AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Andre Drummond grabs the rebound, stops, turns and momentarily freezes. For years, he had been used to the same routine: Pass the ball to a specific player, or turn to Stan Van Gundy to pick up the next play.
Now, there is none of that. For a second at a recent practice, Drummond thinks, “What the heck am I supposed to do here?”
The blueprint he has played with for so many years is changing. Dwane Casey, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year and first-year Detroit Pistons coach, is ensuring it, shifting from a stricter play-call offense to an up-tempo, free-flowing offense in which everything has options.
Casey believes trusting his players to be in the right positions during practice will translate to games — particularly on the road, where noisy crowds can create miscommunication issues.
Grasping this took a moment for Drummond.
“I’ve always had coaches that dictate every play, like, ‘This play is happening,'” Drummond says. “So it’s like, ‘You guys figure it out for yourself, you have a feel.’ I catch myself turning around like, ‘What’s next?’
“And I mess up the transition because it’s like, ‘Oh, s—, I’m not supposed to look back because I know we can actually play now.'”
OPERATING WITH A more free-flowing style while allowing players the freedom to make decisions for themselves is part of Casey’s broader plan to help turn things around for the Pistons, who have made the playoffs just once in the past nine seasons — and even then, they were the No. 8 seed, quickly swept aside by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. To accomplish his goals, Casey focuses on the individual, using a strategy he has carried for years.
The 61-year-old isn’t sure where he picked it up — maybe in Minnesota, his first NBA head-coaching job from 2005-07 — but it worked in Toronto. To explain how he has implementing his changes, a team dinner in Birmingham, Michigan, just before practices began at the start of training camp, might provide the best example.
In front of the team, Casey took out a stack of laminated index cards — three for each player. On those cards — one for the player, one for his locker and one for his agent — Casey defined each player’s role. He read each of them aloud. Everyone understood the expectations for their teammates.
“Guys, when they question their role or get confused or forget, just look at their role card,” Casey says. “That way there’s no confusion in your role. Just like being in a company, there should be no confusion in your role, in your alley, in your lane for what you can do to help us win or be successful.”
While it sounds rigid, Casey says the roles on the cards are malleable. If a player shows he can do more, he’ll get a new card expanding expectations — three more laminated, larger index cards Casey uses as a constant reminder of what the Pistons are trying to accomplish.
If players see someone drifting, they can self-correct in the locker room. Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski describes it as “transparency,” which they are trying to make a consistent theme throughout the organization. The cards, Casey says, help players “understand who they are supposed to be.”
“I thought it was interesting with all the big goals, there were the little ones for each individual,” Pistons owner Tom Gores says. “It just shows me the balance of Dwane’s approach. He’s able to show the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish, but also bring it down to an individual and what they have to accomplish to make the team successful.”
When Casey took the Pistons job, he researched every player. He talked to ex-coaches and ex-teammates. He wanted to learn who they were as people and how they might handle difficult situations.
Casey made this his summer project, giving him a way to connect with his players. It allowed him to understand how basketball might fit into his players’ larger lives. The approach led Casey to inquire about Drummond’s interest in music during a voluntary workout this summer. Casey asked if he could come to a recording session with Drummond, who said it was the first time a coach had expressed interest in his off-court ambitions.
“I’ve never really had that type of relationship with my coaching staff, where I can go to them and just talk to them about certain things … just have a regular conversation and joke around with them,” Drummond says. “So having him being that type of guy, not even just for me, but for the rest of the team, as well, it’s amazing.”
Casey’s research extended to every member of his roster and included one-on-one meetings. After Glenn Robinson III signed with Detroit this summer — Casey was the first coach to reach out to him at the start of free agency — the two met in Las Vegas during summer league.
Robinson thought it might be a quick meeting. It turned into an hours-long dinner at a Vegas steakhouse, with conversation ranging from basketball to business to the importance of connections. It went so well, Robinson has asked Casey when they can do it again.
“You want to get to know guys and talk to them about something other than basketball,” Casey says. “We’re going to spend enough time talking about pick-and-roll defense and shot selection and all that. But still, there’s 22 hours left in the day that you have to be people and young men that you want to get to know about.”
DRUMMOND, 25, SAYS he is embracing Casey’s changes, even if he has had to change the most. Almost an automatic double-double with improving vision as a passer, he’s now being asked to be more efficient and versatile.
When Casey first spoke to Drummond, the coach explained how his big man might be used differently. The Pistons were going to play with more more pace, more running-and-gunning.
“To play the style we want to play, to come and cut and move and him come out of the hole and set pick-and-rolls, you need to be in great shape,” Casey says. “And then to get back, sprint to the other end and play defense, you better be in better shape.”
Drummond understood. He was in South Florida to be close to his sister, so he reached out to peers in Miami to find a trainer who might fit. This summer was the first time in Drummond’s career that he worked out with a private, off-court trainer during the offseason.
