Published March 9, 2019
The NBA ecosystem is a fragile one.
I’m not a fan of the word “chemistry” when it comes to sports, because it’s terribly overused and misused.
But there is something about an NBA team’s makeup that can be, at the same time, ethereal and tangible.
The league is basically 30 different mixtures of personalities, moods and talent–and note the order in which I listed those. This volatile mix can go boom or it can be properly defused when a season starts to go sideways.
There’s a reason that the most successful coach in Pistons history, Chuck Daly, said that coaching an NBA team of millionaires was akin to managing 12 different corporations.
For too many years, the Pistons have gone boom. And it’s spat out one coach after the other.
Casey’s coaching chops
Dwane Casey is defending NBA Coach of the Year. I’m starting to see why, first hand.
Stan Van Gundy, Casey’s predecessor in Detroit, wasn’t chopped liver as an NBA coach before he was hired by the Pistons–if you look at merely wins and losses. But toward the end of Stan’s tenure in the Motor City, it was clear that his message wasn’t getting across, probably because of the methods.
Casey inherited a mish mash of a roster that seemed square peg to the coach’s round hole. There was little to no wiggle room to improve it, thanks to Van Gundy’s financial malfeasance.
Casey also had a point guard who struggled mightily in the season’s first half, partly due to poor health and partly due to culture shock of having a new coach. The roster was filled with guys who couldn’t shoot straight.
The nadir was the blown 25-point lead to the Los Angeles Clippers at Little Caesars Arena on Feb. 2, which put the Pistons at 22-29 and 9-22 after a 13-7 start.
Reggie Jackson, the beleaguered point guard, was vilified. The trade deadline was approaching and the fans wanted to “blow things up” and “tank” for the rest of the season.
Then something funny happened on the way to the draft lottery.
Jackson got healthier and gained his confidence back. The Pistons did indeed make trades, jettisoning disappointing Stanley Johnson and inconsistent shooting guard Reggie Bullock, bringing in big man Thon Maker and shooting guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, though both moves seemed more about the subtraction than the additions.
Borderline draft bust Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway began to shoot three-pointers with such accuracy that it was like they were tossing pebbles into an ocean. The Pistons began to win games without needing Blake Griffin to shoulder the team like a modern day basketball Atlas. Last week, the Pistons scored 131 points in a game where Griffin tallied only nine.
Griffin and Andre Drummond are feasting on opponents’ weaknesses–and their strengths.
The upgrade from SVG
Since the Clippers debacle, which made the Pistons a league laughingstock, Casey’s crew has gone 11-2. They’ve moved from being a couple games out of the eighth and final playoff position, to sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Now, coaches are like football quarterbacks–they probably get too much grief for the team’s foibles and too much credit for any success.
But it says here that if the Van Gundy Pistons had coughed up a 25-point lead and fallen to 22-29, they would not have followed that with an 11-2 run.
Casey is authoring quite a story. There are 18 games remaining in the regular season and the Pistons have a chance to make people like yours truly eat crow.
But it’s OK to not trust them quite yet. If I were to tell you that the Pistons’ fortunes rely heavily on Jackson (they do), I could hardly blame you for throwing up in your throat a little.
Like it or not, Jackson is the linchpin to whether the Pistons stay hot during an upcoming, rugged schedule, or return to their maddening, wheel-spinning ways.
That’s not opinion. The Pistons didn’t start playing their best basketball in years until Jackson got well physically and mentally. But as we’ve seen, your favorite team’s point guard is prone to losing it—physically and mentally.
Yet if Jackson doesn’t keep it together, the Pistons won’t, either.
Frightening, I know.
X-rated? How about x-factor?
Which brings me back to Casey.
Unlike Van Gundy, who would rant after games about his players as if he was calling into sports talk radio, Casey remains stoic and doesn’t divert from the plan.
Not that he doesn’t raise his concerns behind closed doors.
Friday night in Chicago, the Pistons found themselves trailing the awful Bulls, 66-49, at halftime.
Casey delivered what he described as an “x-rated” address in the locker room.
“We have a chance to do something special here,” Casey said in revealing what the gist of his message was to his players. “We have all summer to rest.”
Casey likes to cherry pick the Pistons’ uneven history by referring to the hard working teams that won championships in 1989, 1990 and 2004 and using those squads as the measuring stick for his group. Fine. Whatever works.
And right now, it’s working.
Are the Pistons to be trusted down the home stretch, which includes a daunting trip out west and six games combined with behemoths such as the Raptors, Pacers, Trailblazers and Warriors?
Their history would seem to indicate that no, they can’t.
Dwane Casey talked about his x-rated speech on Friday night. Fitting, because he just may be the Pistons’ x-factor going forward.