In 1948, the team became the Fort Wayne Pistons, competing in the Basketball Association of America (BAA). In 1949, Fred Zollner brokered the formation of the National Basketball Association from the BAA and the NBL at his kitchen table.
Dave Bing joined the team in 1966, where in his rookie year he scored 1,601 points.
Detroit Pistons logo 1957–1971.
Detroit Pistons logo 1975–1979.
Though the Pistons enjoyed a solid local following, Fort Wayne's small size made it difficult for them to be profitable, especially as other early NBA teams based in smaller cities started folding or relocating to larger markets. After the 1956–57 season, Zollner decided that Fort Wayne was too small to support an NBA team and announced the team would be playing elsewhere in the coming season. He ultimately settled on Detroit. Although it was the fifth largest city in the United States at the time, Detroit had not seen professional basketball in a decade. They lost the Detroit Eagles due to World War II, both the Detroit Gems of the NBL (whose remnants became the Minneapolis Lakers) and the Detroit Falcons of the BAA in 1947, and the Detroit Vagabond Kings in 1949. Zollner decided to keep the Pistons name, believing it made sense given Detroit's status as the center of the automobile industry. George Yardley set the NBA single-season scoring record in the Pistons' first season in Detroit, becoming the first player to score 2,000 points in a season.
In 1974, Zollner sold the team to glass magnate Bill Davidson, who remained the team's principal owner until his death in 2009.
While the Pistons did qualify for the postseason in four straight seasons from 1974 to 1977, they never had any real sustained success.
In 1978, Davidson became displeased with Cobo Arena, but opted not to follow the Red Wings to the under-construction Joe Louis Arena. Instead, he moved the team to the suburb of Pontiac, where they played in the 82,000 capacity Silverdome, a structure built for professional football (and the home of the Detroit Lions at the time).
1980–1991: The "Bad Boys" era
Detroit Pistons famous "Bad Boys era" logo 1979–1996.
The Pistons stumbled their way out of the 1970s and into the 1980s, beginning with a 16–66 record in 1979–80 and following up with a 21–61 record in 1980–81. The 1979–80 team lost its last 14 games of the season which, when coupled with the seven losses at the start of the 1980–81 season, comprised a then-NBA record losing streak of 21 games.
Isiah Thomas against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 19, 1985.
Initially, the Pistons had a tough time moving up the NBA ladder. In 1984, the Pistons lost a tough five-game series to the underdog New York Knicks, 3–2. In the 1985 playoffs, Detroit won its first-round series and faced the defending champion Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals. Though Boston would prevail in six games, Detroit's surprise performance promised that a rivalry had begun. In the 1985 NBA draft, the team selected Joe Dumars 18th overall, a selection that would prove to be very wise. They also acquired Rick Mahorn in a trade with the Washington Bullets. However, the team took a step backwards, losing in the first round of the 1986 playoffs to the more athletic Atlanta Hawks. After the series, changes were made in order to make the team more defensive-minded.
Prior to the 1986–87 season, the Pistons acquired more key players: John Salley (drafted 11th overall), Dennis Rodman (drafted 27th) and Adrian Dantley (acquired in a trade with the Utah Jazz). The team adopted a physical, defense-oriented style of play, which eventually earned them the nickname "Bad Boys". In 1987, the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. After pushing the defending champions to a 2–2 tie, the Pistons were on the verge of winning Game 5 at the Boston Garden with seconds remaining. After a Celtics' turnover, Isiah Thomas attempted to quickly inbound the ball and missed Chuck Daly's timeout signal from the bench. Larry Bird stole the inbound pass and passed it to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. While the Pistons would win Game 6 in Detroit, they would lose the series in a tough Game 7 back in Boston.
Chuck Daly, coach of the 1989 and 1990 NBA champions.
A ticket for Game 1 of the 1988 NBA Finals at The Forum.
