Without even coaching a minute in the Motor City Dwane Casey comes to Detroit as one of the most qualified coaches ever to grace our sidelines. You could argue Larry Brown or even Stan Van Gundy were both more qualified coming in - each having brought teams to the NBA Finals prior to their arrivals - but even if he’s third on that list it would normally be seen as an exciting hire and a cause for optimism.
Most people however are hesitant to jump on the Casey bandwagon, hesitant to let their imaginations run wild with dreams of playoff success and championship aspirations, and with good reason. Concerns of Casey as a coach that pale in comparison to those of the capability of the team he’s largely inheriting temper excitement and expectation quite a bit for fans who have endured one playoff berth in the last nine seasons.
In one sentence here’s the meat of what Casey is up against:
How is anyone supposed to buy into any coach leading this team anywhere?
This team has its issues written in 10 foot high letters. Blinking neon ones, with sparkles, and spot lights. In this day of Super Teams how is this team supposed to go anywhere lead by a “big three” who critics see as:
- A potentially past-his-prime, overpaid, oft-injured former superstar in Blake Griffin
- An old school big/pre-unicorn big man with a very underdeveloped offensive game who has peaked in Andre Drummond
- An potentially overpaid oft-injured second to third tier point guard in Reggie Jackson
Add to that a roster surrounding them of mostly replacement level players and only a handful of young players, none of whom scream star. And oh yeah, *whispers* no cap space to be part of the free agent free-for-all next off season.
Looks dire. Very dire. The only real change that could be and was made to shake things up (and made rather swiftly once the SVG days were officially over) was hiring head coach Dwane Casey as part of a front office overhaul.
So now in many ways any real, substantial overarching change begins and ends with Casey and his ability and position as the tie that binds these players and this new organization together.
Gulp. No pressure there.
Yet Casey took the job knowing full well what laid in store for him, and Casey doesn’t strike me as guy who doesn’t care about winning and just took a sweet gig for the money. No, in fact after what happened to him in Toronto - being fired after being voted coach of the year by both his peers and the NBA at large - all eyes will be on him to see if he can lead a much less talented team on paper to success in the playoffs, a feat which would help point to his firing as being unjust. Anyone who succeeds on a high level owes a certain amount of their success to the fire under their ass lit by the chips that life places on their shoulders. Make no mistake, Casey being fired had to have put a massive chip on his shoulder and corresponding fire under his you-know-what and he will have his sights set on success. Not only success like he had in Toronto but an even higher level of success, a level he sniffed at but never reached.
Reaching this success now falls into his lap as a roster that does have talent but is made up of completely different parts than his previous gig in Toronto, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Let me explain.
The downfall of our two previous executives of note, Joe Dumars and Stan Van Gundy, came partially out of a completely human but completely flawed notion that lightning in a bottle can be recaptured. Dumars saw the success he had with the 2004 Pistons and he sought to recapture that magic by signing a stretch power forward and a sweet shooting off guard and putting the ball in the hands of a big combo guard and pressing play. Stan saw the opportunity for Orlando 2.0 with building his team around a raw, incredibly talented big man and surrounding (or trying to surround) him with shooting and pressing play. We all know how well those two scenarios worked out.
The beauty of Casey’s situation is that he is being dealt a completely new hand. Where his success in Toronto was based on an All Star backcourt he is now forced to work with an All Star front court. The challenge of course is obviously seeing if he can make it work but the hidden freedom he is being given is the release from trying to recreate the same magic with different pieces. He’s being let loose and given an incredibly difficult challenge but this is also a coach that took a team with no one of the caliber of either Griffin or Drummond and turned it into a perennial playoff team. He helped mold DeMar DeRozan into an All NBA shooting guard when many saw him plateauing as a low percentage gunner in the mold of Rudy Gay. He helped resurrect the career of Kyle Lowry is a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the assent of Chauncey Billups, helping him morph into one of the league’s premier two-way players.
The other part of the equation is of course the players surrounding the go-to guys, most importantly in the eyes of many the young trio of first round picks in Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, and Luke Kennard. This is especially important when the Pistons have no cap space with which to bring in any new high impact signings for the foreseeable future.
Well the good news is that Casey isn’t shy about playing young guys. Just look at minutes played last season. After veterans DeMar DeRozan (33.9 MPG), Kyle Lowry (32.2), Serge Ibaka (27.5) and Jonas Valanciunas (22.4) you have:
Delon Wright (25 yo, drafted 20th, 3rd year - 20.8 MPG)
Pascal Siakam (23 yo, 27th, 2nd year - 20.7 MP)
Fred VanVleet (23yo, undrafted, 2nd year - 20.0 MP)
OG Anunoby (21 yo, 23rd, rookie - 20.0 MPG)
Jakob Poeltl, 22, 9th, 2nd year - 18.6 MPG)
Norman Powell (25 yo, 46th, 3rd year - 15.2 MPG).
Contrast that with the Pistons’ young players last year and you have Stanley Johnson (27.4 MPG) and Luke Kennard (20.0 MPG) and Henry Ellenson (8.7 MPG). That’s it. Where the minutes come from in order to give the young guys some run, now including Glen Robinson III, Kyhri Thomas, and Bruce Brown, Jr. is a good question but if those guys push other players out of their regular minutes that’s a good problem to have.
A large part of Casey’s success of course will be out of his hands. Injuries, lack of player chemistry, the strength of the other top teams in the league that have much more success already built into their systems...the list goes on.
But there is possibility here, and a belief in things all working out doesn’t seem as irrational to me as it may to others.
There’s no guarantee anything will pan out, but it’s a new year, a new coach and the Kool Aid is freshly made and icy cold, courtesy of your friends at DBB.
So drink up.