Forty-five games into the regular season and it can be concluded that this has been the best season in Toronto Raptors franchise history thus far. Their 31-wins through 45 games is a franchise high and their 112.9 offensive rating is the highest in the team’s history.
DeMar DeRozan, the team’s leading scorer for the last five seasons, is having another career year, this time by improving his long-range shooting and play-making ability. Rookie OG Anunoby is proving to be a steal as the 23rd overall pick. Kyle Lowry continues to be the engine to the roster, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka are rounding into form playing alongside each other, Fred VanVleet is stealing the hearts of Raptor fans, and Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl are two sophomores that are at times playing like veterans.
There really isn’t a dark spot to this roster that general manager Masai Ujiri has built, and the GM is getting a lot of credit for finding ways to improve this roster every year.
But one man is flying under the radar and he’s probably having a career year himself. Dwane Casey, the Raptors head coach, in most ways is having his greatest coaching season since taking over the Raptors in 2011.
A coach is normally graded on a team’s record, and with the Raptors posting a franchise high 31 wins through 45 games, it’s easy to say Casey is having a great year. However, Casey’s ability to take the Raptors to a new level is beyond just the numbers.
Let’s not forget that after the 2016-17 season, Ujiri told the media in his season-end press conference that the franchise needed a “culture reset.” Ujiri also wasn’t quick to confirm that Casey would be back as coach, but with still two-years left on his three-year deal, Casey is standing tall.
Ujiri and Casey worked together on the culture reset, they pitched it to Lowry and DeRozan and everyone else has bought in.
Isolation offense wasn’t working for the Raptors, who ranked 27th in the league in passes per game (273.4) in 2016-17 and dead-last in assists per game at 18.5. This season they’ve climbed out of the bottom 10 in passes per game (291.8) and are 13th in assists per game.
Going beyond the numbers, Casey has this team playing as one. There’s an atmosphere in the locker room of unity — some of that has to do with the player leadership DeRozan and Lowry bring, and the other is Casey’s ability to allow the young guys to play more freely this year.
Take Valanciunas as an example: Casey did almost everything to try and get the centre going early in games last season, but Valanciunas just looked uncomfortable and unable to be the consistent scorer the Raptors needed. Valanciunas is seeing less time with his back to the basket — averaging about three post-ups per game versus 4.4 last season — which has allowed him to play with a little more freedom on the floor. Jonas is even bombing threes now!
Casey’s also had his teams back, and that can be easily proven during the end of the Raptors game on December 29th versus Atlanta. Anunoby stole the ball late against the Hawks, which led to a dunk and an angry Hawks head coach. Mike Budenholzer had a few choice words for the rookie, but Casey quickly stepped in and had Anunoby’s back.
Casey knows he’s got a young team and he’s handled each individual well, through the good and bad. (I’m looking at Norman Powell here.)
At the end of last season, Ujiri made it clear that Casey struggled to find a solid fit with the trade deadline additions of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. This year, Casey had a full pre-season, but the change of play for the Raptors needed to be made with the young players learning a new system. Everyone’s adjusted smoothly, and Casey and his staff deserve the credit for that.
It was Ujiri’s idea for a culture reset, DeRozan took it upon himself to create a long-range game and pass the ball more, he and Lowry have taken charge on the culture reset, and the young guys have all bought in. However, Casey’s ability to trust all his guys — even the young ones — has allowed this culture reset to make the Raptors into one of the NBA’s best.
Casey was named December’s Coach of the month and on Jan. 11 versus Cleveland on national TV, Jeff Van Gundy listed Casey among the NBA’s best coaches. He has 290 wins with the Raptors and has the best winning percentage amongst Raptors head coaches in franchise history.
Casey may have not suggested the culture reset, but the way he’s coaching one of the NBA’s best and youngest rosters, he’s simply quieted the haters.