The 2021 Detroit Pistons record is awful. But the Pistons are having a pretty good year.
With their attention focused on draft picks and developing young talent, the Pistons season has been a near masterclass in tanking responsibly.
When Sam Hinkie began "The Process" in Philadelphia, his teams did not merely dip their toes into losing, they belly flopped into the losses column. It wasn't done with much thought on its impact to the players or team culture. Instead, it was a gambit where everything in the franchise was done with the ultimate goal of pushing the odds to their statistical limit. It worked. During the 2015 - 16 season, in the deepest valleys of the tank, the 76ers only won 10 games.
The Detroit Pistons approach to a rebuild, or restore as Troy Weaver put it, has been much measured, careful, and respectable.
The Pistons are not getting embarrassed on a night-to-night basis. They're battling every single team and taking out the some of the best in the league. Opposing teams know they'll likely win, but it's not going to be easy. Not with rookies like Saddiq Bey and Isiah Stewart, who play with physicality and intention. Or with veterans like Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, and Wayne Ellington, who have made an NBA career out of hard-work, professionalism, and playing team basketball.
On that 10-win Process era Philly team, the only players with more than five years of experience were Ish Smith, who bounced around eight(!) teams before landing in Philadelphia, and Elton Brand, who never played winning basketball in his entire NBA career. (Fun fact: Jerami Grant has played in only one less playoff game than Elton Brand did in his career.) Those are not the types of mentors you build a winning culture around. That is a team built to lose at all costs.
But NBA team culture is built on more than just NBA veterans serving as mentors. The Pistons roster has continuously overturned, but the team identity and culture remained in tact. They may be losing more games since the departure of veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, but the team still battles, plays unselfishly, and embodies the "Piston Pride" that Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey have instilled.
There's been plenty written about Troy Weaver's masterful approach to planting the seeds of the Pistons restoration but there hasn't been much said about the man who has been cultivating the on-court product.
I get that, you know, head coaches don't receive much recognition when their teams are occupying last place in the division but as Troy Weaver said, "We never talked about wins and losses and won't, right now."
Winning isn't Dwane Casey's job. His job is to develop the young players, keep the veterans happy, and provide the stability and leadership that a rebuilding franchise needs.
In that regard, he's truly the perfect coach for this era of Pistons basketball - able to utilize veterans like Plumlee, Grant, and Ellington but also able to find roles for younger players.
The players that are closer to being finished products, guys with clearly defined NBA roles like Stewart, Bey, Josh Jackson, Dennis Smith Jr., and Saben Lee have absolutely flourished under Casey. They play hard for him, on both ends and they play winning basketball, even if it doesn't mean they're winning right now.
It's brilliant really, they're instilling a winning culture in a team that's built to lose games.
Reporter Keith Smith from Yahoo! Sports asked a question about Plumlee's play exceeding expectations as a free-agent. Weaver responded with, "Coach thought that he'd be a great fit in our system, on the floor and off the floor. We need some veterans, we need some leadership, and Mason provided all of that...All of the veterans are having a career year... and that's a testament to the system and Coach and his staff."
It may sound like a typical answer but it's not. Weaver could've credited Plumlee's work ethic as an NBA player or simply told the media he's not surprised that Plumlee has been able to flourish in a larger role, but he didn't. He gave credit to Coach Casey.
That's how culture trickles down. Historically, teams rife with buyouts, personnel turnover, and a bunch of players under 25 aren't supposed to have this type of identity. They're not supposed to beat the good teams. They're not supposed to keep every game so close. But go ahead and watch the Pistons this year and you'll find a team that exceeds expectations every, single night. It's been a long, long time since they've been this fun to watch.
Troy Weaver has been the architect, he provides the tools but Dwane Casey has been the carpenter, making sure the nuts and bolts of this franchise are just right. If the hammer he uses is Derrick Rose one night and Frank Jackson the next, the product is the same: Detroit Pistons Basketball.