Casey’s steady hand sets the tone for a Pistons team that consistently plays hard

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Dwane Casey’s steady presence has been a critical factor in the Pistons playing hard and remaining together under challenging circumstances
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)

If a panel of coaches was asked to concoct a recipe for the most challenging set of circumstances one among them could encounter, it probably would wind up looking a lot like the reality Dwane Casey has faced this season.

And through it all, the Pistons continue to play hard, night in and night out. Their 9-25 record is better than only Minnesota’s, but six teams have a worse point differential than the Pistons – including four teams with either 13 or 14 wins. Rarely do the Pistons hit the five-minute mark of any game without a puncher’s chance to win.

The team’s veterans cite the attitude of the rookies who arrived humble and eager to learn despite their status as high draft picks. The kids point to the veterans for their willingness to share their experiences and knowledge despite knowing a rebuilding franchise is most heavily invested in a future that might not include them.

Dwane Casey says none of that would be possible without having a roster filled with high-character players and credits general manager Troy Weaver for stocking the roster with that type.

But creating the environment that leads to a team that goes beyond functional to harmonious is the province of the head coach and, ultimately, it’s Casey who bears responsibility for his team’s carriage.

“It starts with him,” Mason Plumlee said. “He’s created that environment. In a very short time here, I’ve realized why he’s a winner. He was as a player and has been as a coach. For sure, it starts with him.”

Plumlee was targeted in free agency because he checked off a lot of boxes for both Casey and Weaver, who declared in his introductory press conference last June that his priority was to re-establish the Pistons as contenders by emphasizing the qualities that brought them championships – selflessness, hard work and a team that didn’t shrink from physical challenges foremost.

Weaver hasn’t wavered from that in any of his many personnel decisions since and that dovetails with Casey’s preferences. The harmony in the Pistons locker room is reflected in the GM-coach relationship.

“Troy’s done an excellent job of bringing in high-character, talented young men – but mostly high character,” Casey said. “I think that’s the key ingredient along with the talent. The first sign of adversity, low-character guys, they mail it in. That’s something these guys don’t do and I don’t expect it. As far as working hard and trying, this group is one of the best I’ve been around.”

Adversity has been about the only constant of the season. The fact that all teams faced the unprecedented obstacles of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protocols the NBA put in place to deal with it doesn’t make it any easier for any team to navigate its challenges. Just this week, the Pistons had to change plans when a scheduled Tuesday game against Toronto – in Tampa – was postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday, tentatively.

Beyond that, the Pistons began the season with only four holdover players and had a truncated preseason to figure out roles with 11 new players jockeying for them; seen their two most decorated veterans, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, removed from the equation; and had lottery pick Killian Hayes lost to injury in the season’s seventh game.

Players of the rarefied stature of Griffin and Rose are magnets for young players but not always are such players enamored with the expectation of mentorship. Griffin and Rose embraced their roles, so their departures might have created problematic voids. But Plumlee, Wayne Ellington, Jerami Grant, Rodney McGruder and Delon Wright are willing mentors.

“We have guys willing to speak up and take a leadership role,” Plumlee said. “Those guys have been in lots of big games, they’ve seen a lot of different coverages. Those are the intangibles I think you miss. As far as leadership, those guys were great, especially with the younger guys. You have guys like Jerami and Rodney and Wayne willing to talk to guys, too. We have good leadership on this team.”

“Those older guys are doing an excellent job of leading with their voice, leading by example,” Casey said. “They don’t have the so-called star power of Blake and Derrick, but they’re leaders. They’re real leaders. Those guys are stepping up and replacing them. Rodney McGruder, can’t say enough about him. The young man doesn’t play a minute but has the same spirit. Any time you call his number, he’s ready to go.”

Casey’s steady demeanor is as much a reason there’s been no leadership void created by the exits of Griffin and Rose. He says he learned from his college coach, Joe B. Hall at Kentucky, that a coach who lets wins and losses affect his bearing won’t last long.

Dennis Smith Jr., recently acquired in the Rose trade, has been part of struggling franchises in Dallas and New York in his three-plus NBA seasons. He knows how tough it is to have a team maintain the same level of competitiveness even as losses mount.

Casey, he said, should get “a ton of credit. He’s been Coach of the Year before. Other than winning it all, that’s the highest you can get as a coach. For him to come here, be willing to work with us guys … he’s never given up on us. He always believes in us. You couldn’t ask for more from a coach.”

Casey’s foremost ask from the Pistons in a year that’s seen them buffeted by challenges is that they play through their mistakes and play hard. They’ve consistently done nothing but that.

And for that, credit goes to Troy Weaver for making character a priority in player acquisition, to the veterans he brought in for staying true to that mission and to the young players for toeing the line. But a coach has to deal with the day-to-day reality that can turn grim as losses mount and Dwane Casey’s role in fielding a team that busts its collective backside every time out should never be diminished.

“They always say the team reflects the coach,” Plumlee said. “And I think that’s definitely the case here.”

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