What will be new for 2020-21 Detroit Pistons? Casey ready to steal zone schemes from Orlando bubble

Dwane Casey
Dwane Casey says the Pistons will play more zone defense next season after he’s seen the success it’s brought some teams in the Orlando bubble.
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

When you sit down to watch the 2020-21 Detroit Pistons play – whenever that might be – you’re going to see something you didn’t see much of the past few seasons: zone defense.

When Dwane Casey was asked his impressions of bubble basketball and whether he’d picked up on anything in particular, that was the first item he volunteered. Watching a few of the teams that have advanced through the Eastern Conference playoffs, in particular, gave him the inspiration to implement change on the end of the floor that first elevated Casey to coaching prominence.

“We’re all thieves,” Casey said of copying what works from other teams. “We’re thieves as far as stealing things. Some things we want to do different defensively.”

The Pistons – along with the seven other teams excluded from the NBA relaunch in the Orlando bubble – are gathered at their Performance Center this week to start a three-week team camp that runs through Oct. 6. Casey said 15 players – enough for three five-man teams for when Phase 2 of the bubble environment allows more than individual workouts starting next week – are taking part. Veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, as expected, will be non-participants. Neither are free agents like Christian Wood and Langston Galloway taking part. Five players from last season’s Grand Rapids Drive roster, as allowed by the NBA and the Players Association, are part of the Pistons group.

Injuries and personnel issues aside, Casey was pleased last season with the way his offensive blueprint – push for layups and the most desirable 3-point shots, eschew the statistically inefficient mid-range jumpers – took root last season. At the other end – where Casey earned notice for his work as the defensive pilot on Rick Carlisle’s Dallas staff en route to the Mavs’ 2011 NBA title – not so much.

“Our defense took a huge step back,” he said. “Our emphasis going into next season is going to be on the defensive end. The game has changed to more of an offensive league, but we have to get better protecting the paint, protecting the rim. Our transition defense took a step back.”

And part of Casey’s solution to remedying Detroit’s defensive ills is to expand his toolbox by increasing the frequency of zone looks.

“I’m looking at some things. Boston is doing a heck of a job with their zone. Miami is doing a heck of a job with their zone,” Casey said. “We were kind of in the forefront of playing the zone down in Dallas.”

Part of the NBA’s evolution over the past decade is the ebbing of the macho mentality that led past players to disdain zone schemes. Flip Saunders arrived from Minnesota, where he’d successfully tinkered with zone defenses, intent on implementing zones with the Goin’ to Work Pistons. On paper, it made perfect sense. The length at their positions of Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton, the lateral mobility and tenacity of Ben Wallace, the smarts and strength of Chauncey Billups gave that group all the tools to be an oppressive zone team.

One problem: They hated the thought of it. Saunders eventually gave up and junked it.

But that team had also earned the right to be skeptical of designs to change their identity after winning the 2004 NBA title by holding playoff opponents to a mere 80.7 points per game.

Last year’s Pistons, despite Casey’s best-laid plans, finished 22nd in defensive rating. The explosion of 3-point shooting demands radically different responses at the defensive end than the playbook Larry Brown devised for the 2004 Pistons. And Casey will be dealing with a much different roster next season, by any reasonable estimate, with new general manager Troy Weaver installed and the organization looking to retool.

Even man-to-man defenses have changed dramatically over time with Casey helping lead the trend of almost automatic switching to blunt the effectiveness of pick-and-roll sets. The days of Player A going head to head against Player X and may the best man win are in the distant past. And with it has gone the mentality that made it tough for bygone players to accept the concept of a zone defense as anything but a last-ditch gimmick.

“We’ve seen some things,” Casey said. “We’ll see if it works for us.”

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