In certain circles of Raptors fandom, suggesting head coach Dwane Casey is great — or even good — at his job is heretical. He’s been in the position for six seasons now, a long time in NBA years, with only four coaches longer tenured. But Casey, unlike those others, has never won a title during his run with the Raptors. Without that pedigree in Toronto, Casey can’t avoid calls for his job. That peace of mind is reserved for only the top tier of the coaching class. And again, certain circles will say Casey is not, and will never be, in that club.
When Casey began in his tenure in Toronto, the team was in a hopeless state and it was his job to install the principles of discipline and growth that could potentially lead the team to something resembling success. Coupled with savvy personnel moves from Masai Ujiri, and some (dumb, James Dolan-related) luck, it worked. Casey oversaw the greatest run of achievements in franchise history — Atlantic division titles, two 50-win seasons, four straight playoff appearances, and even some series wins. It’s hard to overlook this track record. But today, with the Raptors having been rudely crushed by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the post-season (again), it will be done anyway. The team with Casey may have reached its peak, and there’s an argument to be made for moving on. Ujiri himself said today in his final address to the media: “We need a culture reset.”
The criticism of Casey’s coaching style hinges on a couple factors. Armed with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors were a good offensive team, rating-wise, for the entire season (and for much of the past four years). But their style of play, usually iso-heavy, was often ugly. Casey had faith in his team’s ability to score points (rightfully so, given his stars), but the Raps were also often exposed in the playoffs, by direct or indirect comparison to the whirring offensive juggernauts currently vying for an NBA title. On the other hand, as the architect behind the Mavericks’ title-winning defense in 2011, Casey has long been regarded as a defensive tactician. When he’s had the personnel to make his aggressive — some would say frenzied — schemes work, the Raptors have been in and around the top 10 in terms of defensive prowess. Casey has never been able to vault Toronto into the true lockdown team of his dreams, and at times this past season (mostly before the deadline trades), it felt like the Raptors were regressing. But Casey stuck by his principles regardless — it was admirable and maddening in equal measure.
Some of these lapses, on both ends of the court, can be ascribed to the players at hand. Casey cannot raise Jonas Valanciunas’ foot speed or innate IQ during a game, for example, or get Patrick Patterson to take and make his open 3s, or even push DeRozan to pass more ably out of double teams (though DeMar did figure some of that out on his own). But the disapproval of some of Casey’s decision making, in a micro sense and in the playoffs, feels fair. Most recently, the questions ring out: Why wait so long to break out Norman Powell against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1? Why bring in P.J. Tucker to bother LeBron, then not match his minutes with the King? Why rest DeRozan at the start of the fourth in Game 3 against Cleveland, with the slim hope of victory still on the line? This is a microcosm of the anti-Casey case. Throughout his tenure, Toronto has often looked reactive in all its manoeuvrings. It was rare for the Raps to enforce their style of play onto their opponents. (It was often hard to define what that style of play even was.) The players could be blamed, sure, but it still felt at times like a failure of imagination.
If this is the end for the Casey-Raptors partnership, let’s exercise some caution in celebrating too much. Even setting aside the previous five years, his work in this most recent season, one in which the Raptors survived so much, should earn Casey some plaudits. Remember: Toronto lost their presumptive starting power forward (Jared Sullinger) before the season began, ran with rookie Pascal Siakam in the starting lineup for 38 games, and powered through. The Raptors weathered injuries at unfortunate moments — there was the brief absence of DeRozan, and the untimely lack of Patterson, which led to all kinds of funky ad-hoc lineups. Meanwhile, with a roster split between young players and veterans, Casey kept the youth movement involved while managing the decline of the old (see: Carroll, DeMarre). Then he integrated two new players down the stretch (Tucker and Serge Ibaka), re-jigged his rotations again, and kept the team humming despite the massive absence of Lowry for 21 games. Yes, the Raptors looked flustered in the playoffs yet again, but this is still some commendable work over the long haul. The consistency, for better or worse, was always there.
It’s impossible to guess what a new coach could do for these Raptors — there are too many variables in play right now. The structure of the roster, including its keystone figure in Lowry, could be totally different in the next few months. Maybe a new coach could reinvent the offense, modernize it in some way, and squeeze out a couple more wins. Maybe the players will change from within and improve in some unforeseen way, or maybe their abilities have already been maximized. Maybe a bigger shakeup will be necessary regardless, that “culture reset” promised by Masai, to take the next step towards a championship.
Whatever happens, let’s take a step outside certain circles of Raptors fandom for a moment and say this: kudos to coach Dwane Casey for getting the Raptors through some great years.