It’s been just over two months since Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors finished the most successful regular season in franchise history. 59 wins, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the feeling that all the past playoff malpractices would finally subside. The Raptors were riding high and Casey was the man leading them.
Fast forward exactly one month and Casey found himself without a job. After being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs, the Raptors couldn’t afford to keep Casey around any longer. There aren’t many answers to the hundreds of questions that surround the confusing situation the Raptors have been in (finishing with 50-plus wins in three straight seasons but with only one Conference Finals appearance to show for it), but letting Casey go was the one that could at least be the most justified – even if it still wasn’t.
Fast forward another month. Casey signs a five-year deal with the Detroit Pistons to become their next head coach, replacing Stan Van Gundy, who went 152-176 in his four seasons including only one playoff appearance (which ended in a sweep a la LeBron James).
It’s no surprise Casey has already found a new job. He was voted as the NBA Coach of the Year by his fellow coaches this past season and morphed the otherwise forgotten Toronto franchise into a top-5 team in the entire league. The transformation he oversaw in Toronto was impressive by all standards, taking a 23 win team whose best player was Andrea Bargnani and turning it into a defensive powerhouse with a modern NBA offense and incredibly deep bench, just seven years later. There wasn’t any pressure for him to succeed in Toronto – and he exceeded just about every single expectation – but there sure as hell is now.
The situation with Detroit is much different than what he was given across the border. With the Raptors, he had time. He may have had a less-than-mediocre roster with only a few pieces to build around, but the added “win-now” factor was not prevalent like it is now. The Pistons have a roster that can make it to the playoffs. They should have been in the playoffs every season for the last few years, but injuries, significant roster changes, the seeming unwillingness to adapt to a modern NBA system, and stunted player development deterred any sight of consistency.
What Casey has in Detroit is much more manageable than it was when he got to Toronto – from a roster standpoint. The addition of Blake Griffin via trade before last season’s trade deadline brought Detroit their first true superstar player in a long time and their highest-caliber player since Chauncey Billups. The pairing of Griffin with 24-year old Andre Drummond wasn’t terrible during the few weeks they were together (they posted a net rating of +1.1 when they were both on the court across nearly 600 minutes), but there were obvious shortcomings. Drummond can’t shoot, plain and simple. And no matter what he posts on social media (videos of himself hitting uncontested jump shots in an empty gym), that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Griffin can shoot, for the most part, although he’s not a legitimate spot-up threat (in 25 games with Detroit, he shot 34.8 percent from deep on 5.4 attempts per game. If you think that sounds like a lot of threes for Griffin, someone who built his legacy off of explosive dunks and pure athleticism, you would be correct. In 2016-17, Griffin attempted only 1.9 threes per game and only 0.5 the year before that. To be fair, adding the three-point shot to his game makes him so much more dynamic, but it doesn’t mean he should be taking over five attempts per game.)
Pairing a center who can’t shoot with a high-usage power forward who believes he can shoot isn’t a recipe for success in an era that thrives on spacing and ball movement – especially not when they’re the team’s two best players. Casey has been known as a defensive-minded head coach (he’s believed to be one of the engineers behind the defensive scheme that helped the Dallas Mavericks slow down LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2011 en route to winning an NBA Finals when he was an assistant coach. Plus, he coached the Raptors to a top-5 defense last season with no player besides Kyle Lowry even coming close to sniffing an All-Defensive team), but it’s what he did this past season in Toronto that revealed him as a coach willing to change his offense to the trends of the current NBA. He had DeMar DeRozan take (and make) more threes than the 28-year old has ever seen. He utilized Serge Ibaka as a stretch forward, sometimes even as a stretch-five, opening up the floor for the Raptors bevy of shooters. Perhaps, most impressively, he developed the most effective and efficient bench in the NBA.
