Stefanski-Casey partnership puts Pistons players – and winning – above all else

Blake Griffin was all smiles when Ed Stefanski told him the Pistons had added longtime assistant Tim Grgurich to Dwane Casey’s staff
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – There’s a prevailing wisdom among studied observers of sports organizations that they tend to seek qualities in incoming coaches deemed deficient in those they replace.

Old coach too soft, new coach a disciplinarian. Fired coach too much by the book, new guy all seat of the pants.

In that vein, Tom Gores scrapped the traditional GM-coach model when he perceived what he called a disconnect between the front office and coaching staff, consolidating power in the form of Stan Van Gundy. When momentum stalled in year four of the Van Gundy regime, he went back to a more traditional format, hiring Ed Stefanski to run the front office and lead a coaching search that resulted in the Pistons hiring Dwane Casey.

So how do the Pistons guard against the pitfalls of their past?

Well, start by making sure the key hires are of one mind on organizational priorities.

Any notion that Stefanski will pull in one direction and Casey in another seems misguided based on the evidence of their actions to date. For one thing, start with the fact that Stefanski’s search put Casey in front of Gores. If Stefanski was interested foremost in establishing his fiefdom, he probably wouldn’t have landed on the reigning Coach of the Year as the right man for the Pistons. Casey’s reputation precedes him into the job.

And that’s as Stefanski would have it. It’s why when he was hired in late May – despite the fact the draft was less than a month away and free agency not much behind it – he made landing a coach his clear priority.

“The pick of the coach who was going to be our leader of our basketball players is, to me, the biggest position that we have in the organization,” he said.

Doesn’t get much clearer than “biggest position we have in the organization” for enunciating Stefanski’s perception of the front office-coach dynamic.

Then there’s this: “When you’re a basketball team, the situation we’re in now, number one’s got to be the players. That’s the bottom line. And one thing about Case and I – I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been around long enough – we’re just about the players. That’s all we care about. We want to win and when you win, all the accolades and what comes from it trickles right down. I’m a prime example of that.”

Stefanski goes out of his way to credit his career path to the influence of Jason Kidd, who established his Hall of Fame credentials in his prime with the Nets while Stefanski was starting to scale the NBA ladder. The Nets got to the NBA Finals in 2002 and ’03, their reign in the East snapped in ’04 by the Pistons in an epic seven-game conference semifinals series.

Here’s another sign that the Stefanski-Casey partnership promises to be a harmonious one: the hiring of Tim Grgurich.

Grgurich won’t be at Casey’s side during games or even behind the bench. But he’ll be integral to the player development mission that Stefanski established as a necessary organizational bedrock and a fundamental of Casey’s rousing success in Toronto.

Grgurich, 76, lends new meaning to the term basketball lifer.

“If we put a room here with a bed in it,” Stefanski said, sweeping his hand around the Pistons practice facility, “he’d sleep here.”

Such is Grgurich’s reputation in coaching circles, he quite likely could have blindfolded himself, threw a dart at a whiteboard with last year’s standings on it, called the head coach of the team it landed on and gotten a job there. He chose the Pistons, Stefanski said, because he had longstanding relationships with both Stefanski and Casey – Casey and Grgurich spent five years together under George Karl in Seattle, Stefanski has been a fixture at Grgurich’s Las Vegas summer camp since it launched nearly 20 years ago – and felt their partnership would be fruitful and lasting.

Generations of young basketball players have been touched by Grgurich, many of them having passed through that Vegas camp during their own development phases. When Stefanski told Blake Griffin of Grgurich’s addition, “he just put a big smile on his face. He dealt with him one summer. They all know him. He gives us instant credibility with the players.”

And it’s all about the players under this regime, all about organizational ends. So Tom Gores didn’t return to a more traditional model so much as make sure he staffed those traditional roles with compatible parts.