It’s not every year that a Coach of the Year front-runner hits the open market at the end of a season. But after interviewing a slew of candidates and reportedly putting on a “full-court press” to land his services, the Detroit Pistons inked former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey on Monday to a five-year deal that will make him Stan Van Gundy’s replacement on the sideline.
The Pistons present a new canvas for Casey, albeit one with incoherent brush strokes strewn about. Detroit is more or less locked into this roster for the foreseeable future. It will be into the luxury tax next season and has only a midlevel exception this offseason to work with. Plus, the Pistons will be paying Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, and Blake Griffin a combined $74.5 million next season. Griffin, who came via a bold but damaging midseason trade that cost the Pistons their 2018 first-rounder, is owed more than $140 million over the next four years, and Drummond will be paid more than $80 million the next three years. (This is why you don’t let the coach also be the general manager.)
That’s what Casey is working with, and the fit makes sense: Disastrous playoff sweeps at the hands of LeBron James aside, Casey has proved himself to be one of the league’s top player-development coaches. He’ll be tasked with maximizing the talent already on their roster — the way he did in his seven seasons in Toronto — and getting Detroit back into the playoffs. But unlike the previous era, it seems as though Detroit isn’t rushing the process. David Aldridge reported that the Pistons sold Casey on having long-term stability with the franchise, no matter what happens in the first few seasons. That’s good news for Casey because the situation he’s inheriting isn’t ideal.
Griffin is arguably the most talented player Casey has had on a roster as a head coach since Kevin Garnett, and he teams with Drummond to form arguably the most talented front line, too. But after modernizing the Raptors this past season, he’ll have to do the same with the Pistons, and fast. By building around two big men, the Pistons are zagging while everyone is zigging, but not in a way that suggests a strategic plan is in motion. In theory, the duo is athletic and dynamic enough on both ends to make it work, but as has been the case for years, the Pistons play better with Drummond off the court. Griffin has made strides in his 3-point shooting, hitting 34.5 percent from behind the arc since 2014–15, and Drummond has been seen trying to extend his range in the offseason, but neither is a major threat to space the floor in a traditional sense. And despite all their athletic gifts, both have been mostly inconsistent on defense. But the talent is there. It will be interesting to see how he deploys them. First, he should pray for health, though — Griffin has played in only two-thirds of the possible regular-season games over the past four years.
Where Casey will likely make his money, or, rather, vindicate the team’s long-term investment in him, is in the players who surround Griffin and Drummond. Casey groomed Kyle Lowry into a perennial All-Star in Toronto. Detroit presents him with another Rubik’s cube at point guard in Jackson. Jackson, 28, is going into his ninth year in the league, and his fourth full season with the Pistons. In Detroit, he’s been hampered by injuries that have cost him almost 70 games over the past two seasons, but he’s also shown bursts of star potential, enough to contribute to the Pistons’ 14–6 record over the first few weeks of last season. Casey offers direction and motivation as well as any NBA coach. The Pistons will have to hope that’s enough to tap into Jackson’s top-end capabilities.
The same goes for the rest of the roster. Detroit’s questionable front-office decisions have also infected their draft choices. The team has both Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard as recent lottery picks — the latter of whom will forever be known as the pick that could have been Donovan Mitchell (sorry, Luke). Johnson’s been a mixed bag, but he made small leaps last season (doubled his points per game average) while his athleticism, strength, and defensive potential are still present. Kennard, who shot 41 percent from 3 last season, will need more reps, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t become a deadly shooter off the bench, at the very least. Casey has this blueprint in hand, to an extent. This season, he brought along rookie OG Anunoby as well as young guys like Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, and Pascal Siakam, turning them into crucial pieces on a top contender. Can Casey do the same with Kennard and Johnson?
There’s no reason Casey can’t turn this roster into a middling playoff team in the East, but it won’t be easy given both the conference’s outlook and the franchise’s cap situation. Winning a championship is any team’s ultimate goal, as it was for Casey in Toronto, but in Detroit, expectations are lower for now. That’s when Casey is at his best: taking modest expectations and exceeding them.