Niyo: New band of Pistons plans on reviving old flavor of Detroit basketball

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

The Pistons have tried this once before. Twice, actually, the way new general manager Troy Weaver sees it.

And though he’s already apologizing for sounding “like a broken record” by repeatedly referencing the Pistons’ Bad Boys era and the “Goin’ to Work” group that won an NBA title in 2004, Weaver makes none for the way he’s trying to go about building a new champion in Detroit.

Turns out his massive roster overhaul this offseason — fueled by a flurry of trades and free-agent signings late last month — wasn’t about tanking or tweaking, really. It was more about tenacity and toughness and some of the other traits Weaver believes are necessary as he lays a foundation for something Pistons fans haven’t seen in more than a decade: Not just a winner, but a team they finally can get behind.

“We were going to be aggressive in changing the mindset and mentality,” said Weaver, whose team will look completely different Friday night when it hosts the New York Knicks in the preseason opener at Little Caesars Arena. “Things kind of fell in place so we were able to change 70 percent of the roster.”

Just what that kind of upheaval will mean in terms of wins and losses in a scheduled 72-game NBA regular season remains to be seen. Friday’s debut could be cringeworthy, in fact, given all the new faces in new places, not to mention a nine-month layoff for some. And beyond that, few are expecting Dwane Casey’s team to emerge as a legitimate playoff contender in the Eastern Conference this winter.

“But the whole goal is to put a competitive team on the floor that the city and community could be proud of,” said Weaver, who’s not ruling anything out as the NBA ventures outside its bubble in the weeks ahead. “We’ll let the chips fall after that. But we want to be competitive and we want a team with an identity that fits Detroit and I think we’re headed in the right direction. So that’s step number one.”

‘Kick somebody’s behind’

Step two, now, is the one Casey’s busy working on in an abbreviated training camp, trying figure out playing rotations with a fresh lineup full of youth and vigor — “The energy in our practice facility the past five days has been outstanding — the best I’ve been around here,” Blake Griffin said Thursday — and a little something extra that he hopes the fans will notice, too.

“Every time we step on the floor, we want to go out there and kick somebody’s behind,” Casey said. “I thought we lost some of that physicality, that toughness last year. And believe me, I grew up watching the Detroit teams and coaching against the Detroit teams, and the team here has always had that edge. So that’s what we’re trying to recreate.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s also imperative. Because Pistons fans long ago grew tired of watching teams built around overpaid “stars” like Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson — teams that were going through the motions on too many nights — and then listening to coaches like Casey and his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy, lament all the sluggish starts or defensive letdowns. And believe me, both of those coaches tired of it long before you did. As Casey noted this week, “I’d much rather say, ‘Whoa,’ than have to get guys going and say, ‘Giddy up.’”

That shouldn’t be a problem with this team. Yes, there’s a youth movement underway here, with four draft picks added to the mix, led by point guard Killian Hayes, a 19-year-old lefty who’ll be given the starting job from Day 1. But the book on these rookies is they’re hard workers and self-starters. And the mix of veterans surrounding them — some new, some old, all somewhat intriguing in their own way — seems to share that mentality.

“Troy, he’s getting pros,” said Derrick Rose, one of the few roster holdovers. “That’s no knock on the people that were here. But the guys he got in, they all seem like they’re hungry.”

By all accounts, Griffin and Rose have taken on mentoring roles with open arms. Griffin spent time working this fall with rookie Saddiq Bey in Los Angeles and has been giving rookie center Isaiah Stewart a crash course in camp about what it means to play in the paint in the NBA. Likewise, part of the reason the Pistons held on to Rose at last season’s trade deadline is what he’s doing now, tutoring Hayes on the finer points of running the show in a league that’s a far cry from the Basketball Bundesliga.

“My job here is to push him and groom him into a great player,” Rose said.

Plenty to prove

That said, neither he nor Griffin is ready to quit his day job, either. Both are coming off injury-shortened seasons, and they’re eager to remind everyone they’re still All-Star talents.

“It’s been a long year of chatter,” said Griffin, 31, who played just 18 games last season before undergoing a second knee surgery in nine months. “I’ve been through this so many times: You miss a year or have a down year or you deal with some injuries and you hear it all. In this league, you’re only as good as your last game, your last season, whatever you’ve done the last time you touched the court. So I’ve had a lot of time to think and a lot of time to gather motivation, I’ll say that.”

He’s hardly the only one saying it on this team, which is something Weaver and Casey are banking on, quite frankly.

“Everybody on the roster, there’s something in their game or their bio that says, ‘You should have a chip on your shoulder,’” Casey said. “Whether it’s contract year or where you come from or you haven’t played in a while, everybody should have a chip on their shoulder — in a good way.”

Some of the new arrivals are here because they’re looking for bigger roles. Take Jerami Grant, the 6-foot-9 forward whose career was starting to flourish in Denver but thinks he’ll find more opportunity in Detroit. (“The challenge intrigues me,” he said.) Delon Wright, a former first-round pick in Toronto now reunited with Casey, is in a similar spot. Same goes for Mason Plumlee, the 30-year-old center the Pistons expect to be an efficient pick-and-roll partner for Hayes.

But then there are others, like Josh Jackson, a former top-five pick who washed out in Phoenix and found himself playing in the G League to start last season. He seemed to revive his career in Memphis, and now the Detroit native is ready to build off that growth here, assuming he can fight his way into the rotation.

“The vibe I get is just everybody has something to prove … the organization has something to prove,” Jackson said. “So just being able to play with that little chip on your shoulder, I think it’s gonna be really good for all our guys this season. We’ve got some guys that are really, really good and just haven’t had the chance to show how good yet.”

They’ll get it here, it seems. And like always, for Pistons fans, the proof will be in the product. But if this one’s this one will be worth buying. 

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