Casey: Right guy for the Pistons then, right guy for the job now

Dwane Casey
Dwane Casey’s experience with teams fighting for home-court advantage – and with building with young talent – made him the right choice for the Pistons then and now as they deal with a wave of injuries
Streeter Lecka (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – When Tom Gores tabbed Ed Stefanski to run his front office, he cited the importance of maximizing the summer months for player development as his logic in prioritizing the hiring of a head coach over staffing his front office – even though the draft was just more than a month away.

That wasn’t the overriding reason the coaching search led the Pistons to Dwane Casey. It was more the record he compiled at Toronto that validated his coaching chops, the way the Raptors improved year over year on his watch, the fact Toronto was always known as a physical, high-effort bunch.

The Pistons had a core of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson and – just as Stefanski cited that as a reason the job Gores offered appealed to him – Casey, coming off of a 60-win season at Toronto, saw an attractive opportunity to pick up where he’d left off across the border. Stefanski knew players who’d been All-Stars needed a coach of similar stature and the Pistons bagged one coming off of a Coach of the Year season with a league-wide reputation for galvanizing teams.

But if player development had been the most important criteria for identifying the next Pistons coach, well, the search almost surely still would have led to Casey’s doorstep.

And, as the two-year anniversary of Casey’s hiring approaches, that’s where the Pistons are now.

Jackson’s contract is up coming off of a season that has seen him play two games to date. Drummond is the subject of trade rumors and considered more likely than not to test free agency in July. Griffin will miss at least most of what remains of this season after a second surgery on his left knee since April.

It’s not the scenario Casey envisioned and it certainly isn’t one he wished into existence, but it’s also not a fight he’ll flee – and that’s not something you could say for every coach with his credentials. There’d be some looking for an escape hatch or going through the motions to accelerate a mutual parting.

“It’s tough because I went through this about six or seven years ago in Toronto, the rebuild we did there,” he said before Monday, when the Pistons lost at home for the third straight game to a sub-.500 team, two of those games in overtime. “I thought I had graduated from that, but we’re back here again – which is fine. I enjoy coaching. I enjoy teaching. There were no parameters put on what type of team it was going to be here. I expected it to be a playoff team and still want to win.”

Let’s make this clear: The Pistons aren’t tanking. Casey isn’t going into any game coaching to lose.

“That doesn’t get out of your locker room when you walk in without the attitude of trying to win,” he said. “I never want to go into a rebuild situation (with the attitude of), ‘OK, just go out there and make mistakes.’ No, we’re here to win, trying to compete to win. And when we don’t, I’m upset. But at the same time as a teacher and a coach, you understand where we are as an organization.”

Casey brought along young players amid a winning environment at an eye-opening pace in Toronto. Fred VanVleet went from undrafted to playing crunch-time minutes. Pascal Siakam bounced between the G League and the Raptors starting lineup as a rookie. O.G. Anunoby was trusted with important minutes as a rookie on Casey’s last Toronto team.

If he managed that with a team that was fighting for home-court advantage without compromising winning, he’ll surely be able to walk that line with a team that’s had its playoff aspirations crushed by injury.

Ones to Griffin and Markieff Morris cracked the door for Sekou Doumbouya, who moved into the starting lineup 10 days after turning 19. He’s hit the ground running and cemented his status at the center of whatever the Pistons become. It’s important, symbolically and on any other level you can muster, that Doumbouya flourishes as a beacon of what Casey’s touch with player development means for the franchise’s future.

He was on the floor as the Pistons rallied from 16 down in the fourth quarter to force overtime on Monday. So were Christian Wood, Svi Mykhailiuk and Bruce Brown. Casey let Jordan Bone dip his toe in the water for eight first-half minutes, too. Luke Kennard will miss perhaps another month with knee tendinitis, but the way he blossomed to start his third season gives the Pistons another foundational block. They like what they’ve seen from rookie Louis King, like Bone currently playing on a two-way contract and in line for some run over the season’s second half.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a rebuild, totally,” Casey said, wincing at the word as it was put to him. “Not down to the nubs, the studs and to the foundation. But of our core, only Andre is still available and I would say Luke would be the other part of that. But then after that, it’s Sekou, Christian, Bruce. That’s the key. It’s shifted to that. Don’t want to call it a rebuild, but that’s where the focus is right now – with those guys.”

The Pistons hired the right guy for the team they expected to have this season. They also hired the right guy for the team they wound up fielding.

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