Motivated by their loss to the Celtics, the Pistons, aided by midseason acquisition James Edwards, improved to a then-franchise-record 54 victories and the franchise's first division title in 32 years. In the postseason, the Pistons avenged their two previous playoff losses to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, defeating them in six games and advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise moved to Detroit.
The Pistons' first trip to the Finals in 32 years saw them face the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After taking a 3–2 series lead back to Los Angeles, Detroit appeared poised to win their first NBA title in Game 6. In that game, Isiah Thomas scored an NBA Finals record 25 points in the third quarter while playing on a severely sprained ankle. However, the Lakers won the game, 103–102, on a pair of last-second free throws by Abdul-Jabbar following a controversial foul called on Bill Laimbeer, referred to by many as a "phantom foul". With Thomas unable to compete at full strength, the Pistons narrowly fell in Game 7, 108–105.
The Pistons successfully defended their title in 1990, despite losing Rick Mahorn to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft. After winning 59 games and a third straight division title, the Pistons cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs before playing a tough Eastern Conference Finals series against Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the Chicago Bulls. Facing each other for the third straight season, the Pistons and Bulls split the first six games before the Pistons finished the series with a decisive 93–74 victory in Game 7. Advancing to their third consecutive NBA Finals, the Pistons faced the Portland Trail Blazers. After splitting the first two games at The Palace, the Pistons went to Portland, where they had not won a game since 1974, to play Games 3, 4 and 5. The Pistons summarily won all three games in Portland, becoming the first NBA team to sweep the middle three games on the road. The decisive game came down to the final second. Trailing 90–83 with two minutes remaining, the Pistons rallied to tie the game, then took a 92–90 lead when Vinnie Johnson sank a 15-foot jumper with 00.7 seconds left in the game; this shot earned Johnson a new nickname in Detroit, "007", to go with his original, "The Microwave". Isiah Thomas was named NBA Finals MVP.
The Pistons' championship run came to an end in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, as they were swept by the eventual NBA champion Chicago Bulls in four games. The most critical Piston injury belonged to Isiah Thomas who had suffered a wrist injury a few months prior to the NBA playoffs. The Conference Finals is best remembered for the Pistons walking off court in the last game just before it ended, unwilling to shake hands with the Bulls. After the series, Michael Jordan said, "You see two different styles with us and them. The dirty play and the flagrant fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct. Hopefully, that will be eliminated from the game. I think we play clean basketball. We don't go out and try to hurt people and dirty up the game. You never lose respect for the champions. But I haven't agreed with the methods they used. I think people are happy the game will get back to a clean game [with a Bulls triumph] and away from the 'Bad Boy' image."
Doug Collins, one of five head coaches for the Pistons in an eight-year span.
After getting swept by the Bulls, the Pistons would trade James Edwards and waive Vinnie Johnson during the off-season. In the 1991–92 season, the Pistons finished with a 48–34 record. In the first round of the 1992 NBA playoffs, the Pistons were defeated by the New York Knicks in five games. Chuck Daly would resign as head coach after the season. Following Daly's departure, the Pistons went through a transitional period, as key players were either traded (Salley and Rodman), or retired (Laimbeer in 1993 and Thomas in 1994). They would bottom out in the 1993–94 season, finishing with a 20–62 record.
After being swept by the Miami Heat in the 2000 playoffs, Joe Dumars, who had retired following the 1998–99 season, was hired as the team's president of basketball operations. He quickly faced what appeared to be a setback for the franchise, as Grant Hill elected to leave for the Orlando Magic. However, Dumars worked a sign and trade with Orlando that brought the Pistons Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins in exchange for Hill. Both quickly entered the Pistons' starting lineup. Wallace in particular would develop into a defensive stalwart in the coming years. Conversely, Hill would play only 47 games in the following three seasons due to a recurring ankle injury.
The Pistons suffered through another tough season in 2000–01, going 32–50 despite Jerry Stackhouse averaging 29.8 points a game. After the season, the Pistons fired George Irvine as head coach and hired Rick Carlisle, a widely respected assistant coach who had been a contributor for the Celtics during the mid-1980s. The franchise also returned to its traditional red, white, and blue colors.
