AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Pistons present themselves as Eastern Conference heavyweights with Dwane Casey

7 Comments

DETROIT – Pistons spokesman Mark Barnhill, introducing new coach Dwane Casey, said he tucked his notes for today’s press conference into his jacket pocket. Then, as he pulled them out, he discovered an old Pistons playoff ticket in the same pocket.

“It’s a bit of an omen and a bit of a challenge,” Barnhill said.

The ticket was for the Pistons’ best playoff performance in a decade.

“No pressure,” Casey said.

Actually, really, no pressure.

Detroit lost by only two points in Game 4 of the 2016 first round, getting swept by the Cavaliers in the game Barnhill referred to. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in the last 10 years and reached the postseason only twice in that span. A two-point loss was their best result.

They’re starving for only moderate success. The 59 wins and second-round loss that got Casey fired by the Raptors? That’d be a dream season in Detroit. Even just making the playoffs next year would be welcomed.

“Our time is now,” Casey said. “…The talent level on the roster is there.”

It better be.

The Pistons are too close to the luxury-tax line to use most of the mid-level exception. They surrendered their first-round pick in the Blake Griffin trade. They’re left with only the No. 42 pick in the second round.

“Whatever player we get, that would be great. But we don’t need another one,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said. “Like, we’re good. That’s why Dwane is here.”

That and $35 million.

The Pistons presented Casey with a favorable contract, a front-office head he knows (more on that later) and a solid roster. Detroit is probably better off trying to win now, because the alternative would be even trickier to pull off. With so many highly paid players stained by losing, the Pistons can’t easily switch paths and rebuild. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are close enough to their primes that the present should be the priority, even if this team maxes at pretty good.

Yet, Detroit’s brass couldn’t help but raise expectations even further.

“We have three very – we have a great roster – but very special players,” Gores said of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson.

That’s an overstatement. Besides, how much noise can Detroit make with the Celtics and 76ers rising the Raptors still hanging around?

“I feel very comfortable that we’ll have a product that will compete with the teams that you just said,” Gores’ advisor, Ed Stefanski, said. “We have to win games, as Tom said. But you don’t usually get to an organization and have three core guys like we have.”

Again, they’re talking about Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.

Griffin hasn’t made an All-Star team in three years, a drought players rarely escape. Drummond is a borderline All-Star in the East (and a tough fit with Griffin). Jackson has only once even sniffed the All-Star discussion.

Casey also praised those three – and Detroit’s last three first-round picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. Johnson particularly drew attention from Casey, whose Raptors got swept by LeBron James‘ Cavaliers the last two years and lost the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history to Cleveland the previous year.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, what happened to Toronto in the playoffs? ‘Well, I said, ‘It’s about matchups,'” Casey said. “And Stanley Johnson is the best match up for 23 in Cleveland that there is, physically.”

Maybe Casey, with his strong record of player development, will help Johnson eventually compete at those high levels.

“We’re not developing,” Casey said. “We’re not two or three years away. We want to win right now.”

The Pistons are so confident in their current roster, they haven’t even hired a general manager or equivalent. For now, Stefanski – advisor to the owner with the title of “senior executive” – is running the show. It sounds as if that could continue for a while.

“We could make Ed GM tomorrow,” Gores said. “That’s easy. If you guys want a title, that’s kind of easy.

“That’s not the point. The point is we’re building an organization, not around one person, but around what our vision is.”

Stefanski said, no matter how the front office is assembled, Casey will report to him. And Stefanski will report to Gores.

After giving Stan Van Gundy massive control, the Pistons are dispersing power.

Casey is a good coach, and he’ll help. Stefanski has plenty to prove as a front-office head. Gores is still learning as an owner, a failed experiment (keeping Joe Dumars) and unfulfilling tenure (Van Gundy’s) behind him. The roster is solid, though unexciting, when healthy.

They’re now all in it together, awaiting a chance to deliver. Considering how modest external expectations are, maybe they will.

But as the Pistons overstate their standing, it gets harder to take them seriously.

What do Pistons look like under Dwane Casey? Expect more Blake Griffin

Getty Images
3 Comments

Once Blake Griffin was traded to Detroit last February at the deadline, Stan Van Gundy put the ball in his hands a lot — a 29.8 percent usage rate. Griffin was handed the ball in the post a lot (especially the high post) and the Pistons averaged an impressive 105 points per possession from those plays (stats via Synergy Sports). Griffin, as he has tended to in recent years, took too many midrangers and didn’t get to the rim as much as the coaching staff would like, but was efficient in isolation, and also showed promise as a playmaker.

Expect to see more of that with Dwane Casey as coach.

Casey was officially hired by the Pistons Monday as their new head coach — the best the Pistons could have made. Once they made the move for Griffin to pair with Andre Drummond (and eventually a healthy Reggie Jackson) this became a team about winning now and making the postseason. Casey has gotten the most out of a team in that space the past several years in Toronto, he should put the Pistons in better positions to succeed.

How? More Griffin. That’s what Casey said on ESPN Radio’s Stephen A. Smith Show:

“We’re going to empower Griffin to expand his game, a lot like DeMar DeRozan in Toronto. Expand his game out to the 3-point line, have some point-forward responsibilities with the basketball out on the floor bringing it down. Because he’s more than just a back-down, post-up player….

