The Detroit Pistons’ next coach will inherit talent. Young talent, for sure, but still talent. And for that reason, the Pistons will get interest from the best available candidates.
So, that’s a start. A start that doesn’t come unless Dwane Casey decided to step down as the Pistons coach Sunday. And he did, telling reporters after the team lost to the Bulls in Chicago that he was headed to the front office.
That had been the plan for a while. There just wasn’t a timetable. Until now.
It may surprise you that owner Tom Gores left the choice to Casey, but it says a lot about how much Gores valued his coach; Casey had a year remaining on his contract.
It also revealed how little Gores was influenced by the franchise’s restless fan base. Perhaps he knew Casey was ready to retire from coaching and thought he deserved the dignity of calling his last shot. If so, that’ll help Casey’s transition to the front office.
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The best organizations in the NBA rely on difference-makers at all levels and, in that way, it’s smart for Gores and general manager Troy Weaver to make sure Casey has a voice. Players respect him. Besides, he made a difference in the development of some of the team’s youngsters.
Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren this season. Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Stewart last season. You can quibble with how much Stewart has improved or whether he is a long-term fit for the team. But the third-year big looked improved this season.
Even Killian Hayes had his moments, including Sunday, when he dropped 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists after scoring 28 against Indiana. Hayes played his best ball of his career a couple months into the season and then fell off again after the team traveled in January to France.
That he struggled the past few months is no doubt something Casey regrets. So many of Hayes’ issues are related to confidence, and as much as Casey tried, he couldn’t figure out how to imbue Hayes with self-belief consistently.
When Casey said Sunday it was time for the team to hear a new voice, Hayes is the first player that comes to mind. He isn’t the only one who will benefit.
As Casey rightly pointed out, the franchise has been in a full-on rebuild for three seasons now. That’s a lot of losing. And it can wear players down.
A worn-down player isn’t necessarily a player in sync with the coach, no matter who that is. That was easiest to spot on defense, where the Pistons finished 27th and too often played like strangers.
Youth is part of this, certainly, and the next coach will have to contend with finding ways to cobble a respectable defensive identity from a roster that doesn’t have one. It’ll be difficult.
Consider San Antonio, led by one of the best coaches the NBA has ever produced. Yet even Gregg Popovich couldn’t help his Spurs stop anyone this season.
They are young. That’s a law of human relations.
“I’m sure it’s a grind on the players,” Casey said Sunday, “a new voice will be really good for them.”
Such self-awareness is partly why Casey lasted so long here despite all the losing. And why he was hired by three different franchises in his career.
He built a reputation as a teacher and a motivator in Toronto, and if not for LeBron James, he might have made it to the NBA Finals. He said he was ready to take a year off after the Raptors fired him, but Gores kept recruiting him to Detroit.
When he finally gave in to the pitch, he took over a team meant to get to the playoffs and tried to make a run. That first year, the Pistons did get there, limping in at the end — to use Casey’s word. Those were the last best days of Blake Griffin, though, and the losing got worse from there.
Weaver took over three seasons ago and kept Casey because they developed a rapport, and because Casey had shown a steady hand leading young teams. The Pistons showed competitive spirit that first full year of the rebuild when Hayes and Stewart and Saddiq Bey were drafted, then won the lottery and the rights to Cunningham in the offseason.
Last year had its moments, and when Ivey and Duren showed flashes early this season, the team looked like it might be one of the more fun teams to watch in the league. Then Cunningham went down, injuries kept coming, and for too many stretches, the team on the floor didn’t compete.
For every game like last week’s against Miami, when Ivey and Duren led a serious effort against a Heat team trying to make the playoffs, there were check-out nights like in Orlando a few days before.
A different voice will help reduce the number of nights like that. In the end, there were too many this season, and Casey knew it.
That he chose to step down himself is a testament to his understanding of what it takes to win in the NBA and to how long a rebuild can go on before it needs a sharp turn to the left.
Or to the right.
Self-awareness is a lovely trait, especially in professional sports, where it’s not always so easy to see your reflection. As Casey said, the move was best “for myself, my family and the organization.”
He knew it was time to move on from the head seat on the bench. I suspect everyone else in the organization did, too.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.