Despite the team's improvement, Rick Carlisle was fired in the 2003 off-season. There were believed to be five reasons for the firing: first, that Carlisle had appeared reluctant to play some of the team's younger players, such as Prince and Mehmet Okur, during the regular season; second, that some of the players had not gotten along with Carlisle; third, that Carlisle's offense was thought to be conservative; fourth, that Hall of FamerLarry Brown had become available; and finally fifth, that Carlisle was rumored to have alienated owner Bill Davidson with his personality. Brown accepted the job that summer.
The Pistons' transformation into a championship team was completed with the February 2004 acquisition of Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons now had another big man to pose a threat from all parts of the court. The Pistons finished the season 54–28, recording their best record since 1997. In the 2004 playoffs, after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in five games, they defeated the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets in seven games after coming back from a 3–2 deficit. The Pistons then defeated the Pacers, coached by Carlisle, in six tough games to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1990. Many analysts gave the Pistons little chance to win against their opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won three out of the previous four NBA championships, and who fielded a star-studded lineup that included Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. However, the Pistons won the series in dominating fashion, defeating Los Angeles in five games for the team's third NBA championship. The Pistons posted double-digit wins in three of their four victories, and held the Lakers to a franchise-low 68 points in Game 3. Chauncey Billups was named NBA Finals MVP. With the win, Bill Davidson became the first owner to win both an NBA and NHL championship in the same year, as he had also won the Stanley Cup as owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Despite losing key members of their bench during the off-season (including Okur, Mike James and Corliss Williamson), the Pistons were considered a strong contender to win a second consecutive title in 2005. They won 54 games during the regular season, their fourth consecutive season of 50 or more wins. During the 2005 playoffs, they easily defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 4–1 and then rallied from a 2–1 deficit to finish off the Indiana Pacers, 4–2. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons faced the Miami Heat. Once again, the Pistons fell behind. However, they would ultimately win the series in seven games. In the NBA Finals, the Pistons faced the San Antonio Spurs. After both teams split the first four games of the series, the turning point came at the end of Game 5 in Detroit, which went into overtime. The Pistons were ahead 95–93 when Robert Horry sank the game-winning three-point basket for the Spurs with 5.8 seconds left in the extra session. The Pistons fought back to win Game 6 in San Antonio, setting up the first NBA Finals Game 7 since 1994. The Pistons then lost a hard-fought, low-scoring game to the Spurs, who won their third NBA championship since 1999.
The Pistons' 2004–05 season was marked by a major controversy, as well as distracting issues involving Larry Brown. In the first month of the season, a Pacers–Pistons brawl erupted, one of the largest fan-player incidents in the history of American sports. It resulted in heavy fines and suspensions for several players, and a great deal of NBA and media scrutiny. Meanwhile, Brown was forced to leave the team on two occasions due to health concerns. During this time, he became involved in a series of rumors linking him to other job openings. Concerned about Brown's health, and angered over his alleged pursuit of other jobs during the season, the Pistons bought out his contract soon after the 2005 NBA Finals. Brown was promptly named head coach of the New York Knicks, while the Pistons hired Flip Saunders, formerly of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Alternate logo used from 2005 to 2017.
During the 2005–06 season, the Pistons recorded the NBA's best overall record. Their 37–5 start exceeded the best start for any Detroit sports franchise in history and tied for the fourth-best start through 42 games in NBA history. Four of the five Pistons starters (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace), were named to the All-Star team, and Flip Saunders served as the Eastern Conference All-Star team coach. The Pistons finished the regular season with a record of 64–18, setting new franchise records for both overall and road victories (27). In addition, the team set an NBA record by starting the same lineup in 73 consecutive games from the start of the season.
A game ticket from March 2006 between the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards.
During the off-season, the Pistons offered Ben Wallace a four-year, $48 million contract, which would have made him the highest-paid player in franchise history at the time. However, Wallace agreed to a 4-year, $60 million contract with the Chicago Bulls.