“They have a good team, they have a good roster and a very dynamic owner in Tom Gores, who is doing a lot of things for the city of Detroit.”

More Griffin is a start, some high low game with Drummond, or Griffin working off the ball as Jackson and Drummond run pick-and-rolls. There’s a lot of potential there.

Beyond that, Casey is going to need to get more out of Detroit’s younger players such as Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard. Player development is going to matter for a capped out team.

Most of all, Casey needs to stop in every church he passes by and pray/light a candle — maybe sacrifice a live rooster if needed — that Jackson and Griffin can stay healthy for most of a season. Same with the rest of the Pistons. Healthy this is a playoff team and a pretty good one in Detroit, but’s a roster loaded with players who have long injury histories.

Casey is expected to meet with most of the team soon in Los Angeles and lay out his plans. He will get the most out of this roster, whatever pieces he has. We’ll see if that’s enough.

Report: Celtics offered monster trade package for Justise Winslow to Pistons and Heat, not just Hornets

AP Photo/Winslow Townson
7 Comments

The Celtics are in great shape. They’re up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals with a young rotation. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are all stepping up. Al Horford is reminding everyone he’s a star, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will get the chance next year.

The Hornets are in terrible shape. They missed the playoffs for the second straight season, and they’re so capped out, they’re already facing a luxury-tax crunch for next season. Even with Kemba Walker, they appear stuck in mediocrity.

But both teams could have been in a middle ground if Charlotte accepted Boston’s draft-night offer in 2015.

Wanting to get Justise Winslow, the Celtics reportedly offered six picks – including four potential first-rounders – for the No. 9 pick. The Hornets rejected the deal and took Frank Kaminsky, which has earned them plenty of criticism ever since.

But maybe we should save some admonishment for the Pistons (who drafted Stanley Johnson No. 8) and Heat (who drafted Winslow No. 10). Apparently, they also received Boston’s walloping offer.

Bill Simmons of The Ringer on The Lowe Post podcast:

I know the Pistons passed on it. Whatever it was eight, nine, 10. It was Pistons passed. They offered the same thing. They wouldn’t even talk about it, because they wanted to take Stanley Johnson.

The ninth pick was Charlotte. Jordan couldn’t figure it out in time and finally didn’t do it, so they passed on those four picks, one of which would have been Jaylen Brown. Another one would have been Rozier.

And then the 10th pick, they called Riley, and Riley just laughed and hung up on them. Riley was like, “No, I’m taking Justise Winslow. I’ll talk to you guys later.”

It hasn’t been revealed precisely which picks the Celtics offered. They had many stockpiled. A good bet is it including the No. 16 pick in 2015, which they used on Terry Rozier. I’m not sure whether Simmons is reporting or just supposing Boston offered the 2016 Nets pick (which became Jaylen Brown).

There’s enough variability in the picks and protections not to know just how good this offer was. But, even near the plausible minimum, it was pretty darn good.

To some degree, it’s just logical that if the Celtics wanted Winslow that badly, they would have made the same offer to every team in that range. But Danny Ainge admitted after the draft he might have gotten carried away. It seemed possible he didn’t go that far with Detroit on the clock and came to his senses with Miami picking. Alas.

The Pistons, Hornets and Heat are all locked into expensive rosters with merely moderate upsides. Stanley Johnson, Frank Kaminsky and even Justise Winslow – the Celtics’ dream selection – top out at fine. Detroit, Charlotte and Miami almost certainly would have been better off accepting this trade.

Boston was fortunate none did.

For a while, the Pistons and Heat were fortunate attention was placed squarely on the Hornets passing on the offer. That ought to change.

Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

2 Comments

DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

image

LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Report: Pistons trade second-rounder, Brice Johnson to Grizzlies for James Ennis

Leon Halip/Getty Images
1 Comment

The Pistons are staying busy.

They already flipped one of the additional players acquired in the Blake Griffin trade (Willie Reed, to the Bulls with a pick swap for Jameer Nelson). Now, they’re moving the other – Brice Johnson, to the Grizzlies with a second-round pick for James Ennis.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris Herrington of The Commercial Appeal:

The Pistons are clearly pushing to make the playoffs this season. Ennis is older (27 vs. 23) and more expensive ($3,028,410 vs. $1,331,160) than Johnson, and the pick only adds to Detroit’s cost. But Ennis is better.

Ennis can share minutes at small forward with Stanley Johnson when the match up is too big for Reggie Bullock or Bullock plays shooting guard (which might happen less with the Pistons acquiring Nelson, who reduces the need the for Langston Galloway at point guard). When the opposing power forward isn’t too big, Ennis can also play there  behind Griffin and Anthony Tolliver, as Griffin is also Detroit’s de facto backup center.

Both Ennis and Johnson are on expiring contracts. The Pistons could try to re-sign Ennis, but considering their luxury-tax concerns, this is more about this season.

For Memphis, this is about the pick and cost savings. Johnson showed little in two seasons with the Clippers, and – with his third-year option declined – he’s probably on his way out of the league.