Dwane Casey’s first experience as a head coach in the NBA didn’t go exactly as planned. Casey, 48 years old at the time, oversaw the 33-49 Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2005-06 season, a team led by future Hall of Famer, Kevin Garnett. Casey was then relieved of his head coaching duties midway through 2006-07 after an innocuous 20-20 start to the season.
While it’s never easy to get fired, the then-career 53-69 head coach knew precisely where he missed the mark. The dictatorship way of conducting business, employed by Casey in Minnesota, was on its last legs in the NBA for a small reason.
Players increasingly started to ask “Why?”
“Why are we doing this?” asked by a player, aimed at the coaching staff, would’ve been met with a swift kick in the ass during Casey’s playing days at The University of Kentucky and for the majority of his NBA coaching career. The times, though, they were a-changing. Answering the pesky question “why” became the new NBA norm, and for Casey, it was either adapt or die.
A new sheriff in town means new rules. For any new boss, it would be easy to stomp around the office and compose a checklist of all the perceived wrongs:
- That doesn’t belong there.
- We need to fix this immediately.
- I want two detailed reports on my desk by five-o’clock. Make that five reports by two-o’clock!
And on and on and on.
Choosing the my-way-or-the-highway path is an easy way of expressing leadership, and in the NBA, it’s a completely outdated practice. You know what’s not easy? A sincere act of listening. There is no rushing culture, but the listening part should begin as soon as possible.
Culture, specifically winning culture, leans heavily on trust. However, developing the player-coach relationship doesn’t magically happen overnight. Dwane Casey, now 61, understands the concept thanks in part to his failed iron fist Minnesota tenure, and implemented an easier to digest technique from the moment he was hired by the Detroit Pistons.
Every member of the Detroit Pistons who sat in the hot seat on Media Day echoed similar stories regarding Casey’s refreshingly positive and constant communication over the hectic summer. It doesn’t end with Casey either, as he demands his coaching staff to follow his lead. Communication, as elementary as it seems, is the first part of earning trust. Finding out what makes a player tick during the dog days of July and August will hopefully pay off during the long nights of a brutal 82-game season.
For Glenn Robinson III, Casey was the first coach he talked to during the free agency period this past summer and the two compared personal notes about growing up in the state of Indiana. Far from a typical coach spiel, the genuine conversation helped to put Robinson at ease and in a Pistons uniform.
Serving players, without kissing their ass, is another essential element of developing and expanding relationships. DJ Bakker, a player development coach on Casey’s staff in Toronto and now in Detroit, spent his July and August in a constant road trip up and down California helping Stanley Johnson on his overall game. Whatever Johnson needed, Bakker provided without hesitation. The transparent and natural act of “being there” goes a long way in nurturing trust, and in turn, culture.
Establishing winning culture in a new environment means no job is too small or insignificant. A text here, a few encouraging words there, help lay the foundation for confidence and success - two traits that were synonymous with Stanley during his college days. It’s no secret Johnson has struggled during his three years in Detroit, with many (including Stanley himself) pointing to a lack of self-confidence in the small forward which ultimately has led to lack of success. Re-wiring Stanley Johnson to be more confident on the court is one of the top chores on Casey’s to-do list. A usable and dependable Johnson could drastically change the ceiling of this team.
For what it’s worth, Johnson seems to be on board. “I think we are going to play extremely hard, I think we have a crazy belief in ourselves and one another. Our coaching staff has a belief in us as well,” he noted.
Amateur comedians throughout the NBA world have taken a fair amount of shots at the mere thought of Andre Drummond shooting three-pointers on a regular basis. On the surface, the strategy does seem absurd, as Drummond has showcased zero ability to consistently make shots outside of the paint. The thought process is geared towards generating proper spacing more than Drummond’s (to date) laughable long-ball efficiency, but the opportunity is a first for the two time All-Star.
“The 3-point shot is something I added six years ago, I just never had a coach who allowed me to shoot it,” Andre said during media day.
Camouflaged in all the three-point jokes is the fact Casey actually trusts Drummond not to take advantage of his new found freedom. The modest and calculated gesture on Casey’s part isn’t lost on his players.
Talking is a good thing in any team atmosphere. Chemistry, both on and off the court, is an ever-evolving organism, but it starts with honest communication. For Casey, it began the instant he accepted the position.