Identity Casey craves for Pistons bench unit takes a leap forward in Game 10

Ish Smith is enthusiastic about sharing playmaking duties on a second unit that Dwane Casey sees as vital to success for the Pistons.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ATLANTA – The success Dwane Casey’s Toronto Raptors enjoyed the past few seasons was as much about what happened when All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan sat as when they played. By acclimation, Toronto’s bench was considered the NBA’s best last season and veteran journeyman C.J. Miles was the closest thing to a big name in the bunch.

So it stands to reason that if Casey successfully vaults the Pistons into the Eastern Conference’s upper tier, it’s going to be as much about how he coaxes production from his bench as it will be for what he gets out of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.

He wants his bench to form its own unique identity – one centered on playing with high energy and elevated pace – and, just maybe, Wednesday’s win in Orlando pushed the ball a bit further down the field in that regard.

“I thought their level of activity, their level of pursuit, they defensive intensity was at an all-time high,” Casey said. “I thought that was the best thing about that unit.”

Stanley Johnson came out of the starting lineup two games ago, replaced by Glenn Robinson III, and he had his best all-around game of the season in the 103-96 win over the Magic with 13 points, six rebounds and six assists. Jose Calderon joined the unit, essentially giving Casey three point guards with Ish Smith and Langston Galloway all surrounding Zaza Pachulia.

It’s a grouping that gives the Pistons 3-point shooting, ballhandling and passing but it’s viability depends on the ability of Smith, Calderon and Galloway to credibly defend – usually against bigger players. Galloway is nominally the small forward in that group at a listed height of 6-foot-2. His assignment in Orlando matched him against Terence Ross, who under Casey in Toronto had a 50-point game and is one of the league’s top bench scorers.

“Once he gets going, there’s no defense that can stop him if you don’t do your work early,” Casey said. “Langston did his work early, got into his body, chased him, beat him to the screen. That’s the only way you’re going to stop a (Evan) Fournier or a Terence Ross.”

But Calderon and Smith, as well, have to be prepared to guard players much bigger because Casey’s defensive scheme calls for liberal switching from point guard through power forward.

“We switch a lot in those instances, so (Galloway) might be guarding the three, one time I was guarding Jonathan Simmons who played the three, one time Jose guarded him,” Smith said. “The only one who wasn’t switching out there was Zaza. It makes it easier. It’s how the game is played today. We all have to do it, but it makes it easier when you have four shooters and Zaza who is a really good mid-range shooter and a great passer.”

At the other end, Smith is transitioning – as is Jackson with the starters – to a Casey system that decentralizes playmaking. He chastised himself for playing too passively during the five-game losing streak snapped with the win at Orlando, but he’s enthusiastic about the possibilities he sees playing in a system with shared ballhandling duties. Casey wants half-court sets where the ball gets from one side to the other and that gives Smith – whose quickness is already problematic for defenses – the chance to catch the ball on the move instead of having to create scoring chances out of static situations.

“It’s a whole lot easier,” he said. “It’s working out. We’ve still got a long way to go, but last night was a good win.”

It might be a while before Casey’s second unit settles into a permanent niche if only because the situation remains fluid at the wing positions with the starting group. Reggie Bullock is still out of sorts, going without a basket in his return Wednesday from an ankle injury, and Luke Kennard has missed two weeks with a separated shoulder. If Johnson stays with the bench unit, though, he’ll be at the heart of its success if he can sustain Tuesday’s level of play.

“That’s the Stanley Johnson we need and that’s the Stanley Johnson we want,” Smith said. “When he’s playing clear minded, just playing and not overthinking it, it makes him so much better. Just react instead of overthinking. It gives him a lot of confidence. When he’s playing at that level, that makes our team so much better.”

It’s 10 games into an 82-game season – and, more relevantly, 10 games into the transition to a vastly different offensive philosophy. In other words, there figure to be fits and starts still ahead. But the shaping of an identity that Dwane Casey craves for his second unit sure seemed to come a little more sharply into focus in Game 10.