To replace Ben Wallace, the Pistons signed Nazr Mohammed. He struggled to fill the team's void at center, however, and the team began looking for additional help. On January 16, 2007, the Pistons signed free agent Chris Webber. The Pistons quickly began playing better basketball. They were only 21–15 before Webber was acquired; with him, the team went 32–14. On April 11, the Pistons clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference, which guaranteed them home-court advantage for first three rounds of the playoffs.
The Pistons opened the 2007 NBA playoffs with a 4–0 victory over the Orlando Magic, their first playoff series sweep since 1990. The team advanced to face the Chicago Bulls, marking the first time that the Central Division rivals had met in the postseason since 1991. After winning the first two games by 26 and 21 points, the Pistons overcame a 19-point deficit to win Game 3, 81–74. The Bulls avoided elimination by winning Games 4 and 5, but the Pistons closed out the series, 95–85, in Game 6 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth consecutive season. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons faced the Cleveland Cavaliers. After both teams split the first four games of the series, the turning point happened in Game 5. The game is best remembered for LeBron James' performance where he scored the Cavaliers' final 29 of 30 points, including the team's final 25 points, to help defeat the Pistons 109–107 in double overtime. The Pistons never recovered as they were eliminated in Game 6, 98–82.
At the start of the 2007–08 season, Rasheed Wallace became the Pistons' new center. Upon entering his third season, Saunders became the longest-tenured Pistons coach since Chuck Daly. Detroit finished the season with the second best record in the league at 59–23. The Boston Celtics held the first seed, and many speculated that Boston was their main competition in the Eastern Conference. In the 2008 NBA playoffs, Detroit started out poorly with a Game 1 loss to the seventh-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and found themselves in a 2–1 deficit. However, the Pistons rallied to defeat the Sixers in six games.
In the semifinals, the Pistons faced the Orlando Magic. The Pistons rolled out to a Game 1 romp, and won a tight Game 2 amid mild controversy. At the very end of the third quarter, Chauncey Billups hit a three-point field goal that gave the Pistons a three-point lead. However, the clock had stopped shortly into the play. League rules currently prohibit officials from using both instant replay and a timing device to measure how much time has elapsed when a clock malfunctions, nor is a replay from the time of the malfunction onward allowed. The officials estimated that the play took 4.6 seconds, and since there were 5.1 seconds remaining when it began, the field goal was counted. The NBA later admitted that the play actually took 5.7 seconds and the basket should not have counted.
In addition to losing Game 3 badly, 111–86, the Pistons also lost all-star point guard and team leader Chauncey Billups to a hamstring injury. Despite his absence, the Pistons rallied from 15 down in the third quarter to win Game 4 90–89, on a field goal by Tayshaun Prince with just 8.9 seconds to play, taking a 3–1 series lead. Again with Billups sitting on the sideline, they then proceeded to win Game 5 in Detroit, winning the series 4–1.
Detroit advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth straight season, squaring off against the Celtics. This put the Pistons second on the all-time list of most consecutive conference finals appearances, only behind the Los Angeles Lakers who appeared in eight straight conference finals from the 1981–82 to 1988–89 seasons. They lost Game 1 88–79, but won in Game 2 on the road, 103–97, marking the Celtics' first home court loss in the postseason. Immediately following that, the Celtics won their first road game of the postseason, 94–80, in Game 3. Game 4 saw the Pistons win 94–75. In the pivotal Game 5, they lost 106–102, despite rallying from 17 points down late in the game. In Game 6, the Pistons entered the fourth quarter leading 70–60, but a lack of focus, a poor game from Rasheed Wallace, and a rally-killing turnover by Tayshaun Prince ultimately led to their demise; the Pistons ended their season with an 89–81 loss. After that, the Celtics went on to win the 2008 NBA Finals. On June 3, 2008, the Pistons announced that Flip Saunders would not return as head coach.
