Why Pistons head coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he can be successful in Detroit

DETROIT — Fired in May, J.B. Bickerstaff sat in Detroit newly hired on Wednesday by a franchise looking to mimic the success he had found in Cleveland. It’s familiar territory.

Dwane Casey sat where Bickerstaff was seven seasons ago, fresh off a coach of the year award and having helped make the Toronto Raptors a contender before he was relieved of his duties. Monty Williams sat in that seat a year ago, weeks after being let go by the Phoenix Suns and then handsomely paid by owner Tom Gores to be the new leader of the Pistons.

The two people who warmed Bickerstaff’s seat before his arrival had differing paths in the Motor City. Casey was originally hired to turn the team into a playoff mainstay, and he did get Detroit into the postseason in his first year before the organization decided to rebuild. As for Williams, he was hired to steer a young team out of the abyss and toward an upward trajectory. However, the result was the worst season in franchise history.

Bickerstaff, who the Cavaliers fired in the offseason, becomes the new head coach of the Pistons during one of the more delicate times in their long history. The stench from last season’s disaster still stings the nostrils. Detroit has won 31 games over the last two seasons combined. Its win-loss record of late led to ownership hiring Trajan Langdon to run basketball operations, and he’s already added much-needed veteran help to a young roster that desperately needed it. Bickerstaff has to walk a tightrope of developing the roster’s emerging talent while also making sure that nothing close to what happened last season happens again. Easy, right?

It’s a tough situation to walk into, especially for a coach who could have waited until next summer and, very likely, gotten a job in a more stable situation. Bickerstaff didn’t want to wait, though. He wanted this job. Why?

“It was my conversations with Trajan, to begin with,” Bickerstaff said in his introductory news conference. “I had a great feeling that this organization was heading in the right direction and was being led by the right people. For me, going through some of the things that I’ve gone through in the past, the people that you work with … being of a shared vision and willingness to commit to one another and partner with one another, I thought this group, as a whole, had a great vision. Tom has given every resource to go out and execute that vision.

“Then, obviously, you study the team. I took a deep dive as soon as I could. Obviously, I have experience of playing against them four times a year for so many years, but I knew the players well. I believed in their ability and talent. There is a steps process that we have to take, and we’re really aware of that and Trajan and I are united in that. It just doesn’t happen for everyone overnight.”

Bickerstaff signed a fully guaranteed, four-year deal that has a fifth year as a team option. Bickerstaff said he didn’t expect the Pistons job to be available and had contemplated waiting. He decided to take the job because of Langdon and Gores, as well as the talented roster.

Detroit is still technically rebuilding, but this season won’t be like the previous ones. Bickerstaff said players will have to earn their minutes. So far this offseason, Langdon has ushered in a handful of vets who have produced as starting-level players for several seasons. There are now legitimate options, and there will be accountability.

“We’ll look and find the best lineups, and then we’ll make guys compete for opportunities. … If you want to build a competitive team, you can’t just go and give handouts,” Bickerstaff said. “People have to earn it.”

The Cavaliers were one of the top defenses in the NBA under Bickerstaff, and it was anchored by a two-big lineup Detroit attempted to mimic under previous GM Troy Weaver. That doesn’t mean Bickerstaff will transfer that approach to the Pistons. He spoke about how the personnel in Cleveland called for the two-big lineup to maximize success. He even mentioned how spacing — which Langdon has spent this offseason adding through the likes of Tobias Harris, Malik Beasley and Tim Hardaway Jr. — will be beneficial to those who the organization needs to develop.

“You want to surround the guys you’re developing with guys who make them better,” Bickerstaff said. “I think with the young guys that we have, we’re trying our best to put them in positions of success. Success a lot of times, on offense, specifically, starts with that space. When you have a guy like Cade (Cunningham), who has the wiggle that he has and can get to the paint and create, when you have the bigs that you have in Jalen (Duren) and Isaiah (Stewart) that can put pressure on the paint, it’s paramount that you have the proper spacing around them, so that they can see success and gain confidence. That’s how they’ll continue to get better.”

Detroit appears to have a leader with modern-day thinking in Langdon and a coach in Bickerstaff who, while many believed was playing too throwback of a game in Cleveland, appears willing to adapt to the roster he has, rather than force his beliefs on the team. That, at the very least, is a start.

A year ago, many in Detroit felt good about where the organization was going, and it ended up backfiring. It’s easy to feel that way now, too, as a new era of decision-makers has been ushered in. The team has signed proven, experienced players in free agency. Everyone loves shiny, new things. Detroit also has its franchise players locked up for the next half-decade. Who is to say if it’ll all work?

At the very least, though, none of this feels forced. It doesn’t feel contrived out of money or desperation. Everyone in a position of power appears to want to be here. Everyone appears invested in working together. Everyone appears focused on making the Pistons good again.

It’s not the end-all-be-all, but it’s a start. A good one.

(Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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