Chevette to Corvette No. 58: The 1980-81 Detroit Pistons



  • Actual record: 21-61
  • Pythagorean record: 24-58
  • Offensive Rating: 98.1 (23rd out of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.3 7th of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Scotty Robertson


  • Points per game: John Long (17.7)
  • Rebounds per game: Phil Hubbard (7.3)
  • Assists per game: Ron Lee (4.4)
  • Steals per game: Ron Lee (2.0)
  • Blocks per game: Terry Tyler (2.2)

Top player

John Long

John Long had solidified himself as a legit scorer in the NBA by his third season in 1980-81. Now, being the leading scorer on a 21-win team isn’t something that will earn a player many accolades but hey, it beats being the third leading scorer on a 16-win team as he was the previous season.

Long, like many Pistons of the past, was miscast as a go-to player for the Pistons, and the team’s record made that obvious. But he carved out a nice career for himself, especially considering he was a second round pick out of a mid-major, the University of Detroit. At the time, Long didn’t have much a long range shot — he only hit 18 percent from three during the season — but he was a fantastic mid-range shooter and at 6-foot-5, a big, strong guard. He scored his points primarily as a catch and shoot player, and his production made another leap the following season when he was paired with a certain all-time great point guard in the backcourt.

And, for those interested in interesting but useless Pistons trivia, John Long is the uncle to two former Pistons of the 1990s, Grant Long and Terry Mills.

Key transaction

Traded a second round pick to Houston for Paul Mokeski

Mokeski was merely a journeyman center, someone who made little impact in his time with the Pistons and certainly not someone who was a vital component on a team that lost 61 games in 1980-81. But his acquisition would prove important in a future move. After the 1981 season, the Pistons packaged Mokeski with Phil Hubbard and draft picks to Cleveland for a player you have perhaps heard of, one who would become pretty important down the road: Bill Laimbeer.

After decades of futility when it came to drafting players, signing free agents and making trades, the Pistons of the 1980s finally started to turn the corner when it came to personnel moves. Mokeski is a perfect example. The team turned a second round pick of minimal value into a serviceable big man in Mokeski into an All-Star caliber big man in Laimbeer. Mokeski/Hubbard for Laimbeer wasn’t the most important move the Pistons would make in the 1980s, but it’s up near the top of the list.

Trend watch

When will the Pistons draft an impact player?

The Pistons were bad in the late 1970s and frequently picking near the top of the draft. Those high picks had yielded very little production. Players like Phil Hubbard, Greg Kelser, Larry Drew and Leon Douglas, to name a few, didn’t make the impact their draft positions suggested they would. In fact, second round picks like John Long and Terry Tyler out-performed some of those first rounders. The Pistons improved from 16 to 21 wins over the course of two seasons, but with the NBA Draft looming, they clearly needed to finally hit on a high draft pick in order to escape the bottom of the league standings.

Why this season ranks No. 58

No team is going to celebrate 21 wins. The results spoke for themselves, and this was an obvious choice as one of the franchise’s weakest seasons. But unlike other dismal seasons, there were significant reasons for hope.

New coach Scotty Robertson (who recently passed away) began having some success instilling a defensive mindset, something that would later define the franchise’s best teams. The Pistons were not good offensively, but ranked seventh in the league in defensive rating and points allowed. They were 19th in defensive rating and 21st in points allowed the previous season.

And the Pistons did begin to compile assets. Players like Kelser, Hubbard, Tyler, Long and Kent Benson weren’t franchise-altering talents, but they were young players with potential, players who could be reliable contributors if surrounded by better talent or who could prove to be valuable trade pieces. None of the names on this roster became key contributors on the Pistons’ title contending teams later in the decade, but the effort they played with despite the lack of overall talent started to lay the groundwork for the looming turnaround in Pistons basketball.


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