2008–2011: Failed rebuilding
On June 10, 2008, the Pistons hired Michael Curry to be their new head coach. On November 3, 2008, the Pistons traded key members Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson. McDyess was later waived on November 10 and rejoined the Pistons on December 9. The trade was marked as a start of a new rebuilding process due to Iverson's free agent status at the end of the season.
The season was marked with many controversies and injuries. As a result of this, and poor play, the Pistons dropped down the standings, only clinching a playoff berth on April 10, 2009. The Pistons finished the season at 39–43, securing their first losing season in eight years. The Pistons were then swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games in the first round of the 2009 NBA playoffs. On June 30, 2009, Michael Curry was fired as head coach. Iverson would sign with the Memphis Grizzlies during the off-season.
In the off-season, the Pistons reached an agreement with former Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon on a 5 year/$55 million contract, as well as an agreement with former Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva on a 5-year contract worth $35 million. That same month, the Pistons lost their two key members during the last few years, veterans Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess. On July 8, 2009, the Pistons hired former Cavaliers assistant coach John Kuester to be the new head coach. The Pistons would later resign Ben Wallace in August 2009.
Despite these changes, the team regressed even further, as they were hampered by setbacks and injuries. On March 23, 2010, the Pistons were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to the Indiana Pacers. The Pistons finished with a 27–55 record. It was their worst record since 1994. Another 50-loss season, this time finishing at 30–52, led to the firing of Kuester at the end of the 2010–11 season.
Prior to the start of the 2011–12 season, the Pistons made several leadership changes, including appointing Dennis Mannion as president of the franchise and Palace Sports & Entertainment. The team decided to hire Lawrence Frank as the head coach. The 2011–12 season was an improvement from previous years for the Pistons, although they still posted a losing record. While they started the season 4–20, they won half their remaining games to finish a lockout-shortened season with a record of 25–41. The team continued to build its young core with the drafting of the talented center Andre Drummond.
Following the 2012–13 season, Frank was fired as head coach on April 18, 2013, after two losing seasons, and on June 10, 2013, the Pistons hired former player and coach, Maurice Cheeks. His tenure lasted for just a bit more than half a season, as he was replaced by interim coach John Loyer. In April, the Pistons announced that Joe Dumars would step down as president of basketball operations, yet remain as an advisor to the organization and its ownership team. On May 14, 2014, Stan Van Gundy was hired. Van Gundy signed a 5-year, $35 million contract to become the head coach and president of basketball operations for the team.
After starting the 2014–15 season with a 5–23 record, the Pistons waived Josh Smith, who was acquired in the summer of 2013. The team went on a lengthy winning streak, but would only finish the season with a record of 32–50 after Brandon Jennings' Achilles injury.
Beginning with the 1978–79 season, the Pistons played their home games in suburban Oakland County, directly north of Detroit/Wayne County, first playing ten seasons at the Pontiac Silverdome, and then began play at The Palace of Auburn Hills starting in the 1988–89 season. Pistons owner Tom Gores, Palace Sports & Entertainment vice chairman Arn Tellum, and Olympia Entertainment, the Ilitch family's holding company that controls the Red Wings and Tigers, had been in negotiations over a partnership since the summer of 2015, with the Pistons possibly relocating to the new Little Caesars Arena as soon as the 2017–18 season. Talks intensified just as the Pistons were set to open their 2016–17 season, and as part of the terms of the agreement, there was discussion of a possible merger between Olympia and PS&E. Also contingent on a finalized agreement, the Pistons were looking for a parcel of land in the arena's vicinity, to build a new practice facility and team headquarters. The leasing agreement/partnership needed both city and league approval to be finalized.
On November 22, 2016, the Pistons officially announced their intention to move to Little Caesars Arena, and the site of The Palace of Auburn Hills would be redeveloped and sold, with the arena likely to be demolished as part of the redevelopment. The Pistons remained the only NBA franchise to play in a suburban location, ending a 39-year stay in Oakland County.
