Dwane Casey has been rooted in the NBA’s Eastern Conference for a full decade and for most of that time it was a stretch to come up with eight legitimate playoff teams when projecting outcomes on the eve of the regular season.
This season, it’s pretty much a playoffs-or-bust mentality in 12 of the 15 front offices. Casey opened training camp three weeks ago having delivered a “why not us?” tone-setter to his young Pistons roster, but the organization goes into the 2021-22 season clear-eyed.
“We know who we are,” Casey said a day ahead of Wednesday’s season opener when the Pistons host Chicago. “That’s where patience comes in. When a young man doesn’t play great one night, let’s not panic. We know where we are, who we are, what we’re about. We’re about coming in to compete, play physical, play hard, play smart, play together and growing each and every night.”
Training camps never unfold exactly like the blueprint coaches draw up in their September staff meetings and that was surely the case for the Pistons, who didn’t once field their anticipated starting lineup in a preseason game and only rarely did so in practice.
Overall No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham missed all but the first day or two of camp with a sprained ankle that has his status in doubt for Wednesday’s opener.
“We don’t know yet. He went through some practice today,” Casey said. “We’re not going to put a timetable on it. When he’s ready to roll, he’s going to be ready to roll.”
Sprained ankles also cost Killian Hayes and Frank Jackson a week of camp early before Saddiq Bey missed the final 2½ games with an ankle injury of his own. Hayes also missed two preseason games with a concussion. The good news? They’re all back. Only Cunningham’s status is clouded on the eve of the season.
“I live my life waking up and reading those emails from the medical people letting me know who’s available and who’s not going to be available,” Casey said.
Cunningham’s veteran teammates – if you can call 20-year-old tenderfoots like Hayes and Isaiah Stewart and second-year starter Bey “veterans” – don’t expect it will take long for Cunningham to get up to speed given the traits he possesses that made him the clear-cut No. 1 pick for months leading to last summer’s draft.
“We know what he brings to the table,” Jerami Grant said. “His poise, being able to control the game, his ability to shoot – he does a lot of things that’ll help us when he gets back.”
“We know when Cade’s going to come back, he’s going to be ready,” Hayes said. “With everybody we have now, we’re building a winning team and when Cade comes back we’re going to add him and make us even better.”
Casey was largely able to keep his second unit intact during the preseason despite the disruptions to the starting group, but he never was able to test drive what he calls the “finishing” group, one expected to include key veteran free agent Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk, in fact, didn’t play at all alongside Stewart in the preseason. Casey thinks that will be an easy transition because of everything Olynyk brings to the equation.
“I just had talked to Kelly about that this morning,” Casey said. “There’s a possibility of him playing the four, Jerami playing the three and Saddiq at the two. Kelly is so smart. In one practice, he played all three positions. He played point guard one day when we were down numbers. It won’t be a huge adjustment for him.”
Nobody knows exactly how it’s going to look when all hands are on deck and nobody goes into the season with any illusions about the work ahead of the Pistons – as an organization and as a team – to move general manager Troy Weaver’s “restoration” down the tracks. But one constant measuring stick for that endeavor will be the unyielding commitment to the principles of hard work on all fronts.
“We’ve got to be patient. We’re a young group,” Casey said. “One thing we can control is how hard we come out and compete. We’re going to coach to win each and every possession – not every game, every possession – and compete as such. We want to establish who we are. It may not be winning and losing, but establish who we are in the process.”