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Despite success, Dwane Casey needs to make tweaks

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Casey has the Pistons undefeated early, but process is more important than results.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Chicago Bulls David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons have begun the year 4-0, and we’re all VERY excited about it here at DBB. Unfortunately, I’ve been a fan of sports teams in Detroit too long; all I can do is sit around and think of things that could make it all come crashing down.

On an unrelated note, Dwane Casey has both confounded and astounded me in his short time in Detroit. He does some brilliant stuff, and some very... confusing things. What’s going on through four games? Let’s check in.

What I love

The Reggie-Ish backcourt

Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith have already played more minutes on the court together (45) than they did all of last year (16). The pairing has been fruitful, as well - not as bad on D (113 two-man DRTG) as I would’ve imagined and better than I would’ve dreamed on O (136.4 ORTG). This is an exceedingly small sample, which is going to be true of all the numerical anecdotes in here - the Pistons have played less than 200 minutes of basketball this season.

Yes, the offensive numbers for this two-man grouping probably will come down, but Casey has managed to find Reggie a role (secondary ball handler to Blake Griffin and spot-up threat) is a role he can fulfill well and preserves his health - gotta be easier on Reggie’s knees than infinite pick-and-rolls. And now that Ish Smith is shooting (and making!) threes, both guys are threats to both take the ball all the way to the rim or drop bombs on you from long range. Kudos to Casey for sticking to his two-point-guard guns.

Stanley-at-four

I personally have been clamoring for this for years. Stanley has always had the size and strength to be a small-ball four in today’s NBA, especially since the team lacks a consistent backup PF option with Jon Leuer out of the rotation. It is a nice role for him in theory - with no Blake, the ball can be his hands a little more, and he can bend the defense by attacking from the perimeter and making those drop-off passes he likes, instead of just standing in the right corner not threatening anything.

The numbers on these lineups aren’t great, because Stanley’s offensive numbers in general aren’t great. But this is one of the better positions to put Stanley into succeed, which Casey said he would do.

Yes, I am surprised as you that I continue to say nice things about Stanley despite his stats being underwhelming at best.

No Blake-at-center

Blake-at-center lineups are logical on their face - playing him at center presumably enables you to surround him with shooters and let him kill teams from the post or with his passing. However, we’re seeing under Casey that Blake doesn’t need to be the only big on the floor to have enough space to kill teams - Blake can just bring the ball up to pull big men out of the paint.

As the center on defense though, it could get ugly. Blake in drop coverage sounds like a recipe for disaster (we’re gonna talk about the drop coverage in a minute, trust me). Blake makes the occasional block, but doesn’t pose a threat to an offense’s dribble penetration. And if he’s the lone big on the floor, he shoulders a larger rebounding responsibility than I’d like him to.

Lastly, l like Zaza Pachulia being on the floor as the true backup center. Zaza sets hard screens, offers some hard fouls (probably too many, but that’s who he is and you knew that when he signed here) and is a decent passer to boot.

Actual Successful After-Timeout (ATO) sets

Look at the game-winner Casey drew up against Philly. LOOK AT IT:

The Pistons never had anything like that coming out of timeouts last year. Or the year before that. Or the coach before that. Or the coach before that.

It’s nice.

What I don’t like, but understand and tolerate:

Over-reliance on Blake

Blake has been truly transcendent, but he’s also been on the court a lot. He’s currently averaging 37 minutes a night, which would be a career-high. These aren’t easy minutes, either - Blake’s sporting a 29.4 usage rate. The big concern before the season started was Blake’s health, and you have to be concerned that he will break down eventually under a minute and usage load this heavy.

If you recall, Blake started last year hot as well, slashing 23.6/7.9/5.1 on 42/35/78 for the first 19 games. Then... he missed 13 games with a sprained MCL. So far, the Pistons have not shown they can survive offensively without him for 13 games. When Blake sits, it gets ugly fast: A 88.2 ORtg, and a -21.6 Net Rating, both lows across the team.

Casey needs to diversify the offense - both to keep Blake in one piece, and to doomsday prep for if he misses any time.

What’s exacerbating my ulcer:

Drop coverage

Casey’s decision to drop his big men on PNR coverage is my least favorite coaching choice so far.

Doing so has reverted Andre into a passive defender instead of an aggressive one, a guy who waits for the play to come to him instead of making plays. Unfortunately, we at DBB know Andre has been at his best when he gets to be the aggressor - his best defensive season as a Piston was last year, when he was either showing and recovering or playing at the level of the ball most of the time. This was one of the few Stan Van Gundy principles worth preserving under a new coach:

When Dre has to wait for the play to develop, he either gets impatient and gambles, or he gives the driver too much room and not enough pressure and the Pistons give up a flood of 15-foot jumpers.

The Pistons also don’t have a lot of plus perimeter defenders who have the size to alter shots as they trail behind the driver in a pick-and-roll situation, or the quickness to beat their guy to a spot after the initial screen. Stanley Johnson is supposed to be this guy for Detroit, but the lone time Detroit faced a wing who operates in the PNR, Casey gave the LaVine assignment to Reggie Bullock and Reggie Jackson and put Stanley on Jabari Parker or Justin Holiday.

The Pistons are 19th in defensive rating despite Casey ostensibly being a defensive coach. This seems like an easy fix.

Pre-Determined Rotations

This is apparently who Casey is:

Rotations are the low-hanging fruit in critiquing coaches - everyone would do things a little differently. And Casey still gets points for making the Reggie-Ish and Stanley-at-four lineups. However, prior to Luke Kennard’s injury, either Luke or Glenn Robinson III hadn’t been in the rotation, despite being a lottery pick and the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason, respectively.

We can’t play 15 guys,” Casey said, after Luke’s DNP-CD. And that is absolutely true. But you CAN play 10 guys, especially given there’s no “real” backup four with Leuer out of the rotation. Casey played nine guys against Philly, 10 guys against Chicago (but one was 4 minutes of Jose Calderon), and nine against Philadelphia. Adding Glenn back to the rotation should balance the rotation and alleviate some of the aforementioned pressure on Blake Griffin.

Here’s the rotation that Casey should be working with, when everyone is healthy:

  • Reggie/Ish
  • Bullock/Langston/Kennard/Reggie
  • Stanley/Glenn/Bullock
  • Blake/Stanley/Glenn
  • Dre/Zaza

That’s 10 guys, but offers enough of the two and three-guard lineups that Casey has utilized and always puts enough size on the floor to pretend defensively. I’ll be intrigued to see how the rotation changes in the wake of Luke’s injury - Casey loves Bruce Brown, who has been a smaller Stanley Johnson for Detroit, for good and for ill.

I like Dwane Casey as a coach. I love that the players appear to love him, and I like that he’s already shown himself to be more inventive than Stan Van Gundy. But small changes could have this team in an even better position to compete for the rest of the regular season.