Newly hired Pistons assistant coach Sean Sweeney talks about what attracted him to join Dwane Casey's staff and what he hopes to accomplish in the NBA Summer League. Rod Beard, Detroit News
Las Vegas — It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Sean Sweeney in his Pistons indoctrination. After joining Dwane Casey’s staff as an assistant coach, Sweeney had to hit the road immediately to get to know the new players and start building relationships.
This week, Sweeney took the reins as the head coach of the Pistons’ squad in the Las Vegas Summer League and the preparations for Friday’s opener began this week with some initial practices.
Sweeney was an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and is lauded for his help in developing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Specifically, Sweeney’s expertise is defense and his role is something of a defensive coordinator.
He has a simple defensive philosophy that he’s hoping will stick with the Summer League roster and resonate with the veterans at training camp in the fall.
“Play hard and play together,” Sweeney said Wednesday. “Play to win and have fun — all the stuff we do at kids’ camps.”
Sweeney started laying the groundwork almost as soon as he was hired last week, making trips to visit some of the key Pistons players to get working and to express his plans. First, he had to learn about the roster and some of the strengths and weaknesses — and figure out how the varied skill sets on defense would meld into a scheme he could utilize.
“I watched a lot of film on the guys. (In Milwaukee) we played against the Pistons four times a year; being in the Central (Division), I had experience going against those guys,” Sweeney said. “I went through notes and watched as many games from this year plus previous years. The style of play they had both offensively and defensively adjusted each year.
“It’s also calling guys and going to see guys. I’ve been on the road for the last 10 days seeing different guys: to Miami to see (Andre) Drummond and out in California to see Blake (Griffin) and Stanley (Johnson) and Luke (Kennard) and Henry (Ellenson) were there, too. If I didn’t see them, I called them.”
In Casey’s introductory press conference, he specifically pointed to Johnson’s defensive prowess, calling him the best player to guard LeBron James. With James moving out west to the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson won’t be pressed into that duty as much, but improving various aspects of his game is a primary focus.
Sweeney sees Johnson’s talent and upside, but it’s not just about one person defensively. It’s about having all five players on the court buy into the principles and execute.
“Each guy has his strengths and things to improve on. Physically, (Johnson) has a great body and was in great shape when I saw him,” Sweeney said. “Mentally, he’s an intelligent kid and not having coached him, I’ll have to find out more about him. He has positional versatility defensively and you can see the strength in guarding bigger guys.
“When we played the Pistons in the past, he was on Antetokounmpo or (Jabari) Parker. Always tough matchups and he never backed down from it. That’s something that excites me. I like his personality, too. He seems like a good kid and a good person.”
Moving on up
The Eastern Conference has a different look and feel with James jumping to the West, which could open some opportunities for teams to make a jump in the standings. The Pistons were on the precipice last season, finishing ninth in the East. If they can leapfrog the Cavaliers, they can be in playoff position.
Even more, they can make a big jump with more luck in terms of health and keeping Reggie Jackson and Griffin off the injured list. Missing Jackson for 37 games and losing Griffin toward the end of the year derailed the Pistons’ slim hopes, but the focus will be on controlling their own situation rather than just making a jump because other teams got worse.
Kennard sees the potential for an even bigger jump.
“Even if the teams were the same this year, we still could have made a push for it,” Kennard said. “We’re a playoff team. With some players leaving, it could help us a little bit more, but we’re a playoff team no matter what.
“We’re going to have a good year — I really believe that. We’re going to work hard and our goal is to win and make it as far as we can. We’ll see what happens.”
Summer League schedule
The Pistons will play three preliminary-round games at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, with at least two more games after that. Here are the prelims:
July 6: vs. Bucks (NBA TV)
July 7: vs. Grizzlies (NBA TV)
July 9: vs. Pelicans (ESPNU)