It was just 20 months ago that Dwane Casey sat on a dais inside Little Caesars Arena alongside Pistons owner Tom Gores and the team’s top personnel executive, Ed Stefanski, and made plain his ambitions for the team he was inheriting as Detroit’s new head coach.
“Our time is now,” he insisted back in June 2018. ”I’m telling the guys now, ‘We’re not developing, we’re not two or three years away. We want to win right now.’”
Two years later, Casey is telling a different story, though, after another injury-ravaged season forced ownership’s hand and prompted an organizational pivot that probably was long overdue. The Pistons (20-45) own the fifth-worst record in the NBA, they’ve sold off several key veteran pieces — most notably last month’s trade-deadline deal that shipped Andre Drummond off to Cleveland — and Stefanski, the de facto GM, now openly admits, “We are looking to rebuild.”
That’s no easy admission for Casey, who arrived in Detroit as the NBA’s reigning coach of the year and the fall guy for Toronto’s successive playoff failures against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. But it’s one Casey, who’ll turn 63 next month, says he has come to terms with this winter, and something he’s fully committed to not even halfway through a five-year, $35 million contract he signed with the Pistons.
“When I came, we were wanting to be a playoff team, and starting this year we were a playoff team,” Casey said, adding the goal was to chase home-court advantage as a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference following the offseason additions of veterans like Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Markieff Morris.
But as the injuries mounted, beginning with All-Star forward Blake Griffin’s halting recovery from offseason knee surgery, and the losses brought clarity.
"It changed the whole outlook," Casey said. “But it’s the direction we have to go — to retool, to rebuild, to develop the young guys. It’s not fun. It’s painful. It’s stressful. As a coach, you want to go out there and win every game. But at the end of the night, after you get the frustration out of your system, reality sets in and you understand what you’re fighting with.”
Been there, done that
He's fighting with one-armed tied behind his back, figuratively speaking, coaching a team that began the season with the league’s sixth-highest payroll yet barely played a game with Casey’s projected starting lineup. In all, the Pistons have lost a combined 246 man-games to injury this season, third-most in the league. And Sunday’s starting lineup in New York — Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk, Tony Snell, John Henson and Christian Wood — was the 31st different group Casey has turned to for the opening tip this season. (That’s second-most in the NBA behind another injury-ravaged team in Golden State that currently owns the league’s worst record.)
But Casey will be the first to remind you this is a fight he has been through before, pointing to his time in Toronto, taking over a 60-loss Raptors team in 2011 and living through the growing pains of a rebuild before returning to the playoffs in his third season there.
And while he admits, “I didn’t think we’d have to do it here this soon,” it was also part of the sales pitch when the Pistons hired him, that he’d have management’s backing, win or lose, while the franchise worked its way out of salary-cap purgatory. Casey knows there’s no other choice at the moment, and for a coach who drew praise both for his even-keeled approach and his disciplined approach to player development over the years, that’s important.
“You get frustrated as a coach, because you know with young players it takes time and you want to win now,” Casey said. “But I enjoy teaching, I enjoy that part of the job. I don’t enjoy getting my butt kicked and all that. But I enjoy watching a guy like Christian Wood grow up, a guy like Bruce Brown developing, taking a kid like Sekou (Doumbouya) and molding him as a 19-year-old. …
“It’s just gonna take patience, coaching, teaching ... and our fans to stay behind us, which is hard to ask after you’ve had a tough year like this.”
A tough decade, really. And Casey — much like Stefanski, who preceded him by a month in Detroit — is aware of all the unrest that recent history stirs.
“But the future is coming, and the things we went through in Toronto, I see the same steps here,” Casey said.
He points to a few if prompted, like Wood, a fifth-year pro who was claimed off waivers from New Orleans last July and suddenly is blossoming as an athletic, floor-stretching big man that the Pistons will have to pony up to keep as a free agent this summer. Wood is averaging 22 points and 10.2 rebounds while playing starter's minutes in 12 games since the trade deadline, but more than that, Casey says, he’s acted the part, too.
“One thing Christian has done is he has become more of a professional — that was the whole goal going into the year,” he said. “Being on time, doing what you’re supposed to do, practicing hard every day, being accountable for what you do.”
Wood, 24, still needs to get stronger and improve defensively, but it’s clear the Pistons view him as a building block moving forward.
Same goes for Brown, who emerged as defensive stalwart as a second-round rookie draft pick last season but this year has been asked to fill a void at point guard. And for Doumbouya, a rookie first-rounder from France who was expected to spend much of the year playing in the G League. Griffin’s injury accelerated that plan, however, and after an impressive debut for Doumbouya — the NBA’s youngest player — the results have been inconsistent, at best.
“He’s probably not ready for winning NBA basketball right now,” Casey said, noting the athleticism and the ability are there, but the speed of the game — and the grind of an 82-game season — are another matter. “That’s something you can talk about, but until they go out there and go through it and make a million mistakes, it’s hard to understand.”
Exploring the options
Hard to stomach for the coach, too. Casey laughs when asked about the differences in his daily routine now, from the extended practices that feel more like training camp in recent weeks to the after-hours multi-tasking at home or on the road. He’ll have one eye on a tablet watching Synergy Sports video clips of European draft prospects and another on a college game on TV.
“I’ve watched more college games this year than I’ve watched in a long time,” Casey said. “It takes me back to my days when I was an assistant recruiting at Kentucky, and I had to go watch daggone ninth-graders and try to project what they’re gonna be. It takes me back to those days of building teams, which is good and bad.”
But never indifferent. That’s the message Casey keeps delivering to his players. Fans and media can talk about tanking — the Pistons are 3-17 in their last 20 games and sit just a game behind Atlanta for the second-best draft lottery odds — but Casey can’t and he won’t.
“Because you can’t get that out of your locker room,” he said. “So for me, the No. 1 thing is building winning habits, playing as hard as possible. Now, talent and experience may take over in these games, so be it. But I’ll be damned if it’s gonna come from, ‘Oh, Coach isn’t gonna call a timeout,’ or ‘Coach is gonna leave a player in there who’s not doing his job.’ No, that’s never gonna happen. If they want that to happen, they’re gonna get a different coach, because that’s not in my DNA to do that.”
Of course, it’s not in most coaches’ DNA to take the long view, either, but Casey insists he’s on board with the approach Stefanski talked about last month. The Pistons are one of a handful of teams expected to have significant cap space heading into free agency.
“But how do we use it wisely?” Stefanski said. “Do you use it on players? Do you use it for collecting assets while getting players in trades? There are different avenues. Having the flexibility, the obvious answer is that it’s great to have it, but now let’s make the right choices.”
Casey said he talks to Stefanski and assistant GM Malik Rose every day “about what’s going on, what we need, how it’s going.” Those conversations will remain in-house, obviously. People can speculate about a big offer for a player like Toronto’s Fred Van Vleet in July, but it’s just as likely that money gets used to acquire a player with a draft-pick attached in a trade.
“Even though I want to go out and get every top free agent, we have to be smart,” Casey said. “It’s gotta be with the future in mind, the right decisions. And if the right free agent doesn’t come along, you don’t just go out and overspend because you have cap room. We have smart people upstairs and I understand that.”
He understands, too, that his immediate plans of two summers ago have changed rather dramatically, as talk of the playoff seeding has turned to planting seedlings.
"Yeah, it does change the outlook: It’s gonna take a little bit longer,” Casey said. “It may happen next year, the year after ... I don’t know when it’s gonna happen. It depends on luck in the draft and free agency, the work we do in developing players. But the one thing we have to do now is be smart — and patient.”