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Detroit — Dwane Casey hasn’t coached a game yet, but he’s already impacting the Pistons' outlook. It’s in their preparedness for the game and their belief in themselves and their coach.
His first steps after he was hired in June was to reach out to the players and build relationships with them, not just from an introductory standpoint, but bonding with them to understand who they are and what makes them go.
While those results are sometimes visible on the court, they’re often tangible in qualitative ways in the players and their mental approach.
At Pistons media day on Monday, it was apparent in the players, as they spoke glowingly of their new coach and the impact he’s had on them in just a summertime, forging an impactful relationship that extends beyond the court.
That involves some back-and-forth, some good cop and bad cop.
“He’ll kick them in the butt when they need it and give them encouragement when they need it also,” said Ed Stefanski, senior advisor to Pistons owner Tom Gores. “Casey is truly a good person to have to lead us. We’re very fortunate with all the circumstances that happened that he’s here as our basketball coach.”
It’s that balance that garners the players’ respect but also provides discipline and structure that endears a new coach to them. Casey’s philosophy isn’t an easy one in today’s NBA, where there’s a closer bridge between franchise players and ownership than directly to coaches.
Casey made sure to get those connections tight before he worried about the X’s and O’s.
“That’s what the summer was about: getting to know guys and their personalities as much as anything else,” Casey said. “In the new NBA, it’s a partnership; it’s not a dictatorship. When I first became a head coach in Toronto, I probably was more of a dictator, wanting to do everything with development and defense and offense.
“The league has changed and the game has changed a lot. It’s a partnership — help me (to) help you (to) help yourself. That’s the motto I have. That’s what works and what motivates players today.”
It’s a quid pro quo that is paying off already, as he’s finding the levers to motivate players and to get them to do what’s best for them and best for him at the same time. He gets their buy-in and they get his respect, which might not have been the case for some players in previous years.
“Coach Casey is a player’s coach and it feels like I’ve been playing for him for a while,” guard Reggie Bullock said. “The relationship he built with me from Day 1, it feels like he’s a father figure in my life and just wants his players to be great. It’s going to be great for me and my team.”
Blake Griffin talks about his summer workouts and the upcoming season. The Detroit News
While none of the players wanted to cast aspersions on the previous regime with Stan Van Gundy as the team president and head coach, there seems to be a marked difference in the way the players gravitate toward Casey. It becomes mutually beneficial to work for the best for both sides.
“When you have that relationship with a coach and know that he’s with you at war every night, you’re going to give your all that you can, for the team, the coach and yourself,” Bullock said. “The relationship he’s building with players is amazing, just knowing he can get our best to go out and fight for him and we’re going to get his best at coaching and preparing for the team we face that night.
“I’m excited for it and there’s definitely a lot of positivity around.”
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That closeness is spreading to the players amongst themselves, as they’ve grown closer this summer and are working with and for each other. On Sunday night, Casey and the new coaching staff gave them “role cards” that explained what the expectations will be for each player, leveraging their strengths and giving them points of emphasis.
Stanley Johnson talks about his summer workouts. The Detroit News
So far, so good. For Andre Drummond, it’s already having a big impact.
“Having a new coach believe in me, believe in our team and what we have puts a fire under you to try to get things done,” Drummond said. “It’s going to take a lot of guys out their box and give them the role they need to be successful for our team.
“Dwane Casey has done a great job of giving guys roles and what we need them to do to be great. Guys are embracing that and doing exactly what they need to do.”
That desire doesn’t win games by itself — there’s going to have to be some action that goes along with it.
But having it in the first place is a good start.