On June 20, 2017, Detroit City Council approved the Pistons' move to Little Caesars Arena. On August 3, 2017, the NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved the move, which made it official. The move made Detroit the only U.S. city to have its Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), NBA, and NHL teams play in its downtown district, and one of only two U.S. cities to have said teams play in one place, the other being Philadelphia.
The Pistons finished the 2017–18 season with a 39–43 record. They missed the playoffs for the eighth time in ten years. On May 7, 2018, the Pistons announced that Stan Van Gundy would not return as head coach and president of basketball operations. On June 11, 2018, Dwane Casey was hired by the Pistons to be their new head coach, agreeing to a five-year deal. The Pistons finished the 2018–19 season with a 41–41 record, clinching a playoff spot as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. In the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs, the Pistons were swept in four games by the Milwaukee Bucks, setting an NBA record for the most consecutive playoff losses with 14.
After moving from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Detroit in 1957, the Pistons' uniforms remained largely unchanged for two decades, featuring the word "Pistons" in blue block lettering. In the 1978–79 season, the team featured a uniform with lightning bolts on the sides and in the wordmark on the front of the jerseys. The team ditched the lightning bolt theme and returned to its classic block lettering and simple side panel pattern in 1981, staying with this look until 1996. That year, the Pistons changed its colors to teal, black, yellow and red, and unveiled a new logo with a horse's head and flaming mane. This color scheme lasted until 2001, when the team returned to the traditional red, white and blue colors, and a uniform pattern taking cues from the 1981–96 threads. The horse's head and flaming mane logo lasted until 2005, when the team switched to a more classic logo design.
On August 14, 2013, the Pistons unveiled a new alternate uniform, with navy blue and red colors. It featured the words "Motor City" across the front and mark the club's first alternative look since they wore a red alternate, which was basically a recolored version of their regular road uniform, from 2005–2009. The uniform is the first of its kind, designed to celebrate the pride and character of metro Detroit while paying homage to the region's automotive roots. The team said in its press release that it "worked in consultation with adidas and the NBA in development of the uniforms. Lettering and numbering style on the jersey is consistent with the team's current home and away uniforms. To contrast the navy blue and red accents, lettering and numbers on the jerseys and shorts are white with hair-line red and blue trim. The club's secondary logo appears on the shorts – similar to the primary home and away uniforms."
On October 4, 2015, the Pistons unveiled a new alternate pride uniform, intended to be worn during the 2015–16 season. The team said in a press release that "the inspiration for the Detroit Chrome jerseys came about as a way to honor our coolest cars from the past and the cars of the future. Detroit is universally known as the auto capitol of the world, where chrome leaves an indelible mark on the cars we create. The uniforms feature a matte chrome base color with clean simple lines inspired by the classic muscle cars that have roared up and down Woodward Avenue for decades. The navy trim and Detroit emblazoned across the chest represent the blue collar work ethic that the auto industry and region was built on."
On May 16, 2017, the Pistons unveiled a new logo, which is a modernized version of the previous "Bad Boys" era logo used from 1979 to 1996.
During the 1984–85 season, the Silverdome's roof collapsed, causing the team to temporarily relocate to Joe Louis Arena for 14 of their remaining 15 home games of the season (March 6, 1985 through May 10, 1985). The March 11, 1985 game vs. the Los Angeles Clippers was played at Cobo Arena.
The Pistons hold the draft rights to the following unsigned draft picks who have been playing outside the NBA. A drafted player, either an international draftee or a college draftee who is not signed by the team that drafted him, is allowed to sign with any non-NBA teams. In this case, the team retains the player's draft rights in the NBA until one year after the player's contract with the non-NBA team ends. This list includes draft rights that were acquired from trades with other teams.
^Coon, Larry. "NBA Salary Cap FAQ – 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement". Retrieved April 13, 2014. If the player is already under contract to, or signs a contract with a non-NBA team, the team retains the player's draft rights for one year after the player's obligation to the non-NBA team ends. Essentially, the clock stops as long as the player plays pro ball outside the NBA.