Detroit Pistons lucky to have Motor City Cruise at beacon call for the players, and coaches

After spending a few days in Las Vegas, Motor City Cruise head coach DJ Bakker was looking forward to some family time.

The Cruise, the Detroit Pistons’ G League team, participated in the NBA G League Winter Showcase, which featured 30 games from Dec. 19-22 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. They were a seventh seed in the Showcase Cup Tournament, an eight-team single-elimination tournament, and fell to the Oklahoma City Blue in the semifinal, 99-97.

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Bakker, hired as the Cruise’s head coach last offseason, flew back to Detroit on Wednesday. The G League scheduled three days off — Thursday through Saturday — before the season resumed. His plan was to spend three days with his wife and three kids for Christmas. But on Friday, Bakker got a call from Pistons head coach Dwane Casey.

San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White (4) dribbles against Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Walton Jr. (25) in the first half at the AT&T Center on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021.

The Pistons are managing a COVID-19 outbreak. Eight players — Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee, Rodney McGruder, Trey Lyles, Cory Joseph and Josh Jackson — have in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Three assistant coaches — Bill Bayno, Jerome Allen and Jim Moran — are away from the team. Casey has also missed their last four home games due to personal reasons, leaving assistant coach Rex Kalamian in charge.

The Pistons have called up four Cruise players to fill out their depleted roster. And ahead of Sunday’s road game against the San Antonio Spurs, they had to call up additional coaches as well.

So Bakker told his family the Pistons needed him to fill in as an assistant coach, and boarded a flight to San Antonio on Christmas. His Cruise assistants were out of town due to the holiday break, except one. Marcus Stout, a Detroit Renaissance alumnus who lives in Southfield, also flew to San Antonio on Christmas.

“I’ve been in this for 12 years now so she knows how to navigate it,” Bakker told the Free Press about his wife, Laura. “And my kids were good. We opened up all the gifts early in the morning, so they were set for the day. They didn’t need me after all of the gifts.

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“On the basketball standpoint, I felt prepared,” Bakker, who has been on Casey’s staff since 2016 with the Toronto Raptors, continued. “I know exactly what the expectations are. I knew my job was to help out with the offense here, and coach Casey trusts me. I know what he likes, I know what he likes to do, what the expectations are, and to be able to help out with Rex, it was a great opportunity. Obviously not given the circumstances with COVID, but from a basketball standpoint I felt prepared.”

The Pistons’ investment in the Cruise has paid off big this past week, for reasons few could have guessed. Cruisers Cheick Diallo, Derrick Walton Jr., Cassius Stanley and Deividas Sirvydis all received call-ups. Luka Garza and two-way forward Jamorko Pickett, who have started games with the Cruise this season, were also in the rotation for Sunday’s loss in San Antonio. Saddiq Bey, Frank Jackson and Hamidou Diallo were Detroit’s only available players who haven’t played a game with the Cruise.

Detroit Pistons forward Jamorko Pickett (24) dribbles against San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) in the first half at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021.

Their previous G League team, the Grand Rapids Drive, was independently owned. By having full control over the Cruise, the Pistons have been able to fully integrate their G League team into their player development program. The two teams run the same plays and use the same terminology, and the Pistons have had an easier time transferring players back-and-forth with the Cruise’s new arena virtually down the street from Pistons headquarters.

Walton, a Detroit native and Michigan alumnus, started his first game with the Pistons on Sunday. They were only able to host a film session ahead of the game, and the new-look team had only been together for about a day. But Walton already knew the playbook due to his time with the Cruise.

“For the most part, having the Cruise in our building and being familiar with the players and knowing them, them knowing you, the interaction between the two teams, the players, the coaches, it really is valuable,” Kalamian said before Sunday’s 144-109 defeat. “I think that hopefully tonight, we’ll see some of that at work on the floor.”

Due to the unpredictable nature of COVID, the organization is preparing to roll with any additional punches. The Cruise were initially scheduled to tip their regular season off on Dec. 29, but will now have to wait until Jan. 5 to give teams additional time to replenish their rosters. Bakker will spend at least today with the Pistons as they prepare for their home game against the Knicks on Wednesday. If they need him on the bench afterward, he’ll be there.

Detroit Pistons summer league head coach D.J. Bakker during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on July 13, 2019 in Las Vegas.

“The only thing I’ve learned in this process is that everything is day-to-day with COVID,” he said. “I don’t really know what is in store, but I keep myself readily available for the Cruise and for the Pistons. They’re still down bodies and I’m available, and the expectation is for me to continue to help them. That’s what I’m going to be prepared to do.

“Whatever they ask me to do, whatever they need me to do, that’s what I’m happy to do. And it goes back to what I said earlier. The purpose of the Motor City Cruise is to serve and assist the Pistons in any areas that they need. That’s the approach that I’m taking with my role.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

Next up: Knicks

Matchup: Pistons (5-27) vs. New York (15-18).

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday; Little Caesars Arena, Detroit.

TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WWJ-AM (950).

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons leaning on Motor City Cruise during COVID outbreak


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