Evidently, time off doesn’t really agree with Dwane Casey. Just four weeks after the Toronto Raptors relieved him of his head coaching duties, the 2017-18 National Basketball Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year — and finalist for the NBA’s version of the award — has already secured a new gig.
Casey agreed to terms Monday morning on a five-year deal to become the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. (The Pistons confirmed the hire Monday afternoon.) He’ll take over on the sideline for Stan Van Gundy, who was ousted four days before Toronto fired Casey after four largely underwhelming seasons, including two straight sub-.500, playoff-free campaigns.
— NerdOnPistons♂️ (@Vincent_Ellis56) June 11, 2018
On one hand, a marriage between Casey and the Pistons seemed to be in the offing several days ago. He’d long been considered one of the front-runners for the opening, and during a stint as a commentator on ESPN during the 2018 NBA Finals, he spoke about the Pistons’ All-Star frontcourt of power forward Blake Griffin and center Andre Drummond as if he was getting ready to coach them. On the other, it reportedly didn’t get done until franchise CEO Tom Gores more “aggressively” pursued Casey over the weekend …
When Dwane Casey left Cleveland Saturday morning, he was not inclined to take the Pistons’ job. But ownership/management led by Tom Gores put a full-court press on over the weekend to get the deal done—and relented on letting the new coach pick his assistants, per sources.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) June 11, 2018
… and finalized the terms of a deal that will both give the 61-year-old Casey a long runway to work with as he attempts to restore the Pistons to perennial playoff contention and pay him a pretty penny for the privilege:
— NerdOnPistons♂️ (@Vincent_Ellis56) June 11, 2018
How the Pistons’ decision-making structure is shaping up
At first blush, it seems fair to wonder whether Gores might be setting himself up for trouble by putting the cart before the horse in his order of hiring operations.
After all, Van Gundy was both Detroit’s head coach and president of basketball operations. His dismissal left the Pistons in need of new leadership both on the bench and in the front office, and the league’s littered with cautionary tales about how things can work out when you hire a coach before new general manager or chief executive. To wit:
• Steve Clifford lost his gig after Mitch Kupchak took over in Charlotte;
• Frank Vogel lost his after a front-office overhaul in Orlando;
• Jason Kidd wound up on the outs following a regime change in Milwaukee;
• Mike Budenholzer moved on from Atlanta a year after Travis Schlenk took the reins;
• Jeff Hornacek got canned hours after the end of Year 1 of the Steve Mills-Scott Perry era in New York;
• And even Casey, who’d achieved at a high level in seven years with the Raptors, finally found himself on the chopping block this summer, as Masai Ujiri dropped the axe on the coach inherited when he arrived from Denver. (And that’s just one season!)
But while the makeup of the Pistons’ front office isn’t quite clear yet, it sure seems like Gores has empowered longtime NBA executive Ed Stefanski — hired away from the Memphis Grizzlies last month to serve as “a senior executive reporting directly to Mr. Gores with responsibility for helping reshape the team’s basketball operations infrastructure and strategy” — to act as the chief basketball decision-maker for the organization at the moment. Whether or not Stefanski winds up continuing on as such, the early indications are that he’s setting the agenda moving forward, with the hiring of Casey serving as the first step in establishing the identity the Pistons aim to embody in the next half-decade.
What Detroit can expect from a Dwane Casey-coached team
A coaching lifer who established his NBA bona fides as an assistant under George Karl, Paul Westphal and Nate McMillan with the Seattle SuperSonics, Casey followed a brief stint as the head man in Minnesota with a distinguished run on Rick Carlisle’s staff in Dallas. He earned praise as the architect of the matchup zone defense that stymied LeBron James in the 2011 NBA Finals, helping the Mavericks upset the favored Miami Heat to win the first NBA championship in franchise history.
Casey parlayed that success into the top job in Toronto, rebuilding the organization following the defection of centerpiece Chris Bosh and presiding over the longest and greatest stretch of sustained success in franchise history. The Raptors went 320-238 (.573 winning percentage) with Casey at the helm, winning four division titles in five years and logging three straight 50-win seasons; he helped transform them from an also-ran into a postseason mainstay. Viewed primarily as a defensive-minded coach when he arrived, Casey proved he could produce top-tier groups on the other end of the floor, too, leading the Raptors to top-10 finishes in offensive efficiency in each of the last five years.
Casey’s considered one of the league’s better coaches when it comes to player development, helping foster the evolution of shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry into multiple-time All-Stars. He also helped turn the young pieces collected via the draft, free agency and trade — Jonas Valanciunas, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby — into real contributors on teams that pushed their way into May, year after year. And while every coach has his preferred way of managing a team on and off the court, Casey also (eventually) proved flexible.
When it looked like the Raptors’ best chance at winning came by putting the ball in the hands of his All-Star backcourt as much as possible for as long as possible, Casey coached that way. When it became evident after a 2017 sweep at the hands of LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers that change was in order, he did that, too. At Ujiri’s prompting, Casey last season altered his approach and Toronto’s fundamental identity, emphasizing increased ball and player movement, a quicker pace and more 3-point shooting. He democratized the Raptors’ offense, creating an environment in which the stars were expected to play and shoot less, reserves were expected to hold up their end of the bargain, with everybody was expected to read, react and pass more.
It worked, as Raptors won a franchise-record 59 games and finished as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. And then, famously, it didn’t work, as Toronto gagged away Game 1 of its second-round series against Cleveland to set the stage for another dispiriting four-game sweep that left the Raptors shell-shocked and searching for new answers to the same old problem … and left Casey out of a job. His firing served as the latest reminder that in a league where only one team gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy every year, being good isn’t good enough forever.
In Detroit, though? Just being good would be a hell of an upgrade.
The Pistons need stability (and wins)
Detroit went 152-176 in Van Gundy’s four-year stint, which featured only one trip to the postseason — a brief stay in the spring of 2016, when they were swept out of the first round by the eventual NBA champion Cavs. After that 44-win campaign, the Pistons have stagnated over the past two years, despite Van Gundy and (also-since-ousted) general manager Jeff Bowers dishing out high-priced deals that have Detroit ranked sixth in the NBA in total salary outlay last season, with nearly $112 million in guaranteed deals already on the books for 2018-19 and more than $100 million slated for the 2019-20 season.
Casey takes control of a team with limited flexibility with which to add contributors from outside, but with some intriguing talent already in-house. Barring a major trade, next year’s Pistons will be built around the trio of Griffin, the five-time All-Star whom Van Gundy added in a blockbuster deal back in January; Drummond, a monstrous rebounder and pick-and-roll finisher with an advancing game as a playmaker, but who has yet to develop into the sort of defensive game-changer Detroit has hoped he’d become; and point guard Reggie Jackson, whom Van Gundy imported in 2015 and paid like a star several months later, only to see injuries limit him to 97 games over the last two seasons.
On paper, that might not seem like a superstar core capable of doing serious damage, even in the East. It’s worth noting, though, that in Jackson’s only full healthy season in Detroit, the Pistons made the playoffs. And that, even with Jackson injured for the first month and a half after his arrival, the Pistons were better with Griffin around, producing a positive point differential after the trade; they outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions during Griffin’s floor time, while getting outscored by 0.6 points-per-100 with him off the floor, according to NBA.com’s data.
And that, despite reasonable concerns about how they’d fit together, the early returns on the Griffin-Drummond pairing were positive. Detroit outscored opponents by three points per 100 possessions in just under 600 minutes with the two on the floor, a healthy number, despite the big men spending the bulk of that shared time came with caretaker reserve point guard Ish Smith on the ball. Injuries limited the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson trio to only 44 minutes; they were a +8 in that curtailed run.
Health + development = playoffs?
If Griffin, Drummond and Jackson can remain mostly healthy, the Pistons should be in playoff contention next season. The challenge facing Casey: develop the young players around that core into viable contributors to help bolster that sort of run.
Stanley Johnson’s a big, bruising, defense-first wing who has shown flashes of being a credible grab-and-go playmaker on the wing, but he needs to add shooting range and a finishing touch. Luke Kennard was a legit shooter right off the bat, drilling 41.5 percent of his 3-pointers as a rookie, but he’ll need to become more stout and reliable on the defensive end while also adding more of an off-the-dribble game to round out his skill set. We haven’t seen much of 2016 first-rounder Henry Ellenson in two pro seasons, but the 6-foot-11 Marquette product is still just 21 years old, and could develop into a complement to both Griffin and Drummond depending on matchups.
How effectively Casey can get those players — and solid 3-and-D wing Reggie Jackson, and reserve combo guard Langston Galloway, and solid-when-healthy stretch big Jon Leuer — to become productive enough pieces to keep the Pistons afloat when their stars need a breather or are unavailable could prove the deciding factor in whether or not Detroit can get back to the postseason. And even with a healthy roster, it’s possible that Casey won’t be leading a team that can credibly expect to get any further than the second round of the playoffs, where his last team ran aground the last two years.
That possibility likely sounds pretty good for fans of a franchise that hasn’t even made it to Round 2 in a decade, though. Before you can worry about whether or not you can compete for a title, you have to be able to simply compete, full stop. Dwane Casey’s teams do that, year in and year out. Whether or not he can get one over the finish line remains to be seen, but he’s damn good at getting them out of the starting blocks. For Detroit, for now, that’ll be enough.
– – – – – – –