Rod Beard offers his thoughts on the Pistons hiring Dwane Casey as their new head coach. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Dwane Casey took over a team mired in mediocrity and lacking direction. Seven years later, he led the Toronto Raptors to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons are betting Casey still has that transformative touch, and they worked hard to woo him. And Casey is betting the Pistons actually, eventually, will put together a viable front-office structure. As plans go, this one is rooted in desperation and mutual faith.
Casey was the best coaching candidate available, both in stature and NBA experience, and the Pistons landed him with a five-year deal Monday, after an exhaustive, month-long search. It’s a fine hire, and Casey, 61, is widely respected. He was fired by the Raptors after getting swept in the playoffs, despite being named NBA Coach of the Year. Owner Tom Gores, vice chairman Arn Tellem and senior adviser Ed Stefanski finally got their guy, and it wasn’t easy, according to reports.
Once again, we’ll see if the Pistons are forward thinking, or grasping from the past. To turn the team around, it’s about more than just the coach. There’s still uncertainty in the organization, and it’s unclear who will assume which roles, from president to general manager.
Casey becomes the Pistons’ eighth coach in 11 years, for a franchise that has made the playoffs precisely once in nine seasons. The list of failed regimes stretches all the way to 2008, when Flip Saunders was the last to finish with a winning record. In between, the team bounced from retreads to former players, from Michael Curry to Lawrence Frank to Maurice Cheeks to interim coach John Loyer to Stan Van Gundy.
Gores and his crew were in no position to gamble with a young coach now, with a roster built around Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson that can’t be altered much, based on contracts. They were 39-43 last season but without the flexibility to rebuild, so they’ll crank up the playoff aspirations again. They don’t have much of a choice, even if squeezing in as a low seed is the best they can do. Getting an accomplished coach made the most sense, and yet of course, guarantees nothing.
Casey took the Raptors to the playoffs five straight times but never got past LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the East. He won a lot and was lauded for his personality and relationship-building with players, and brings a different demeanor than the fiery Van Gundy.
Casey’s dismissal was a shocker after Toronto won a franchise-record 59 games in his seventh season. The firing occurred four days after Van Gundy was let go, but there’s a reason it took so long for this happen. Casey seemingly was content to sit out a year and collect $6.5 million on the final year of his Raptors contract, then be in position for a prime opening next season.
The Pistons spent a month interviewing candidates, including Michigan coach John Beilein, and you can view it a couple of ways: They were doing their due diligence and looking to uncover a gem, or they simply were waiting and trying to convince Casey. Ultimately, Casey said they made a compelling case, and he accepted without knowing who his immediate boss will be, a true leap of faith.
“Tom (Gores) really won me over with his vision for the team and the city,” Casey said in a statement. “He clearly wants to deliver for the fans in Detroit, and I believe in the strength of his leadership to do so. I’m confident that this team has the pieces in place to compete at a very high level.”
Not all the pieces, obviously, and it’s still inexplicable they haven’t identified or defined their front office. Perhaps Stefanski will assume the role of president of basketball operations with GM responsibilities. In that scenario, he could groom a rising young executive, such as Nets assistant GM Trajan Langdon. Stefanski was part of the front office in Toronto that hired Casey, and worked with him from 2011-13. The connection surely was a factor in landing Casey, and maybe that was the plan all along, a ready-made coach for an unsteady team.
“The (Pistons) are on the cusp of making the playoffs,” Stefanski, 64, said when hired May 24. “And that has to be your goal.”
In the season before Casey arrived in Toronto, the Raptors were 22-60. Three years later, they began their playoff streak, and this looked like the breakthrough season with a No. 1 seed. But they never recovered after blowing a late lead in Game 1 against Cleveland. Then James won Game 3 on an off-balance heave at the buzzer, and Casey was roasted for strategic mistakes, such as not double-teaming and forcing the ball out of James’ hands.
Casey’s playoff failures led to his dismissal, but this much we know: He extracts the most out of his teams in the regular season. He had two All-Stars in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and both credited Casey for their blossoming success. The hope is Casey can similarly shape Griffin, Drummond and Jackson (when healthy), and he’s already talked about expanding Griffin’s role into more of a point forward with 3-point range.
Just as important, the Pistons must develop their young players — not a strength of Van Gundy’s — including their last three first-round picks, Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. Even as he departed Toronto, Casey was celebrated for changing the culture there, and Raptors president Masai Ujiri grappled with the decision to fire him.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Ujiri said at the time. “In terms of collaboration, I don’t think I’ll work with a better person. This guy is phenomenal. A listener, a learner, a performer and a real person.”
According to ESPN, the Pistons aggressively courted Casey, and Gores wouldn’t take no for an answer. The owner will spend, too, a reported $7 million, the same as Van Gundy earned for dual roles.
“(Casey) is a great communicator and a leader who will connect with our players and accelerate their growth,” Gores said in the press release. “Having spent many hours with Dwane over the last few weeks, I’m confident he is the right person to get us to the next level.”
It’s a level the Pistons haven’t reached in far too long, a level they’ve never reached under Gores. You can understand why Gores wanted Casey. If Casey had to be persuaded to accept it, you also can understand why.