Pistons coach John Kuester sat down with Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois on Monday in Las Vegas, where Kuester had just arrived after taking the job last week and spending the weekend attending Rip Hamilton’s Florida wedding. He’ll be in Las Vegas the rest of the week overseeing the Pistons’ Summer League team. Here’s a transcript of their conversation:
Keith Langlois: First real day on the job. How did it feel to get out there at practice, not with the Pistons team you’ll have this fall but with some guys who could play a role. Your first impressions?
John Kuester: My first impression was good. We had two outstanding coaches in regard to Darrell Walker and Pat Sullivan doing a nice job of instructing. Seeing the young players get out there and move around the court, I understand why there’s excitement for what they’re capable of doing and why they’ve had success so far, so I was very pleased.
KL: I know you haven’t seen these guys play yet and it’s hard to project, not knowing what the roster might be, what roles they might have. But based on what you’ve heard from Joe and his staff, do you see it being possible that some of the rookies – Daye, Summers, Jerebko – possibly might have a role this year?
JK: One of the things we’re looking at is where can we get more length, where can we get more athleticism to add to our depth? One of the things that has to happen is two of the three and possibly three of the three, we’ve got to improve on our bench play. So certain players are going to get significant minutes and one of the things that has to occur is hopefully one of these guys can emerge. It’s very difficult in this league to play at a young age, but by the same token, if you’re ready, you’re ready. One of the things that’s exciting is to see players that have an upside, and all three of those kids do. Also, you’ve got to include Deron Washington. Watching him develop this Summer League, it will be interesting to see how he continues to improve besides the three players we drafted this year.
KL: I know Joe isn’t done putting the roster together yet, but as it stands now you’ve got a lot of depth and firepower on the perimeter. Have you had a chance to think of how the pieces fit with Rip and Ben Gordon and Will Bynum and Stuckey and Tayshaun?
JK: I look at the type of team we have now – the roster could change by the end of the summer – but the thing we do have is, really, flexibility, length and athleticism, even at those perimeter positions. Being able to be diversified to use that, even some of these guys who are our threes and fours can handle the ball like our ones and twos. That’s one of the things that’s exciting about being associated with this group. We should have some firepower right now which should happen through our swing people and our guards. That’s exciting because I think that can create an up-tempo situation for us.
KL: For Pistons fans who know of Ben Gordon, but not really, talk about what he brings to the team.
JK: I tell you this: passion. He loves the game. You know from the beginning you’ve got a player who is committed to what we want done on the floor and he wants to continually improve. I witnessed that, having had an opportunity to see him and see his work habits. He’s world-renowned as far as going to other cities and working on his game the night before (games). That’s impressive. He does have a tremendous passion for the game.
KL: And the other key free agent signed, Charlie Villanueva, what have been your impressions of him from the opposite bench?
JK: Charlie has always shot the ball extremely well against us and he’s a capable rebounder. The thing he’ll enjoy with our group is we’ll play unselfish and he’ll benefit and reap the rewards from that situation. We’re going to need him to do a great job defending a lot of guys and I think he’s going to be capable of doing that.
KL: You come billed as an offensive specialist and on some level I’m guessing you kind of blanch at that. You have a history on defense, too. I’ve heard from Pistons fans already saying we’ve signed Gordon and Villanueva, known as offensive players, and we have an offensive coach – are the Pistons getting away from the bedrock defense that made them?
JK: I’ve been very fortunate to work with some wonderful people in 14 years. This past season was the first they had me focusing more on offense. That was what Mike Brown felt most comfortable doing. Teams that have an opportunity to win championships defend and that’s what we’re going to have to do. To really base what we want to get accomplished on is being able to night in and night out defend. Because there are going to be nights when the ball isn’t going to go in the hole and we’ve got to do a good job of getting stops. The only way you can do that is implement a system you feel comfortable is going to be consistent and concise and guys understand what you want to get accomplished with your concepts and your terms.
KL: There has been something of a trend in the last few years with teams going small, at least in key stretches of games. LeBron might throw every paradigm out the window, but when you were with the Cavs he would play power forward. Yet when you look at who played in the NBA Finals, you had two pretty big teams with Orlando and the Lakers. With the Pistons, do you see opportunities for Rip at the three and Tay at the four sometimes?
JK: No question. We’ll play small ball at times. You have to with the firepower we have in our ones, twos and threes. Occasionally, putting Tayshaun at the four, it could be because we’re trying to catch up or we’re in foul trouble. We have to make some adjustments to see what they do to adjust to what we’re trying to get accomplished. And we did do it a number of times in Cleveland. The difference between LA, they had threes and fours that were 6-10, 6-11 and that makes a difference. Well, this year we’ve got some kids that are 6-10, 6-11 with Daye and Summers has good size and Jonas is going to be a nice addition to our team. So we have some length also, which we probably didn’t have last year.
KL: You’ve been in the NBA for about 20 years now. Did you ever think this opportunity wouldn’t happen?
JK: I was happy as an assistant. Did I want to become a head coach? Absolutely. There are a number of assistant coaches who are very deserving of getting an opportunity to be in this position I’m in right now. I was blessed because in ’04 I worked for the team and Joe had a relationship with me and I know he felt comfortable with me, and I absolutely feel comfortable with him and the team – not only the team, but the infrastructure of what this organization is all about – I’m coming into an environment with people I know and trust. That’s huge. When you’re able to come into comfortable surroundings, that’s a big plus. So to answer your question, I was lucky and fortunate enough to come to a place and become a head coach here because of a prior relationship we had and also I’m very appreciative for what the Cleveland Cavaliers did for me last year.
KL: I’m sure you would have welcomed this opportunity five or six years ago, but do you feel like you’re five or six years better prepared now that it came at this time?
JK: One of the things I did after college coaching is I wanted to get better at my craft. How do you get better at your craft? Being associated with good people, being associated with guys who are good teachers, guys who have had a tremendous amount of experiences. You go through that process and you say you’re ready. Why are you ready? Because you prepared yourself to continually try to get better. That’s what I’ve tried to do and that’s what I hope our assistants give us – experience and energy and passion, and when their opportunity comes they’ll take advantage of it also.
KL: Once Summer League passes, it’s really more a general manager’s time of the season than a coach. But because you came to this job just now, what will you try to get accomplished between now and the start of training camp?
JK: The biggest thing for me is getting an opportunity to see most of our players face to face. I’ve had the opportunity to see a number of them and now I’ve seen all the rookies. Letting them see who John Kuester is, but more importantly having a chance to sit down with these guys and talking to them about my goals, their goals and what we think we can get accomplished together. That will be a lot of what we’re going to continue to get into the end of July and the beginning of August and going into September, getting ready for what we want to get accomplished ahead.
KL: One final question and I’ll get you out of here. I know you came here from Rip’s wedding and I assume Tay was down there, too. Anything you can share about your interaction with them?
JK: First of all, I was so happy for Rip – the wedding was an unbelievable event, it wasn’t a wedding – and it was great to see them. I have two special people that got me a ring and they’re not only outstanding basketball players, they’re great people. When you have that kind of combination, I feel very blessed to be with two people who understand what it’s going to take. We’ve got, not a tough road, but a situation where we can make this thing special. I know those two guys want to make it special.
KL: Thanks, John. And good luck.