Detroit — It took them a while to get to this point, sure.
But it didn’t take Dwane Casey very long to cut to the chase Wednesday at his introductory press conference in Detroit, letting Pistons fans know where he stood while sitting on the dais next to his new boss, owner Tom Gores.
“Our time is now,” Casey said, when asked about immediate expectations for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game in a decade. “I’m telling the guys now: We’re not developing, we’re not two or three years away. We’re gonna win right now.”
Now is as good a time as any to say this, I suppose. The Pistons won’t play their next game at Little Caesars Arena for another four months, and there won’t be a sellout crowd waiting when they do. Besides, we’ve heard this sort of thing before from Gores, who has sat through four of these press conferences in his nearly seven years owning the team.
But that was really the point of Wednesday’s exercise, sifting through the questions and the answers and trying to find some new meaning in this latest coaching hire. In Casey, the veteran bench boss recently voted NBA coach of the year by his peers, Gores & Co. think they’ve finally struck the right tone. Between tough and tender, experienced and open-minded, a coach with a strong voice and …
“He’s a great listener,” Gores said, nodding affirmatively the way he often does when he talks. “And our players need listeners.”
That’s one of the things the owner says he heard when he polled some of his veterans this spring, soliciting their input in what they wanted from the Pistons’ next head coach.
“I felt the players needed a voice,” the owner said.
And in the end, he figured they probably needed a different one. Van Gundy’s grating coaching style wore thin with some in the locker room, no doubt. And without the winning results to back all of Van Gundy’s hoarse-voiced hand-wringing — in practice and on the sidelines — the Pistons’ situation might not have been untenable, but it wasn’t exactly working, either. It just took both sides what seemed like an eternity to agree on that. Or to agree to disagree, perhaps.
Whatever the case, another thing that clearly bothered Gores and others in his management team as the Pistons lost the “momentum” they felt they had with that playoff breakthrough a couple years ago, was the lack of production — and progress — from some of the Pistons’ younger players.
They took note of Stanley Johnson’s stunted growth, Henry Ellenson’s sporadic (at best) playing time, even Luke Kennard’s quiet rookie debut. Much has been made of Van Gundy’s draft decisions, including the cringe-worthy Kennard over Donovan Mitchell selection last summer. But that’s water under the bridge now, and it’s what the Pistons do with the selections they made that matters.
“We think the development is huge,” said Ed Stefanski, the longtime NBA executive hired by Gores last month to run the Pistons’ basketball operations. “And I wanted to get a head coach that would develop these guys. I think the upside for these three young guys is much better than what they’ve shown.”
That’s debatable, but this is an area where Casey has shown he has some skill, grooming young stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan during his seven-year run in Toronto and then turning a young bench into one of the league’s best while leading the Raptors to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season.
How did he do it?
“I think the key word is trust,” Casey said. “You have to empower them, you have to trust them. They’re gonna make mistakes. And a lot of fans will yell at me and say, ‘Why is he playing?’”
But when they do, he’ll do what he did Wednesday, pointing to one of his pet projects in Toronto. That’d be 2016 first-round pick Pascal Siakam, a versatile 6-foot-9 defender who’d never shot threes until this past season. Even then, he never really made many — or any, practically — through the first 60 games, shooting a dismal 18.7 percent from three-point range.
“But all at once it clicked,” Casey said of Siakam, who shot better than 43 percent from three in the final 20 games of the regular season and the playoffs for the Raptors. “We gave him confidence and empowered him and he came through. And that’s what this game is about. There’s no magic wand to wave over young players. … Sometimes (it takes) tough love, but it starts out with giving ‘em confidence and saying, ‘Hey, we believe in you.’”
And whether or not the fans believe it’s possible here, the Pistons’ brass does. Casey sounds like does, too, raving Wednesday about Johnson in particular.
He also talked up the potential he sees in the core trio of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, provided they can stay healthy. And the 61-year-old coaching vet also said all the right things about how he wants his team to play.
Casey isn’t wrong when he says “we have to get up more threes, we’ve got to play more of an analytical game.” (The Pistons ranked fifth in the NBA in three-point shooting (37.3 percent) last season, but they were only 16th in three-point attempts — up from 26th in that category the year before.) Or when he talks about his discussions with players last week in Los Angeles, where Casey says one of the main topics was “making sure we understand the shot spectrum and the efficiency of shots we want to take.”
Whether he has the personnel to do that — whether he has the shooters to space the floor and play the game the way it’s being played in today’s NBA — remains to be seen. But either way, the Pistons’ new head coach insists they don’t really have a choice. The roster is largely set, with almost no flexibility under the cap. So what he has, in many respects, is what he’ll get for now.
“You have to adapt in this league or you die,” Casey said. “I feel like I’ve done that the last three or four years in Toronto, adapting to the NBA game. And that’s what we’ve got to do here. That’s what we will do.”
For a team that hasn’t done much of anything lately, that still feels like a long shot. Just don’t expect to hear the Pistons say it anytime soon.