DETROIT — Dwane Casey spoke frequently of his journey in the NBA as he was officially introduced on Wednesday as coach of the Detroit Pistons.
He reflected glowingly on the Raptors, the team that fired him on May 11 after Toronto was swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Casey, who was already recognized as this season’s NBA coach of the year by the National Basketball Coaches Association, will be in Santa Monica, Calif., next Monday, looking to win the title as NBA coach of the year when the league holds its annual awards night.
That Casey is looking to win the award for his work on a team he’s no longer a part of was an irony not lost on him.
“It’s part of the journey,” Casey, 61, said of his departure from Toronto. “I can say unequivocally that I can hold my head high from what we built in Toronto. There’s no animosity whatsoever with that part of the journey. I’m excited about this part of the journey and that’s the most important thing right now.
“This is a new chapter.”
It’s a chapter that looks to have lost the plot, not to mention many games along the way. Detroit has missed the playoffs the past two seasons and in eight of the last nine seasons. It hasn’t earned a post-season victory since 2008.
“We haven’t won,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said bluntly. “That’s clear. That’s a fact.”
Yet when Casey looks at the roster he inherits from the fired Stan Van Gundy, he believes he sees more building blocks than when he initiated the process in Toronto when he was hired to coach the Raptors in 2011.
“Our starting point here is a lot higher than where we started in Toronto,” Casey said. “That’s what is very exciting.”
Casey, who won more games than any coach in Raptors history but ultimately was let go because, like many of his predecessors, he couldn’t make the Raptors win in the playoffs, built his Toronto club around a sensational backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. In Detroit, the assembly will be structured around a dominant front court pair of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond.
“The most important thing I think is the talent level that you have with Blake, Andre and also with (point guard) Reggie (Jackson) to start with,” Casey said. “Those three are veteran players. In Toronto, we didn’t have the three core players when we started.
“And then next level of guys, you’re talking about Luke Kennard, you’re talking about Stanley Johnson, who I’ve always admired from afar. And then also Henry Ellenson. Three very young, very talented players. And I’d put Andre in that group as being young. He’s 24 years old, just an untapped wealth of talent.”
The Raptors missed the playoffs in Casey’s first two seasons in charge. He believes the Pistons are on the cusp of not only being a team that can qualify for post-season play, but capable of making some noise once there.
“It’s similar to what we did (in Toronto) and I’m ready to take it to another level,” Casey said.
He sees something in Detroit that was sadly lacking in Toronto: an antidote for LeBron James, who single handedly destroyed the Raptors in the 2018 playoffs.
“Somebody said, ‘What happened in Toronto in the playoffs?”‘ Casey explained. “I said, ‘It’s about matchups,’ and Stanley Johnson is the best matchup for 23 in Cleveland that there is, physically. And also you have Blake there. So, we have two guys that physically match up with the mental and physical toughness that it takes to go against a guy like that.
“I’m not afraid to say it, we have those two guys. I’m telling the guys, we’re not developing, we’re not two or three guys away. We want to win right now.”
To do so, one of the roadblcks that could interfere with Detroit’s path to glory will be Casey’s old team. Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock gave Casey a tutorial on the rivalry between Toronto and Detroit.
“Mike Babcock is a good friend of mine, so I know all about the rivalry, the connection between the two countries,” Casey said. “It’s a great rivalry. It’s what the league should be about, whether it’s hockey or basketball. We embrace it. They’re a good team up there.
“We want those buses to come down from Canada and buy tickets, and we want to send them home unhappy.”