Pistons newcomers inject fresh perspective: ‘We’re going to do great things’

Markieff Morris
Markieff Morris says a second unit that includes him and Derrick Rose will mean no dropoff when Dwane Casey rests his starters.
Camerone Browne/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Markieff and Marcus Morris are not identical twins, but close your eyes – or open them, if you wish – and you can’t tell them apart when they’re speaking. Proteges of the thoroughly unique and beloved – in this town, at least – Rasheed Wallace, with whom they share Philadelphia roots and devotion, the Morris twins exude Hall of Fame-level confidence.

So maybe, conditioned by the bravado of Wallace and the more recent Marcus Morris era of Pistons basketball, you’re inclined to brush off Markieff’s Monday media day proclamation that the Pistons are “Easy, top five in the East.”

But it wasn’t all that far out of line with how the other newcomers to the franchise, who chose Detroit over other legitimate NBA options, perceive Dwane Casey’s second iteration of the Pistons. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Sometimes the fresh perspective of outsiders recalibrates the focus.

“We’ve got a great group of guys,” Joe Johnson said. “I think the sky’s the limit. You’ve got pretty much everything on this team – good point guard, great bigs, good wings, a great mix of younger guys, older guys and vets. I think we’ve got a great, great chance here.”

The Pistons signed Morris, Johnson, Derrick Rose and Tim Frazier as free agents. Rose and Frazier came to terms almost immediately and Morris a few days later. Johnson’s free agency was unique, the seven-time All-Star eliciting NBA interest as he dominated the Big3 circuit.

Johnson had a few workouts before going through the paces for the Pistons, then shut it down after that. He’d found his sweet spot.

“Had like four more workouts and just canceled ’em,” he said. “I thought Detroit was a great place for me.”

Rose and Johnson both cited their prior relationship with Arn Tellem, Pistons vice chairman who represented both players among his All-Star client roster during his days as a super agent. Dwane Casey ticked off a few more reasons the Pistons now identify as an easy sell for NBA free agents, starting with owner Tom Gores and what his commitment – graphically symbolized by the imminent unveiling of the sparkling Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center, the team’s new training facility in Detroit – means to the health of the franchise.

“He’s never said no on anything we’re doing,” Casey said. “Our new practice facility makes it easy – the transformation of Detroit is going to make it easy – to recruit free agents to our franchise in the future. What Tom is doing with our team, the practice facility, (Little Caesars Arena) – we’re in a great place right now.”

Front office chief executive Ed Stefansk adds another lure: Casey himself.

“The best thing I’ve done in a little over a year was bringing in Dwane Casey,” he said. “Dwane is a terrific basketball coach and person. With our talent, he’ll get the most out of it.”

Rose saw all that from afar, agreeing to terms within the first hour of free agency three months ago.

“My confidence is going to be at an elite level,” he said. “We know what we have on this team. One of the reasons I signed early is I see something – something you all may not see, but I see something.”

Rose figures to anchor Casey’s second unit – and keep in mind that Casey empowers his second unit in ways many coaches do not. His staple last season was to go with an all-bench unit to start the second and fourth quarters, not blend units to always keep a starter or two on the floor.

This year’s second unit will not only include Rose – a guy who averaged 23.7 points per 36 minutes last season – but also Morris, likely Luke Kennard and perhaps Johnson.

“My honest opinion is we won’t have no dropoff, especially with me and D-Rose being able to score the ball,” Morris said. “We’ll have one of the best benches and we won’t have no dropoff when those guys come out. That’s the most important thing.”

The Pistons are inarguably a deeper team this season than last, when they won 41 games but were only 8-18 in the 26 games backup point guard Ish Smith missed. Frazier’s numbers were comparable to Smith’s last season, but he’s effectively replacing not Smith – that’s Rose – but No. 3 point guard Jose Calderon. Morris is replacing little-used Jon Leuer. Tony Snell, the prototypically sized wing the Pistons lacked even as they mounted their playoff run last spring, gives them Wayne Ellington’s 3-point shooting but infinitely more defensive versatility.

“Not to be disparaging about players that were here, but I think it’s gotten considerably better when you put Derrick Rose in at that point guard position coming off the bench,” Stefanski said. “We’ve helped ourselves depth wise. I think we got better in that second unit.”

Blake Griffin, ridden to exhaustion due to dependence on him in 2018-19, noticed and much appreciated the depth Stefanski’s front office managed to add despite cap limitations.

“I thought we did an unbelievable job, especially given our circumstances,” he said. “Some very good basketball players – Derrick and Tony, Markieff and Tim. All these guys are very good basketball players and know what it takes to win. Our depth has grown and also our experience with the guys we’ve added.”

Reggie Jackson gushed about the signing of Rose, in case anyone wondered how he’d react to the addition of a player at his position with a resume as weighty as the former MVP’s. In playing pickup games with the newly configured roster, Jackson noticed an immediate difference.

“Passes we made last year, guys who’ve been here had to get adjusted to the new length we had,” he said. “Because they were now turnovers. We’re better than we were.”

All-Stars Griffin and Andre Drummond leading a playoff-worthy starting unit, accomplished veterans injected into the bench, a coach players want to play under, a new practice palace awaiting them, an owner who’s proven he’ll provide whatever tools his front office deems advantageous … yeah, it’s a good time to be in Detroit.

“The vibe’s great,” Snell said. “We’re going to do great things.”

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