Bey's progression and Jerami Grant's leadership.
"We want to restore that pride," said Casey, noting the rebuild is in a "good spot."
Though stuck with a $126 million payroll, Pistons will only use $78 million on active contracts next season, the second-lowest in the NBA. This part of the restoration helps with future salary cap space to sign a big-time free agent that matches Detroit's culture. Weaver said the Pistons aren't taking shortcuts.
"We don't just want to appear – we want to arrive," he said. "That's our mindset. The city is on its way back. Downtown is coming back, and there's a lot of great things going on in the city, and our restoration matches it."
Dolich compared Weaver's task to replacing a car engine. "The job isn't always pretty," he said. "But if you're the proper mechanic, when you're done, that car is humming."
Gores restoring credibility
When Gores discussed the restoration, he admitted Weaver used the term during his interview process. Gores said he told Weaver to build a team built around "toughness" and "Troy connected to the idea."
Though Gores is "cautiously optimistic" this rebuild will produce top results, he said, "all the pieces are in place." But will things be different this time under his ownership? The Pistons want to restore their brand and culture, but is Gores truly committed?
Asked about advice he would provide to ownership, Wilson pointed to trust and patience.
"The one thing that most owners have to learn is they hired people for a reason," said Wilson. "You have to trust them and ride it out. You have to trust your people to make the decisions and sometimes trust them to disagree with you."
Patrick Rishe, the director of Washington University's Sports Business Program, said the Pistons lost its "brand cachet" over the years, a luxury that helped the team lure players and business. Rishe said the Pistons owner would need to be transparent during this process.
"When you're the owner, you don't have to worry about firing yourself, but you do have to worry about the long-term goodwill that you're building with your fans and corporate partners," Rishe said. "So transparency about what you're doing, coupled with extending yourself more than you otherwise would, to be a good community citizen. All of these things are ways to try to minimize damage from extended poor play."
Gores reiterated he's committed. "I can't be someone who comes in, owns the team and then leaves without making a difference and winning," he said. "I said when I came in, I'd be impactful, and that's what I have to be. I'm committed to that."
The NBA is starting again, and Gores will make frequent trips to the city to watch the Pistons restoration unfold and monitor how fans are responding with pandemic capacity restrictions lifted. Should this rebuild work, the Pistons' $227 million in revenue, the lowest since 2018 according to Forbes, should start to increase, especially as Detroit restores itself.
Asked what he sees driving throughout Detroit on his visits, Gores said: "That we still need to keep working at it. We're not there. Economically, there is momentum, but it's not enough.
"But I know to make the ultimate difference in the city, we've got to win," Gores added. "I'm determined to do it for Detroit."