John Beilein keeps a small, black notebook with “Detroit Pistons” emblazoned on the front. When it’s not in his hand, it’s in his back pocket. Within it are notes from every game the Pistons have played this season. After their loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, his book only had a couple of blank pages left.
He’ll soon need a new one.
Beilein is a meticulous note-taker. In his first year as the Pistons’ senior adviser of player development, he gives as much information as he can to head coach Dwane Casey and his assistants. He looks for patterns and logs which schemes appear to work for the Pistons, and which ones can be tweaked. He also tracks every shot a Piston takes, and how they take them. He studies their shooting forms — how they prefer to dribble into a shot, their footwork and their follow-through.
“There’s some guys that, with one approach, shoot 45%,” Beilein said. “With another approach, shoot 20%. I keep this. Or left-hand dribble versus right-hand dribble, they shoot drastically different percentages. I’m keeping that stuff that they probably don’t have in the NBA databook, whether a guy shoots a hang dribble or a quick dribble. That’s not in the computer, but I can compute it. So it’s all those things we straighten out, especially with four guys that all could still be playing in college in the starting lineup, so that they grow. But they have to see the data to understand it.”
For more than 40 years, Beilein sat in the lead chair. His coaching career spanned through every level of basketball, from high school to junior college to NCAA to the NBA. He’s best known as the winningest coach in Michigan basketball history, taking the program to two championship games in 2013 and 2018. Most recently, he was the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers from the beginning of the 2019-20 season until his resignation that February.
Beilein, 69, now embraces being out of the spotlight. He sits a few rows up from the bench during games, similar to a scout. It’s hard to see a player’s feet and get a feel for a team’s spacing from the bench, he said. At halftime, he shares his notes with Casey and the rest of the coaching staff. After games, he sends texts and emails.
One might look at his resume and think he’s overqualified for his position. But he appreciates this new phase of his career. He’s still teaching, and he’s still learning.
“I had no expectations other than coming in and doing the best I could every day to support Coach Casey and the rest of the staff,” Beilein said. “I didn’t know what it would entail until we talked about it more. I’m a part-time old head, just talking to either the players or even to Dwane to reinforce some things, and then I also want to be on the cutting edge of what’s new to the game, what’s new to the NBA, new to basketball. I’m trying to sort those two things out. I probably say less and watch more video.
“I learn something about basketball every day, and the NBA game is different from college.”
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Beilein’s relationship with the Pistons unofficially started in 2018, when they held the first week of training camp in Ann Arbor at Crisler Center and U-M’s Player Development Center. He and Casey talked before and after practices. A friendship blossomed.
In fall of 2020, Beilein returned to U-M as a co-instructor for an education class titled “Coaching as Leading and Leading as Coaching.” He also joined Big Ten Network as a studio analyst earlier that year. But his itch to teach basketball remained. When the Pistons began their 2020-21 season, Beilein started watching their games and texting his thoughts to Casey.
“I really liked working for the Big Ten Network,” Beilein said. “I still liked teaching the class at Michigan. But I still have years of teaching left in me as a coach.”
But teaching in the NBA is different from teaching in college. There are more games, and fewer days in-between for skill development work. After resigning from the Cavaliers, Beilein cited the toll of losing — Cleveland was 14-40 overall — and the difficulty of translating his college style to the NBA as factors in his decision.
Beilein’s teams at Michigan typically shot the ball well, and he prioritized outside shooting in recruiting. Nearly every Michigan alumnus currently in the NBA who played for Beilein, including Pistons rookie forward Isaiah Livers, shot the 3-ball well in college.
Part of Beilein’s growth the past few years has been figuring out how to teach NBA players about spacing the floor. Good shooting starts with good habits, and good habits are born out of repetition. During the offseason, players can work on skill development every day. That’s harder to do during the season.
“You have so limited time between games that making and improving skill development for 20 year-olds is so needed,” Beilein said. “But there’s so little time, you wear them out. And then they can’t do it in games. In college, you play a Saturday game, you have Sunday off, you have Monday and Tuesday to practice and Wednesday is the game. You can make incredible strides in one month. So that’s two practices. We might not have two practices like that in a whole month (in the NBA). So that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve had to understand and work through.”
Beilein’s teachings are bearing fruit. The Pistons are only shooting 32.5% from 3, the second-worst mark in the NBA. But they shot 34.5% from 3 in March, their best mark of any month this season. It’s still not where the team would like its percentage to be, but it’s a process.
“Big influence in shooting, especially the footwork,” Killian Hayes said. “He’s always on me about having a certain footwork when I shoot, being prepared. He’s always giving advice, showing us film about what we can do better. Just a great guy to be around.
“He’s always praising how much he believes in me, giving me that extra confidence every single time,” Hayes added. “He really trusts my shooting and he’s on me every single day about it. When I don’t do it in a game, he’ll tell me right after a game that I need to do this. Then the next day, we’ll work on it. But every single day is routine. It’s a routine every single day.”
Beyond his basketball knowledge, Beilein has been a positive for the Pistons with his demeanor. He’s quick to compliment players and slow to criticize. He likes to joke around. Unburdened from feeling the weight of each loss, he’s enjoying bringing positive energy into the Pistons Performance Center and Little Caesars Arena.
“John is so positive,” Casey said. “I get all upset, especially after the game, and he’s the one saying ‘Coach, we’re growing. We’re getting better. You don’t see it, but we’re getting better.’ I said ‘John, if we get an award for second place I’ll start feeling happy.’ He’s so upbeat and positive. He’s an excellent teacher. He’s done this for so long as far as fundamental teaching and helping guys with their shooting, passing. Whatever it is, he’s a wealth of knowledge.”
Beilein tried to bring positivity into the room as a head coach, or at least, tried to fake it. But losing is hard. It wore him down in Cleveland. He knows how difficult Casey’s job is.
But there are signs the Pistons are improving. Since the All-Star break, they’re 9-11 with a plus-0.3 net rating. Cade Cunningham is one of the front-runners for Rookie of the Year after averaging 22.9 points, seven assists and 5.9 rebounds per game in March. Detroit’s three 2020 first-round picks — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey — are playing winning basketball. Beilein sees the growth, and he has made it his job to make sure Casey and everyone else sees it, too.
“Sometimes I felt that one loss would just tear me apart,” Beilein said. “It’s probably why I’m not a head coach anymore. It’s really hard to lose. So I see that, and I told him before that I’m going to try to bring sunshine every day to you and the team because I’m trying to look at it with a holistic growth mindset that we all need to have, that we taught so much at Michigan.
“You have so many hats to wear, too, as a head coach. Especially in college. If I can bring that with everybody and they know every day I’m bringing them some sunshine in some way, it really makes a big difference.”