Casey comes out swinging: ‘We’re not 2 or 3 years away. We want to win now’
Gregory Shamus (NBAE/Getty)
DETROIT – If you expected Dwane Casey to tamp down expectations at his public unveiling, you guessed wrong.
Like, you were off by a mile.
“Our time is now,” he said, ticking off the marquee names of the roster – Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson. “I’m not afraid to say it. We’re not developing. We’re not two or three years away. We want to win now.”
If Casey’s introductory press conference at Little Caesars Arena – where, by the way, he’s undefeated – were a boxing match, it would be Hearns-Hagler. He came out swinging.
Casey was asked what attracted him to the roster. “The first thing was the talent level,” he answered. Right after Griffin, Drummond and Jackson, he cited the last three No. 1 draft picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard.
Casey’s separation from Toronto, allowing the Coach of the Year as voted on by his peers to fall into the Pistons’ lap, was sparked by a second-round sweep at the hands of LeBron James and Cleveland. Casey was bombarded with questions about why that was after the Raptors won a franchise-best 59 wins and earned the No. 1 seed in the East.
“I said, ‘It’s about matchups.’ Stanley Johnson is the best matchup for 23 in Cleveland that there is physically. You also have Blake there.”
Luke Kennard was also singled out for an expected leap forward and a key role, which isn’t all that surprising given that he shot better than 40 percent from the 3-point arc as a rookie and Casey was unequivocal in his vision of how the Pistons will play: “One thing is we have to get up more threes. We have to play more of an analytical game.”
A little more newsworthy was the frequent mention of Ellenson’s name by both Casey and Ed Stefanski, the de facto head of basketball operations at the moment – and perhaps nearing more permanence – who sat with Casey and owner Tom Gores at the press conference. Ellenson had flashes of brilliance early in his second season, but Anthony Tolliver – who played the best basketball of his 10-year career – was Stan Van Gundy’s security blanket and quickly forced Ellenson into a minimal role at the deepest position on the roster.
Casey’s track record in Toronto was to give young players – at least the ones who take to coaching and put in the time – all the leash they can handle. (Side note: Van Gundy never failed to laud Ellenson’s work ethic, aptitude and passion; Casey will find a most willing lump of clay in the 21-year-old.) O.G. Anunoby started as a rookie despite coming off an ACL tear in January 2018. The Raptors bench, by acclimation the NBA’s best, was stocked with late first- and second-rounders and undrafted free agents beyond lottery pick Jakob Poeltl.
That doesn’t happen by coincidence. It’s one thing for a coaching staff to invest the time before and after practices in player development, but it’s quite another to trust them in the cauldron of the 82-game schedule.
“I think the key word is trust,” Casey said. “You have to empower them. You have to trust them. They may make mistakes.” He cited the example of Pascal Siakam, the 27th pick two years ago who emerged as a key player off Toronto’s bench. Late in the season, Siakam, a sub-20 percent 3-point shooter, all of a sudden became a threat. “The coaching staff and myself, we empowered him and it clicked. There’s no magic wand to wave over young players, but it starts out with giving them confidence and letting them know that we believe in them – and, hey, we do.”
Ellenson went nine spots ahead of Siakam in the 2016 draft and he’s three years younger. If Casey maximizes Ellenson’s potential the way he did with Siakam, the Pistons will be that much better off over 2017-18 for it. And multiply that effect with leaps forward from Johnson and Kennard and Reggie Bullock and on down the line.
Stefanski, after being hired by Gores last month as senior adviser, told him his priority was to get a coach in place to get a jump on the summer development program.
“I told Tom I wanted to get to the young guys right away,” he said. “I think the upside for these three young guys is much better than they’ve shown.”
The perception of Pistons fans disillusioned by missing the playoffs eight of the last nine years has skewed the sense of this roster’s quality. Stefanski arrived from a Memphis franchise that ran off seven straight winning seasons before last year’s injury-ravaged disaster. He’s moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia to Toronto and finally Memphis before shaking hands with Gores. You don’t usually come to a franchise to start over with a core as talented as Griffin-Drummond-Jackson, he said. Casey says he’s starting from a much better place with the Pistons than where Toronto was when he took over there seven years ago.
They weren’t talking about winning now on Wednesday to win the press conference. It’s their expectation, based on what they have to work with and their sense of the competition. Gores was asked about the off-season, specifically Thursday’s draft and how the Pistons expected to improve the roster with neither a No. 1 pick nor cap space to pursue major free agents.
“We really like this team,” he said. “Whatever player we get, that would be great. But we don’t need another one. We’re good. That’s why Dwane’s here.”
To the owner’s right, his head coach didn’t flinch. The Pistons, it appears, aren’t tip-toeing into their future.