Rod Beard offers his thoughts on the Pistons hiring Dwane Casey as their new head coach. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Detroit — You don’t have to trust the process to like the hire.
And while it’ll take more than hiring Dwane Casey to turn the Pistons into legitimate contenders, Monday’s long-awaited announcement of a five-year deal with the 61-year-old — voted NBA coach of the year by his peers for his work in Toronto this season — really was the best possible outcome at this point.
That’s surely why owner Tom Gores and his search committee pressed so hard over the weekend to make sure it happened, with Casey still wavering despite dropping hints last week on TV about his plans to coach in Detroit.
And that’s why, in the end, it’d be wrong to trash the move simply because of all the garbage that seemed to precede it, from the odd deliberations to the rambling interview process.
Gores & Co. parted ways with Stan Van Gundy five weeks ago, and nearly two full months have passed since another regular season ended without a playoff appearance here. Yet after all that time spent looking aimless — and there’s no arguing the perception the Pistons have created for themselves here — they still managed to lure the guy best prepared to give ownership what it desperately wants right now, which is a relevant winner.
In Casey, they’ve landed a veteran coach with a solid track record in player development and a personality — intense but amiable — that won’t create friction in the locker room or the front office.
Of course, we’re still waiting to see exactly what that front-office structure will look like now that they’ve cast aside the one they sold everyone on four years ago when they brought in Van Gundy and gave him personnel control.
The Pistons have only added to the confusion this spring, bringing in Ed Stefanski to help run the team — and the coaching search — with a nebulous “senior adviser” title. He’s much more than that, obviously, and his relationship with Casey was vital in getting this deal done. In that interview with ESPN last week, Casey raved about Stefanski, a former general manager in New Jersey and Philadelphia and the executive who helped bring him to Toronto in 2011.
“Great guy, he’s big time,” Casey said. “And he’s the main reason why the job is very appealing.”
It wasn’t the only one. Casey also referred to Gores as “a dynamic owner” and talked up the potential of the roster he’s inheriting here, both notions that will have many Pistons fans doubled over. But Casey clearly made a strong impression on Gores, who called him “one of the most successful and highly respected coaches in our league,” in a statement announcing the hire Monday.
“He’s a great communicator and a leader who will connect with our players and accelerate their growth,” Gores added. “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.”
Casey, whose remarkable backstory isn’t lost on players, has done more with less for most of his adult life, including this last stint in Toronto. He was fresh off winning an NBA title as an assistant coach in Dallas in 2011, and the Raptors were, as he puts it, “the laughingstock of the Eastern Conference.” They also were effectively tanking, without much luck.
But a team that went 22-60 the season before he took the reins would go on to win 48 games or more for five consecutive seasons, winning four division titles and the East’s No. 1 seed this spring. And though he was ultimately done in by his playoff failures against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, including a second straight sweep in the conference semifinals last month, Casey’s work in nurturing that roster — led by an All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — didn’t go unnoticed.
Fired coach of the year
He was named coach of the year by the NBA coaches’ association, only a few days before Toronto GM Masai Ujiri made him the fall guy in Toronto, telling reporters that firing Casey was “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life” and adding, “I don’t know if I’ll work with a better person.”
I doubt that it’ll work out any better here in Detroit, when all is said and done. But for a franchise that boasts the league’s fifth-worst winning percentage over the last decade — with one postseason appearance and no playoff wins — it’s really not about chasing championships at this point, like it or not.
It’s about figuring out a way to win enough games to rekindle some interest in this franchise as it makes a new home in a revitalized city. (That was another factor in Casey’s decision, he said.) And it’s about finding a way to finish what Van Gundy started here with a core group of Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and now Blake Griffin, the trade deadline acquisition that couldn’t save Van Gundy but does give Casey a fighting chance.
“We’re going to empower him to expand his game, a lot like DeMar DeRozan in Toronto,” Casey told ESPN Radio on Monday. about Griffin.“Expand his game out to the three-point line, have some point-forward responsibilities with the basketball out on the floor. Because he’s more than just a back-down, post-up player.”
He can be — we saw a brief glimpse in February and March — and with a full season together, there’s no reason the Pistons shouldn’t be a playoff team next season, provided Griffin and Jackson stay healthy and Drummond stays hungry.
But Casey and his coaching staff — ideally, it’d include top assistant Nick Nurse, who is a finalist for the Raptors job — will have to get more out of the first-round picks that Van Gundy made (Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard) and fans now lament. Seeing what Toronto’s young reserves did this season — OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and others — offers some hope there.
New-look front office
Just as important, this new-look front office — whenever the Pistons decide to finish the remodeling — will have to get creative and give Casey something more to work with, regardless of the salary-cap limitations and luxury-tax concerns. The big three are due $75 million next season, and more than $150 million over the next two years, which partly explains why there aren’t many coaches serving as GMs in this league.
It’s also why Casey was able to use his own leverage to get a deal that equals Van Gundy’s last one — in term and total value — to come to Detroit just to coach.
He could’ve stayed on the sidelines next season, collecting the $6.5 million he’s still owed by the Raptors and waiting for a better opportunity elsewhere next spring. Instead, he’ll be in Detroit, where the expectations haven’t matched the expenditures in quite some time.