Chevette to Corvette No. 52: The 1978-79 Detroit Pistons



  • Actual record: 30-52
  • Pythagorean record: 34-48
  • Offensive Rating: 102.1 (17th of 22)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.6 (15th of 22)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Dick Vitale


  • Points per game: Bob Lanier (23.6)
  • Rebounds per game: Bob Lanier (9.3)
  • Assists per game: Kevin Porter (13.4)
  • Steals per game: M.L. Carr (2.5)
  • Blocks per game: Terry Tyler (2.5)

Top player

Bob Lanier

Lanier’s final full season in Detroit certainly wasn’t his best as the big man began to show signs of decline at 30. But he still would’ve been the best player on many teams, especially a subpar bunch like the Pistons.

Kevin Porter also deserves record for dishing 13.4 assist per game, setting an NBA record at the time. The mark still ranks seventh all time, surrounded by several John Stockton and Magic Johnson season.

Key transaction

Drafted Terry Tyler and John Long in the second round

Although the pattern hadn’t emerged yet, Dick Vitale had a tendency to value players he coached, coached against or recruited while coaching the University of Detroit. Tyler and Long were two of the few players acquired for those reasons who excelled with the Pistons.

They played for Vitale at U of D, and he picked them both in the second round before his first season as the Pistons’ head coach. (Detroit didn’t have a first-round pick.) Again, I’m cheating by choosing two transactions, but the way the Pistons acquired Tyler and Long was as linked as how they acquired Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Surely, Vitale wanted these two to help establish the culture he had created at U of D, but they had legitimate NBA ability, too. They’re two of the Pistons’ most likable players ever, and their names still show up all over the Pistons’ all-time leaderboard.

Trend watch

Lost first five games

After the Pistons lost their first three games, Vitale was hospitalized for “stress-related stomach problems,” according to Eli Zaret’s “Blue Collar Blueprint.” The Pistons lost their next two games without him, and before they finally won their first game of the season in Vitale’s return, he was ejected from the game. Not only that, a security guard had to forcibly remove him from the court.

Early in the season, the Pistons demonstrated they were a circus and never recovered.

Why this season ranks No. 53

The Pistons hired former University of Detroit coach Dick Vitale before the season. You’ve probably seen Vitale covering college basketball for ESPN, and imagine that boisterous, enthusiastic, ranting, raving, shouting, spirited character coaching a team. It worked as well as you’d expect.

Not coincidentally, the Pistons also moved into the spacious Pontiac Silverdome before the season. I’d guess Vitale’s perceived ability to attract fans played a huge role in his hire. If he was hired purely on basketball credentials… well, I can’t even imagine that.

Whatever their reasons, the Pistons were proud of their hire, of course. Zaret:

"At the appointed hour, the Silverdome message board revealed the Detroit skyline and then pictures of drums and bugles with music playing. Then, oddly, the screen showed the words from an April 4th newspaper column by sportswriter Joe Falls which said: “If the Pistons name Vitale, the bugles will be blaring and the drums will be sound and the cannons will be roaring and nobody around here will be able to sleep and pretty soon a lot of people will be going out to the Silverdome to see what’s causing all the noise.” A small cannon spewed a big puff of smoke and, as Vitale appeared from behind a curtain, a huge banner read: “Detroit Pistons ReVITALEized.”"

Even notoriously skeptical Keith Langlois bought a Re-VITALE-ized” bumper sticker.

Southeast Michigan had Vitale fever. It soon turned to utter sickness.

The Pistons used 23 players, a club record according to “Motor City Memories,” and never sustained success. Too many of the players were lousy, and they were all poorly coached.

The Pistons finished 15th in attendance, proving that hiring a coach to sell tickets is never a good idea. Winning sells. Hire the best coach, and attendance will take care of itself.

Despite his likability, Vitale was terrible at his job. He couldn’t run an NBA team, and the Pistons learned that the hard way in 1978-79. Twelve games later, he’d be out.