Detroit — If you’re tired of waiting, it’s understandable. You’ve waited nearly a decade for the Pistons to be competitive again. You waited six weeks just to find out who the coach is.
When Tom Gores bought the team seven years ago, he sold the idea of being impactful. Then he sold playoff hopes. Then he sold patience.
The sell job is over, and the beginner’s stage should be over now, too. Gores alluded to it himself after introducing Dwane Casey Wednesday, saying he planned to own the team “forever,” that he’s learned a lot. For one thing, he learned the dual-role experiment of Stan Van Gundy as coach and team president didn’t work. He learned that handing out big contracts (Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson) and making big deals (Blake Griffin) doesn’t guarantee anything.
This day was about Casey, a respected leader with a great track record, but it really was more about Gores, who’s digging in, not bailing out. Both Gores and Casey said they were quickly sold on each other, despite the month-long courtship, but let’s be clear here — the owner needed the coach much more than vice versa.
Casey easily could’ve sat out a year and collected his $6.5 million salary from Toronto, where he was Coach of the Year but fired for playoff failures. The Pistons easily could’ve been stuck with an inexperienced coach for a team with playoff aspirations, since Van Gundy didn’t part ways until May 7. Four days later, Casey was fired, and Gores’ suddenly had a safety valve.
You think the Pistons looked confused and aimless without a coach, team president or GM for weeks? Imagine if they’d tried to sell an unknown coach to a roster of strong-willed veterans who need direction?
“I wasn’t really clear what we were going to do, but Stan deserved the time to talk it through,” Gores said. “It really was my hope (that Van Gundy would remain) but we just reached a point where we didn’t have the momentum we wanted, and there was the front office dynamics. By taking the time, I was willing to take the chance we weren’t going to get the right guy. We kind of got fortunate, and all of a sudden Dwane Casey falls in our lap. That’s a pretty nice thing.”
Falling in like
It was the only suitable solution, frankly. Whether you think the Pistons are contenders for anything or not — they do have a playoff-worthy roster in the weak East — they needed a different voice to maximize whatever potential they have. Casey, 61, made the playoffs five straight years in Toronto and developed young players, and is known for relationship-building.
Apparently, the first relationship he built after getting fired was with Gores, going through interview discussions that lasted five and six hours. There appeared to be a genuine kinship as the two sat together on the dais on the floor of Little Caesars Arena.
“I’ve heard he was the safe choice, and he is safe for sure, but there’s a lot of upside,” Gores said. “We just sold each other. That’s why when we went home, we said geez, we fell in love so fast. I think we both convinced each other of the bigger picture. I knew Dwane was good, of course, but the thing that really drew me was, he was hungry. How do you get hungry after being coach of the year?”
That does say something about Casey’s character, that he’d take on this task now. It also says something about Gores’ hunger.
Keeping it real
The man has been enormously successful, from his humble days in Flint to forming his Platinum Equity company and becoming a billionaire. He obviously knows how to hire people and run a business. But he’s not been successful in one of his most-visible endeavors, where the score is kept and standings are seen every day.
Gores’ team has made the playoff once in seven years. The reception in the first year in Little Caesars Arena was barely lukewarm. He just hired his fourth coach. He has pledged big things, and in community endeavors, he has delivered.
But he bought an NBA team, not a social experiment. For Gores truly to connect with Detroit fans, and for the Pistons truly to be relevant again, they have to make people believe in the basketball product. Yes, that means winning. That means playing hard. That means having a real plan and not dressed-up gimmicks.
That’s why Casey is here, in the traditional role of coach. That’s why Gores so badly needed to land him, just like he needed to land Van Gundy four years ago, for credibility. Casey will work under a new front office led by senior adviser Ed Stefanski, the de-facto GM who knows Casey very well from their days together in Toronto.
The Pistons are trying to form working relationships. Van Gundy developed a disconnect with his players, and with some fans. Gores has a disconnect partly because he lives in Los Angeles and isn’t overly visible here, but that’s not the main issue. Not winning games is the main issue.
“I understand the toughness of the job,” Casey said. “Tom didn’t sugarcoat it. But what drove me here was this guy right next to me. His passion, his energy, his vision for this organization and for the community. The trust he has with the players, I haven’t seen it with any other owner, and I’ve been in the league a long time.”
That’s all well and good, and during the coaching search, Gores said he consulted Drummond, Griffin and Jackson, who have spent plenty of time in L.A. But it means nothing if it doesn’t translate on the court. Because Jackson missed 37 games last season, and because Griffin arrived at the trade deadline, the Pistons haven’t really formed anything yet.
That will be Casey’s job, to connect the current roster. Expect Griffin to play more of a point-forward role and the floor-spacing to be revamped, so the Pistons can finally join the rest of the league and be proficient on 3-pointers.
Stefanski can’t do much — the Pistons only have a second-round pick in tonight’s draft, and the roster is pretty much set because of salary-cap implications. Growth has to come from the three former first-rounders — Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard. Casey dutifully repeated the “our time is now” mantra, a nod to a roster that can’t be altered much, and has three big expensive pieces.
We’re still waiting for the Pistons’ time to arrive, and Gores has to feel the edgy impatience.
“The thing is, you’re only gonna like us if we win,” Gores said to the media. “Let’s get it straight, this is not an equity deal. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, we’re here. You might say we’re disconnected because that’s what you see, but you don’t always see the hard work behind it.”
In the beginning, when Gores took over a franchise in disarray, it was fair to wait. It’s been long enough. He says he cares deeply and is invested fully. Time to see results.