Casey’s flexibility keeps all Pistons engaged – ‘I love his willingness to mix it up’

Reggie Bullock was back at practice on Friday after missing the season-opening win over Brooklyn due to illness.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – We have a pretty good idea what Dwane Casey’s rotation will look like when the Pistons host Brooklyn on Wednesday to open the regular season, but not an exact formula.

And there’s a good reason for that: There isn’t one.

Casey, to a greater degree than most NBA coaches, is imbued with the flexibility gene.

What we do know about Casey’s rotation is this: It’s better to be a perimeter player than a big man. That’s the NBA in general these days, but Casey is ahead of the curve on this. Other coaches are going to have to respond to his lineups rather than vice versa.

In the last two preseason games – as Casey pared his rotation to more closely approximate a regular-season substation pattern and extended his starters’ minutes – Jon Leuer played two minutes against Washington and Zaza Pachulia played less than 10 minutes against Cleveland until Henry Ellenson got the final four minutes with the game in hand. Other than that, it was all Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin up front.

Meanwhile, Casey played five wings and two point guards in each first half.

Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, Glenn Robinson III and Langston Galloway all appear to be in line for every-game duty – with the caveat that permanence in the NBA lasts as long as the first three-game losing streak.

That has at least two effects. Not only does it diversity the offense and give the Pistons multiple ballhandlers and playmakers with more shooting to spread the floor, it has the benefit of keeping a deeper cohort of players engaged, in rhythm and – in theory, at least – better prepared to step in and contribute.

Even the big men, though their total minutes played could be reduced, are likely going to stay sharper because Casey’s lack of rigidity probably means the pecking order among the three off the bench – Pachulia, Leuer and Ellenson – could change game to game based on need and matchup.

Casey’s players appear enthused and empowered by his willingness to make other teams dance to the Pistons beat. It’s as if their coach is saying, “I’ll throw any five of you out there and be confident you’ll find the advantage you have over whatever the other team’s response is.”

The lineup Casey deployed to start Friday night’s second quarter was his boldest of the preseason: Pachulia together with both point guards, Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith, plus two shooting guards, Kennard and Galloway. Jackson wound up guarding 6-foot-9 power forward Sam Dekker in that configuration. The Pistons opened the quarter on an 8-0 run.

“The thing about lineups like that, as long as you can guard, you’re good,” Blake Griffin said after the game. “I don’t care if you have three post players and two guards. If you can sit down and you can guard on the other end, then it doesn’t matter to me because at the other end they’ll have to play to your strengths.”

For Smith, playing time is no longer a zero-sum game for him with regard to Jackson. If Jackson played 32 minutes the past two seasons, then Smith was going to be capped at 16. No longer.

“That’s the game today,” Smith said. “People playing four smalls and a big. Coach is creative with that creative mind and whoever’s flowing, whoever’s going wherever, he finds the matchup and he just kind of goes with it.”

The big winner of the Pistons preseason appears to be Galloway. Signed in July 2017 for his ability to play both backcourt spots, Galloway played very little at point guard a year ago and was told by Casey before training camp to focus on the duties of a wing exclusively. The Pistons added Jose Calderon in free agency to bolster point guard and Casey is high on rookie Bruce Brown’s future at that spot.

Galloway appeared blocked at shooting guard by Bullock and Kennard. But Casey’s appreciation for taking open 3-pointers without hesitation suits Galloway’s skill set and his scrappiness has further endeared him to Casey.

“Langston’s been special,” Casey said. “His shooting is exactly how we need to play, his spot-up shooting, and most of all his defensive intensity.”

So no matter that a conventional depth chart might still list Galloway no better than No. 3 at his position. They have a new coach willing to bend convention when he spots the opportunity to create an edge.

“I love his willingness to mix it up,” Griffin said, “and have lineups that aren’t necessarily traditional but maybe work to our advantage.”