David Alexander of DBC Fitness presented Drummond with a plan. Aesthetically, Alexander said, Drummond looked good. Biomechanically, after 60 orthopedic measurements, Alexander concluded “his body was a mess.” Alexander created a three-phase plan of overall prehab to make sure Drummond’s body stayed healthy and make him more efficient in his movement.
Drummond trained with Alexander for an hour every morning, followed by a half-hour of recovery. In the afternoon, he had a separate on-court session with another trainer.
“How we all bounce back from adversity is what it should be about.”
Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey
What started as tedious movements to align his muscular and skeletal makeup turned into Olympic lifting for strength and power, and then agility and sensory work with hurdles, cones and ladders. During training, they would get Drummond’s heart rate up to 140 or 150 to see what type of decisions he was making at a pulse rate similar to what he’d have during an NBA fourth quarter. Drummond also worked on footwork to move more like a guard, potentially turning the 6-foot-11 center into a matchup nightmare.
“I do a really good job of cutting my weight down in the summertime,” Drummond says, “but when I found out that it was time we were going to be running a lot, I’m like, ‘All right, now it’s time to really get yourself really into maximum shape.'”
There’s one other addition Casey made to Drummond’s game: suggesting he could take occasional 3-pointers despite only 30 career attempts in six seasons. If Drummond’s 3-point shot becomes something opponents must account for — he shot 1-for-5 from behind the arc in the Pistons’ first two games — it will increase the flexibility Detroit can play with in an offense that will emphasize the 3-pointer, just as Casey did with the Raptors.
“Everybody looks at you crazy at him shooting 3s,” Casey says. “But he works on them. Teams disrespect him and drop back off him in half-court, he’s got the green light to take that shot. Again — time, score, situation is another factor in it, but that’s the next evolution of his game.
“The next step for me is to get guys to the next level of their skill set.”
CASEY’S APPROACH PLAYED a role in how he landed in Detroit after being fired by Toronto following seven seasons. His post-free-agency conversation with Robinson, in some ways, mirrored Casey’s initial interview at Gores’ home in California — a talk that spanned at least six hours.
The two talked about basketball, about families, about life. By the middle of the conversation, they were essentially selling each other on the gig. Casey says now that he isn’t bitter about how things ended with the Raptors — he has been around the league too long for that — and that it gave him renewed focus. Gores, perhaps sensing that, challenged Casey.
“He said, ‘You have something to prove.’ He was one of the first ones to tell me that,” Casey says. “That myself and the team were in similar situations. Everybody had underestimated this team, this franchise, even with the tradition of winning they have. And myself, you win Coach of the Year, get the best record in team history, and then they say thank you and goodbye at the same time.
“So that gives you a chip on your shoulder, but that’s life. How we all bounce back from adversity is what it should be about.”
After sleeping on it, Gores decided Casey was his top target. Casey says Gores is “the main reason I’m here.”
While praising Van Gundy for building the foundation the Pistons now have, Gores says he made the coaching change because he believed the veterans needed a new voice to lead them. Deciding that voice should be Casey’s came as a result of that first meeting, when the coach sold the owner on how much he wanted the job.
“He’s very complete, from whether it’s the basketball court to the importance of his family to how he respects these young men and what they do,” Gores says. “He’s very complete on things, and not just basketball. He’s multidimensional, and I’d say for a guy who has been around all the time, he’s very modern.”
“This is just a completely different style of play than these guys have been used to.”
Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin
That includes both Casey’s offense and his defense. Last season, the Raptors’ offensive rating was second in the league and their defensive rating was fifth. The season before, their offensive rating was sixth and defensive rating 11th. Casey had been growing that system in Toronto — an efficiency he’s trying to bring to Detroit, with pace.
Blake Griffin gets the style better than most because it’s closer to how he played with the Clippers before a two-plus-month shift in Detroit last season. In camp this year, Griffin found some players checking with him to make sure they were getting things right.
“We’re just playing so up-tempo,” Griffin says. “Our practices, it’s much more control. Coach Van Gundy calls plays — and I like Coach Van Gundy a lot and have a lot of respect for him — but this is just a completely different style of play than these guys have been used to.”
Casey’s approach — and previous success in Toronto — has allowed the Pistons to buy in so far.
“That’s the thing you have to understand, is Coach has done it, and in a sense with this team, we haven’t done it,” point guard Ish Smith says. “So people can look at him and be like, ‘Is it the coach? Is it the players?’ We can’t worry about it.
“We just gotta play and have fun, let it fly and play the way Coach wants us to play.”
Despite a promising 2-0 start, the transition remains in progress — all involved admit that. But it’s a change the Pistons believe they needed to make if the franchise wants to be a consistent winner for the first time in almost a decade.