Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey’s contract extension must feel like sweet justice

Detroit Free Press

Dwane Casey gave his coach of the year speech after he’d been fired. He was gracious and humble and admitted to a bit of self-doubt.

That he questioned himself despite leading Toronto to four division titles and a run to the Eastern Conference finals showed his humility and self-awareness. It also showed why players love him.

That love is easy to see on the court. Just watch this year’s Detroit Pistons.

The team’s promising young core may be here because general manager Troy Weaver reworked the roster, but players still have to be coached. And taught. And pushed. And developed.

And made to believe.

Casey has done all of this. It earned him a contract extension from Weaver this week.  

That the extension came as the Pistons are wrapping up their worst won-loss season in years has got to feel like sweet justice for Casey. Though he would never say that out loud.

When he lost his job in Toronto, after taking the Raptors to the conference semifinals and winning coach of the year — yes, he got swept … by LeBron — he took the high road. He did again the next season, after the Raptors won the title.

About all he would say is that the roster he left was a little different than the roster that beat Golden State in 2019. He had every right to say that.

Kawhi Leonard?

Marc Gasol?

Danny Green?

Casey didn’t have those players in Toronto. Nick Nurse, the assistant coach who took over for Casey, did.

Talent still trumps everything else. Yet talent isn’t everything. Coaching, despite what some think, matters in the NBA.

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This isn’t to say that Nurse didn’t do a good job coaching the Raptors — he did, obviously. Nor is it to diminish the defensive creativity Nurse brought to the huddle; he famously called for a box-and-one defense in the Finals to slow Stephen Curry.

But Toronto wasn’t likely to win the title under Nurse with the same roster Casey had. In fact, Nurse had a similar roster last year after Leonard left for the Clippers and lost in the … conference semis, just as Casey had a couple times.

The Pistons are a couple of seasons from pushing into the playoffs and past the first round. Yet in extending Casey, Weaver knows he has a coach who can lead that effort.

“It was extremely important that we extend coach,” Weaver said Thursday. “… we want him to be lined up with this restoration.”

Weaver credited Casey for “re-energizing” the team, for bringing along the rookies, for connecting with the free agents — Jerami Grant, for example, is one of the most improved players in the league, for leading the “cause on the floor.”

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Despite the Pistons’ record —  they’re 20-50 heading into Friday’s game against Denver — the team generated buzz for the first time in memory. Grant’s metamorphous from third or fourth wheel with the Nuggets to a bucket-getter in the clutch helped.

So did the out-of-nowhere play of Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson. Even center Mason Plumlee had his best effort as a pro, both in efficiency and impact.

Then there were the rookies, who got better by the month — and sometimes by the week. And who have played with the kind of savvy and intensity that’s usually seen in more experienced talent.

Again, Weaver deserves credit for identifying the free agents and seeing potential where some haven’t. Same for the rookies he selected in the draft.

But Casey was helping that effort, too.

“He’s always had a great eye for talent,” said Weaver.

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And he has always developed it.

That skill led to the success in Toronto, where Casey built a winning team without many high lottery picks. He helped turn Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet and DeMar DeRozan into stars. Maybe not all-world superstars, but difference makers.

He is beginning to do the same here for the Pistons. That should only help attract more players. Players who may not love the weather here or the lack of beaches and mountains, but who increasingly pay attention to the coach and a franchise’s culture.

They notice what is bubbling in this city. They feel the competitive spirit.

Spend some time around Casey and you’ll feel it, too. You’ll also hear him talk a lot about “our program,” and about fighting and working and competing and the incremental success that isn’t always easy to see game to game.

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This year, even with all those losses, it was. Because this is what Casey does.

“When I leave, I want to leave it a better place than I found it,” Casey said. “And the way to do that is to build a perennial winner here … we’re on the right path to doing that.”

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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