Win-win: Pistons had a lot to sell – and they wound up with the big free-agent coaching fish, Dwane Casey

In Dwane Casey, the Pistons have a coach who’ll lean heavily on the use of analytics in shaping his game plans and methods.
Ned Dishman (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – That the Toronto Raptors were obligated to pay Dwane Casey $6.5 million next season to not coach them and that Casey instead decided to coach the Detroit Pistons says a few things.

It says Pistons owner Tom Gores is a most persuasive salesman, of course, as Ed Stefanski discovered in his initial get-to-know-you meeting that resulted in the longtime NBA executive agreeing to become Gores’ senior adviser to lead the searches for a coach and general manager.

But – and rather loudly – it also says Gores had a pretty good product to pitch.

And Casey gave some hints last week in media interviews, before his hiring became official Monday, that the thought of coaching a team built around Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson was, indeed, tantalizing to him.

Stefanski prioritized the hiring of a coach over a GM for the urgency he felt to lead a summer development program for the unusually high number of players the Pistons have under contract for Casey’s debut season. You can bet the process has already begun with Casey reaching out to those three plus Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, Reggie Bullock, Henry Ellenson and a half-dozen others.

The fact Casey jumped at the chance to coach the Pistons – again, when he could have earned virtually the same for twiddling his thumbs back home in Seattle – is at once a testament to the quality of the job Gores had to offer and a debunking of the accepted canard that free agents won’t consider Detroit.

Casey was the elite coaching free agent this off-season. His peers voted him Coach of the Year after leading Toronto to 59 wins. The official award, as voted on by media, probably will go to him, as well.

The Pistons couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome after Gores decided to move on from the Stan Van Gundy era after four years that undeniably got the franchise back on solid footing. And there were no guarantees that the outcome would be as fail safe as the hiring of Casey appears to be.

It was an intriguing list of reported finalists that included Michigan’s John Beilein and Spurs assistant Ime Udoka. The admiration basketball insiders have for Beilein’s offensive genius and his profound record for player development runs deep. Udoka was a beloved teammate whose NBA career dwarfed his talent level and has been seen as a rising star in the coaching ranks since early in his days at Gregg Popovich’s side.

The Pistons likely couldn’t have gone wrong with any of the three.

But for a roster ready to win now – with Griffin at the height of his prime and Drummond coming into that stage and Jackson somewhere in between, given a reprieve from the injury bug – Casey was the fool-proof choice.

The way DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s careers were elevated on Casey’s watch is eye-opening. Casey caught Lowry at just about the same stage of his career that Drummond is at now. He’ll get the last three No. 1 picks – Johnson, Ellenson and Kennard – at even earlier stages. Getting more out of them is essential for the Pistons to take the same steps over the next two or three years that the Raptors covered the last two or three.

It’s one thing for late first-rounders, unheralded second-rounders or undrafted free agents to make an impact on losing teams. But for a playoff team, let alone a top-three seed, to get great mileage out of the likes of Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, O.G. Anunoby, Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet approaches astounding.

The Raptors had, by most accounts, the NBA’s best bench last season. Other than C.J. Miles, signed last summer as a free agent, it consisted of home-grown players acquired without premium assets.

That bodes well for a Pistons franchise that goes into the off-season without a No. 1 draft pick or cap space. They’ve got a chance to win 50 games and host a playoff series, but they’re going to need Johnson, Kennard and Ellenson to take a step forward and it wouldn’t hurt if, beyond that, they find a Van Vleet in the undrafted bin or a Powell with the 42nd pick.

Stefanski was part of a Memphis front office that drafted Dillon Brooks last season with the 45th pick. Hiring Casey should boost the confidence of everyone involved with exercising the 42nd pick that the player selected will be developed to the fullest – and, just as critically, trusted with as much leash as his abilities warrant. It wouldn’t have been every coach – or many coaches, for that matter – who turned over the second unit of a team with legitimate NBA title aspirations to an undrafted free agent the way Casey did with Van Vleet.

The Pistons had a great salesman and a vibrant product to take to the coaching marketplace. They wound up landing the big fish. Win-win. And now they’ll have an even better product to sell as they come to the finish line in the process to pick a new general manager.