Published June 24, 2018
Finally, the Pistons have a coach that’s as old as the franchise is.
Dwane Casey is 61 years old. So are the Pistons in Detroit, having moved to the Motor City from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.
If you believe in numerology and that sort of thing, you might be buoyed by the hiring of Casey as the franchise’s 32nd coach in Detroit.
But numerology might also dissuade you, if you paid attention to that number 32—as in a pro basketball franchise having a roster of coaches that survive, on average, less than two seasons per man.
Thirty-two coaches in 61 years. Don’t let the revolving door hit you in the you-know-where.
The coaching carousel in Detroit
The Pistons have tried just about everything when it comes to searching and finding their coaches.
They tried a player-coach once, with David DeBusschere.
They tried a liquor store owner (in the off-season), with Paul Seymour.
They tried poaching one from an NBA Champion Finalist, with Butch van Breda Kolff.
They tried hiring an NBA trailblazer, with Earl Lloyd, the league’s first black player.
They tried elevating a GM to coach, with Bob Kauffman.
They tried a college guy, with Dickie Vitale.
They tried a heart attack survivor, with Scotty Robertson.
They tried a colossal NBA failure in Cleveland, with Chuck Daly.
They tried a TV analyst and former assistant, with Ronnie Rothstein.
They tried a former Celtic, with Don Chaney.
They tried a former coach of a heated rival, with Doug Collins.
They tried a nomad, with Larry Brown.
They tried a Minnesota guy, with Flip Saunders.
They tried a greenhorn, with Michael Curry.
They tried a no-name, with John Kuester.
They tried someone with two first names, with Lawrence Frank.
They tried a retread, with Mo Cheeks.
They tried elevating assistants innumerable times.
Now they’re trying a former Coach of the Year who was—get this—their first choice. And he said yes.
First choice Casey bucks the trend
Even the Hall of Famer Chuck Daly was no higher than third on GM Jack McCloskey’s list when he went coach shopping in the spring of 1983. Dr. Jack Ramsay and Jack McKinney both turned McCloskey down (the “Jack” thing must not have swayed them), and it was reported that Phil Johnson, an attractive candidate at the time, also said “thanks but no thanks” to McCloskey.
Larry Brown was the last Pistons coaching hire (2003) that I can remember who was tops on the search list and who was successfully recruited and signed.
Since Brown was hired by Joe Dumars, the Pistons have had to settle in their coaching searches. Their timing wasn’t always the greatest, either. Several times, the Pistons missed out on high profile names because the team was always zigging when their target was zagging.
But last week, the Pistons made it official. The moon and the stars aligned and Casey, formerly of the Toronto Raptors, who was the Pistons’ primary target as soon as he became available on May 7, was introduced to the Detroit sports media as franchise coach no. 32 in Detroit.
“Our time is now,” Casey said to the press as he sat to the immediate right of owner Tom Gores and to the far right of Ed Stefanski, who has no title but who is running the show—I guess. Just call Stefanski, Big Ed.
Casey is also unlike any Pistons coach who has been unveiled since Saunders was introduced in 2005, in that he feels bold enough to actually say things like “Our time is now” with a straight face.
Since Flip left the Pistons in 2008, any coach following him could never truthfully say “Our time is now” unless he followed it with “to rebuild.”
Pistons and coaching stability: bitter enemies
The Casey presser was the sixth such event the Pistons have hosted to announce a new coach since 2008. Ten years, six press releases. That’s a new coach being announced every 20 months.
And you wonder why the Pistons have one playoff appearance in the past decade and zero—count ’em, zero—playoff wins?
Then again, stability in the coaching chair has never been a franchise strong suit.
Prior to Daly, the Pistons changed coaches every couple of years, often with the season going on. And every new coach usually got the customary two-year contract.
Butch van Breda Kolff actually signed an extension to his original two-year deal in 1971, but VBK held the deal in low regard.
“Hell, they can always fire you,” he said of the written word. “And you can quit.”
Which is exactly what VBK did, 10 games into the 1971-72 season.
Ray Scott, as fine a gentleman as you’ll ever meet, had a great line after being elevated from assistant to head coach after the Pistons fired Earl Lloyd in 1972.
Describing the bittersweet news of seeing a friend get the ziggy so he could become the head coach, Ray said from Portland, “It’s like watching your mother-in-law drive your Cadillac off a cliff.”
So Chuck Daly prowled the sidelines in Auburn Hills for nine seasons, winning two championships along the way, and Daddy Rich’s tenure was a nice pause from the revolving door. But as soon as Chuck left in 1992, the Pistons went back to their old habit of canning a coach every couple of seasons—and they haven’t stopped since.
Stan Van Gundy, the man who Casey now replaces, was here for four seasons and in Pistons years, that’s a generation.
Keeping Casey’s Big Three healthy far from certain
Dwane Casey thinks he can win with the Pistons now because of three starters and several young pieces.
Casey looks at Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson and his coaching juices start flowing. Then he talks about Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson and Casey gets even more excited.
That, plus owner Gores’ full-court press (sorry), got Casey’s name on the dotted line when the coaching veteran could have taken a year off, cashed his twice monthly checks from the Raptors (who still owed him one year and $6.5 million) and waited to see what openings arose in 2019. And when I say “what openings,” I mean, “better openings.”
But Gores was relentless, the two men hit it off, and the owner even won over Casey’s wife via telephone.
Of course, all this took place in and around Los Angeles, which even Casey joked at his presser was turning into “Detroit West” because of Gores’ Platinum Equity company and the workout locations of several Pistons players this summer.
Where the knock on Van Gundy, the coach, was the tortoise-like pace of player development, Casey brings with him a reputation for the opposite. The Raptors were toothless when Casey arrived in 2011 and he leaves having accumulated a franchise-record 59 wins last season—much of that thanks to molding young players and coaching them up, giving them minutes and confidence (in that order).
Van Gundy was miserly with minutes to the younger guys, doling playing time out on a need-to-know basis. It chafed in the locker room and worse, it has seemed to stunt the growth of kids who are all the Pistons got now, thanks to a rigid roster that has the financial flexibility of hard plastic.
And when it comes to the “Big Three,” two of them can’t stay healthy. If recent history holds, you’ll too often see Griffin and Jackson in street clothes, listening to Casey draw out plays during timeouts.
“The history of the Detroit Pistons basketball organization and Tom’s vision for it is what sold me,” Casey said at Wednesday’s presser.
If by history he means 32 coaches in 61 years, I wonder about Casey’s sense of it.
But he’s hired, the Pistons are giving him five years—which is eternal for the organization—and he was, as mentioned above, their first choice.
This time, the Pistons and their man zigged at the same time.
That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment.