Troy Weaver knew the changes he wanted to make when he signed on to be the Pistons general manager last summer. It was a fairly lengthy list, as we’ve seen, particularly when it came to the roster.
But as a first-time GM, Weaver also knew what he wanted to keep. And now we’re seeing more evidence of that, too, with this week’s announcement of head coach Dwane Casey’s contract extension through the 2024 season.
“Coming here and having a great coach already in place, that stability was really huge in us being able to put our plan and process together,” Weaver said. “The most important thing going through this restoration is having continuity and consistency. And extending Coach provides that for us going forward.”
And doing it now, with two games left in the awkward season-ending dance that lottery-bound coaches must endure in the NBA, certainly sends a message as well.
“For the young guys and everybody on the team to know that ‘This is our leader,’” Weaver said. “He’s gonna lead us through the restoration, get us back to where we want to go. And it was extremely important everybody understood that undoubtedly he’s our leader going forward.”
Casey, for his part, insists he didn’t have any real doubts about that himself.
“I never felt like I didn’t have a vote of confidence,” said Casey, who got an extra year tacked on to his original five-year deal with this extension. “I didn’t think it was needed.”
But he says he’s “appreciative,” nonetheless, and that was the message that was conveyed both ways in a conversation Casey had with owner Tom Gores this week.
This obviously wasn’t what either one of them had in mind three years ago when Gores hired the reigning NBA coach of the year to replace Stan Van Gundy, hoping Casey could turn a playoff pretender into something more. As Casey put it then, “We’re not developing, we’re not two or three years away. We want to win right now.”
Well, the plan is dramatically different now. And with 50 losses in 70 games this season, it’s only just beginning. The Pistons have nearly locked up a bottom-three finish in the standings, which should secure another crucial piece in this rebuilding effort, or “restoration” project, as Weaver calls it.
But they’ve also stayed locked in, which is a credit to Casey and part of why his GM says he has long admired his work. That includes the developmental role he played in building up a Toronto Raptors team that ultimately won an NBA title the year after he was fired.
Once Weaver came aboard here. Casey found himself starting over, in many respects. He was tasked with coaching one of the league’s youngest rosters, with 11 players under the age of 25 and four rookies in the Pistons’ playing rotation. The few veterans have mostly been sitting the last month of the season, too, as the front office smartly kept one eye on the standings.
All that youth has shown on many nights, especially in the fourth quarter. The Pistons are a league-worst 7-25 this season in “clutch” games, which the NBA’s official stats define as those where the differential is five points or less in the last five 5 minutes. Last week’s back-to-back losses to Orlando and Charlotte were two such examples.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” Casey said. “At some point it’s gonna have to change into W’s, so I don’t want to get too caught up in being satisfied with losing. Never. But the development piece is coming. Guys are showing improvement in different areas. …
“If you’d win with toughness in this league, we’d have won quite a few games. And it says a lot about their character, who they are as people.”
It says something about the coach as well, the way Weaver sees it. The way this team has played defense, and scrapped and fought almost every night, speaks volumes about the culture that’s being built. And if the work that Casey has done in bringing along the rookie class of Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee is where the compliments start from Weaver, that’s hardly where it ends.
“Just who he is, and his consistency as a coach, as a person,” Weaver said. “They know when they come in the building every day what they’re gonna get from a coach. And that’s extremely important as you’re growing. Just like a kid growing up in a household, if your parents are consistent with you and what’s laid out, you’ll grow. And we’ve seen tremendous growth with the rookie class because of Coach’s consistent message and the way he’s handled them.”
It hasn’t been easy, obviously. Without any summer league orientation, and an abbreviated training camp and preseason, the rookies were thrown into the deep end this winter. Team chemistry was another challenge, particularly for a self-described “people person” like Casey, who had limited practice time, a condensed schedule and myriad health and safety protocols to deal with.
In a normal year, he’d have players over to his house for dinner, or make a point to share meals out on the road. But that hasn’t been possible until very recently. So Casey says he has utilized the Pistons’ twice-daily COVID testing times to his benefit, pulling in players for 1-on-1 chats in his office early in the morning or in the evenings long after practice was over.
“You have to pick your spots,” he says.
And for now, at least, the 64-year-old Casey sounds excited about the spot he finds himself in. If this is his last NBA coaching gig, he’s eager to make it last. And hoping to make a lasting impact while he does.
“When I leave, I want to leave it a better place than we found it,” Casey said. “And the only way we can do that is build a perennial winner here. That takes time from where we started. But we’re on the right path. And what they did as far as the extension kind of … gives you energy to know, ‘Hey, we’re all on the same page.’”