Dwane Casey knows Detroit Pistons expectations are on rise: ‘We’ve gotta come back better’

Detroit Free Press

PHILADELPHIA — Two numbers stick out when evaluating the Detroit Pistons‘ 2021-22 season — five and 11.

The first number represents the Pistons’ 5-28 start, the NBA’s worst record on Dec. 31. They lost 14 straight games in November and December, and looked lifeless without Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk, who were out with injuries.

The second number highlights the wins since Feb. 16. The Pistons won 11 of their final 25 games, with victories over the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and two wins over the Atlanta Hawks in that span. They went 11-14 despite losing Grant, Hamidou Diallo and Marvin Bagley III to injuries at various points, and resting players during the final week of the season.

In year two of a full rebuild, the Pistons began to learn how to win.

They concluded the season Sunday against the Sixers, a 118-106 loss in Philadelphia, and now face another pivotal offseason, with a potential top-four pick incoming and significant cap space. The organization has a chance to win significantly more games next year, if they make the right decisions this summer.

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Coach Dwane Casey praised his team’s growth during his postgame news conference Sunday.

“All of our young players, first and second year,” Casey said. “Even guys in the first year. Just watching them grow. A lot of the games didn’t equate to wins but the growth is there. It’s going to be evident going into the future. I’m really proud of the way the guys stepped up and played close to .500 basketball after the All-Star break. That’s the momentum that we have to go into the summer with. We have a lot of growth to do, a lot of work to do with our roster, and also with the draft. We’ll see what goes on with that. Just really proud of this year’s guys. They really kept their nose to the ground and improved in a lot of different areas, because they could’ve mailed it in a long time ago the way we started the season. That’s what I’ll remember about this year.”

The Pistons finished 14th in the league with a defensive rating of 114 over their final 25 games. Some credit goes to Isaiah Stewart, who was Detroit’s best rim protector and one of its best perimeter defenders. But it’s also a result of time and experience — it takes rosters time to gel, particularly young players.

There’s much for the Pistons to be proud of this season. All four of their recent first-round picks — Cade Cunningham, Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Killian Hayes — showed enough to be considered franchise cornerstones. Cunningham, who finished the season averaging 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists, will finish high on ballots for Rookie of the Year.

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Several role players, such as Hamidou Diallo and Marvin Bagley III, found their rhythms off the bench. And Grant is a talented wild card. He would aid the Pistons’ playoff push next season, but he’s also due for a contract extension with a raise. Will the Pistons want to pay it? They’ll have time to decide.

The franchise is well-positioned to improve significantly this offseason. Casey said it starts with drafting high-quality guys. The Pistons believe in the culture they are building, and they can maintain momentum in the offseason by addressing their needs.

“We started connecting offensively and defensively right after All-Star break and played like a team,” Casey said. “If we had connected that earlier, our record would’ve been a lot different. We want to go into the summer with that mentality, but we also want to get better individually. Everybody in that locker room has an area they can get better at, including the coaching staff. I told the coaching staff we have to get better. We’ve gotta come back better. Can’t come back the same. Everybody’s gotta take a step forward from top to bottom.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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