The Pistons have actually been an above average team in terms of defense, finishing in the top 12 for defensive rating over the past three seasons. Drummond is a huge element to their success on that end. He’s a solid rim protector and one of the league’s best defensive rebounders and Casey will love to keep him in the paint and use Griffin – who can defend guards with reasonable success – to switch every defensive pick-and-roll.
Casey now has a different kind of challenge in front of him with two bigs as his two best players. He doesn’t have the benefit of multiple, high-level shooters like he did in Toronto (although Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock are solid pieces), an elite backcourt, or the weapons to abuse open space. His starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, is a poor man’s Russell Westbrook (that may sound like a slight to Jackson, but it shouldn’t be interpreted that way because Jackson is good) and injured more often than not. However, when healthy, Jackson has made the Pistons a better team, as the team posted a positive net rating when he was on the court last season.
Up until last season, Drummond never truly showed any potential as an offensive threat. He trended more towards a Hassan Whiteside type of offensive playstyle instead of someone such as Karl-Anthony Towns. Last season, however, Drummond finally displayed some offensive prowess. He developed a few go-to post moves and was overall much more aggressive when trying to score in one-on-one situations. With Griffin now comfortably in the mix, Drummond doesn’t have to rely on his own scoring to be productive and can focus more on protecting the rim, grabbing boards, and – most importantly – becoming a more capable and confident passer out of double teams and pick-and-rolls (Drummond increased his assists per game from 1.1 in 2016-17 to 3.0 last season. With how much Casey likes to move the ball, I’d expect that number to go even higher next season).
What makes this head coaching job more interesting than when Casey got his first run with Toronto is the issue of little roster flexibility. The team the Pistons have right now is the one they’ll likely have for at least another year. They are strangled by limited cap space, committed to about half their current roster for at least two more seasons with no first-round draft pick in the upcoming NBA draft and still no General Manager. *Yes, the Pistons hired a head coach before someone who would RUN THE TEAM with less than two weeks before the NBA draft. But then again, maybe having no draft pick made the front office feel less inclined to prioritize that position and instead focused on the head coach search. It’s not ideal planning, but it’s somewhat understandable and still resulted in them acquiring the coach they wanted.*
Casey has been allowed to bring in his own assistants, which was a big reason why he decided to sign with Detroit. Something Casey and his staff in Toronto did best was develop young players. We saw what he did with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry – turning both of them from run-of-the-mill guards into borderline MVP candidates – and the major improvements from Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakim, Fred VanVleet and rookie OG Anunoby were impressive by all standards. This aspect is what should excite Pistons fans. Kennard, Bullock, and Stanley Johnson have all shown signs of being promising NBA players (Johnson especially has struggled, but when he plays well, there is more than enough talent that shows he can excel in this league and Casey has shown time and time again he can take players with obvious weaknesses to the next level). Kennard and Bullock are knockdown shooters and they’ll be much more important pieces to the offense than they were last season. I’d expect them to take on roles similar to what C.J. Miles did for Casey in Toronto; run around screens until the sun sets and fire up every remotely open look they get. Jackson is an excellent pick-and-roll ball handler (finishing in the 82.8 percentile last season according to NBA.com) and he’ll work well with Drummond/Griffin (who are more than capable roll men), but the key element will be the threat they get from Kennard/Bullock and hopefully Jon Leuer (who played only eight games last season due to an ankle injury) on the perimeter.
The Pistons are going to play a much more open brand of offense next season, spreading the floor and maximizing on space to create as many open opportunities as possible on the perimeter. What’s going to be interesting to watch is how Griffin and Drummond fit into that mix and how deadly they can make the Pistons pick-and-roll. There are going to be some serious growing pains to begin the season, especially if they enter the preseason with practically the same roster they have now, but the playoffs should still be the goal. They have the talent and despite the Eastern Conference becoming more and more talented from top-to-bottom, they are still a top-8 team in the East. It may be another two years before we get to see what Casey can actually do with this team, as the team’s cap space begins to open up a bit more and the flexibility for roster movement is much more manageable, but the Pistons are already a lot more intriguing than they were less than a week ago.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan