Dwane Casey was born in 1957, one year before the band the Impressions — original members: Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Sam Gooden, Arthur and Richard Brooks — was formed. The group would peak in the mid to late 60s with hits like “People Get Ready” and their album This Is My Country. I have no reason to believe Casey is a fan of the Impressions given that they were at their best when he was about nine years old. (Though I’m confident Casey has at least heard of Curtis Mayfield or Jerry Butler, both of whom had visible and successful solo careers.)
In any case (no pun intended), I was listening to the aforementioned album, 1968’s This Is My Country, on Tuesday night. This, just a couple days before we’d all get the news that after seven years together, Casey was to be fired by the Raptors. Somehow, even in that moment, it felt like each song was narrating the time that had passed between Casey and Toronto. Now Dwane has been fired, and we’re left to doing some emotional arithmetic to figure out what it means for the franchise going forward.
To help with that, let’s go back to the beginning with Casey, Toronto, and the Impressions.
Before being hired by the Raptors for the 2011-12 season, Casey worked as an assistant for the Dallas Mavericks. He was coming off a championship year, having just won the title with the Mavs (and vanquishing LeBron James and the Heat in the process).
While management and team owners tend to hold much of the power in these types of negotiations — with the hopeful coach talking of their plans and qualifications — it is easy to see a situation in which Casey could regale his future boss (Bryan Colangelo) of all the intangibles and leadership he’d bring to the table given his championship pedigree and experience. I imagine it went something like this:
Here’s Toronto lamenting “funny they think / we have no one to lead us” and Casey, coming on the scene with a confident rejoinder: “They don’t know.”
So Casey signs on, done and done. He’s the team’s eighth coach in history, and he inherits a team that just went an absolutely atrocious 22-60, the second worst season in franchise history. On top of that, there’s an NBA lockout going on, and games wouldn’t resume until Christmas Day that year.
Still, the Raptors knew they had their man.
Of course, that first year, the 2011-12 season, was mostly bad for Toronto and Casey. The Raptors were still terrible, “led” as they were by Andrea Bargnani, to a 23-43 record. Casey was dealing with the oft-injury Linas Kleiza, butting heads with a young and headstrong James Johnson, and his best veteran was Leandro Barbosa.
It takes a lot of personal discipline and perserverance to not totally lose one’s mind here, is my point.
These lines in particular are instructive:
And there is nothing
I finally found that out
I’m loving nothing
It’s hard to believe
But without a doubt
There’s not even a kiss of tenderness
Jose Calderon was on this doomed squad too, and while I can’t confirm he’d give anyone a kiss of tenderness (let alone one to his coach), I’d like to believe he offered some form of tenderness to the beleaguered Casey. It was a tough time in Toronto.
The times would continue to be tough for 2012-13, and not just because the Raptors would trade ultimate good guy Calderon for Rudy Gay. At the time, Toronto needed a wing, and they needed someone who could score. They also needed to find more minutes for their latest point guard Kyle Lowry. It was up to Casey to get all of these guys, plus a young DeMar DeRozan, to buy in.
This general sentiment above is one of belief in a brighter future, see lines like “And let me show you the way / to love’s happening”. But there’s also an acknowledgement that things need to change first — “give him up (give him up, give him up)”.
Casey had to work with what he had, but at 34-48 by season’s end, it could always be better. Now, is this aforementioned “him” in the latter lyric a reference to Gay or Bargnani? Maybe it’s both — or perhaps it was GM Bryan Colangelo, who was gradually squeezed out of Toronto by Masai Ujiri around this time. Whatever the case may be, things started to turn around in a big way.
This was essentially the last season of innocence for Toronto, when there were absolutely zero expectations. I wouldn’t call this feeling a “prized possession” as we hear below, but it was definitely the end of something.
We can rhyme off what happened next by memory. After Ujiri dumped Bargnani in the off-season, the team reversed course with Gay and flipped him for a cadre of bench players. Under the guidance of Casey, and now playing with clearly defined roles, Lowry and DeRozan flourished, the extended Raptors’ roster came together, the team made the playoffs and had a decent shot of making it out of the first round. They didn’t, but we were filled with hope anew.
The 2014-15 season was exciting for the same reason. Once again Casey was tasked with installing some new players, like Lou Williams, and keeping the organization balanced between player development (hello Bruno Caboclo!) and success in the post-season (soldier on Amir Johnson!). It proved to be something of a disaster, as the Raptors flamed out spectacularly in the playoffs, losing 4-0 in the first round to the Wizards.
Naturally, we figured Casey would be fired.
I won’t lie, this song provides some pretty serious foreshadowing of what was to come — delayed by a few years, but inevitable nonetheless.
You told me that you wanted my respect
And girl I’m trying to do my best
Your love I try to earn
But what did I get in return
I’m trying to maintain my cool
But you know I’m still (being a fool)
Many accused the Raptors (and Casey by association) of being foolish as the franchise kicked off the 2015-16 season. This time Toronto brought in a bunch of new players — DeMarre Carroll, Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola — while welcoming James Johnson back, and two rookies of varying importance at the time (Delon Wright and Norman Powell).
Behind some strange alchemy, the Raptors had their most successful season as a franchise to date, with 56 wins and grinding climb all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Was it always pretty? Did we always enjoy watching it? No, maybe not — but the Toronto Raptors, former joke of the league, had ascended into a showdown with LeBron. They’d gotten crushed, but it was a step in the right direction. It was the first of three times Casey would get a crack at James — and each match-up was about as melancholic as the next song suggests:
Still, the Raptors have to keep trying, which brings us to the 2016-17 season, which, if you’ll recall, was in danger of careening off the path of success. For my money, there was a stretch in this season that was amongst Casey’s strongest. He was starting a rookie at power forward (Pascal Siakam), and relying on Patrick Patterson, who later got injured. Prior to the deadline trades for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Casey had to jig and re-jig his lineups every night to make things happen.
And still the Raptors carried on. They’d finish the year with merely 51 wins and a second date with LeBron. Casey had to integrate two key contributors as the season wound down and deal with a wrist injury to Lowry that saw him miss most of the team’s games during that same stretch. It was... something.
This was coaching on pure belief and will. It was a struggle, but the Raptors made it through (setting aside, you know, getting crushed by LeBron again in the playoffs).
So why not re-tool and try again? That was the impetus behind the 2017-18 season, one that saw a full on youth movement and a stylistic overhaul for the Raptors. And there was Casey at the head of it, managing a roster of veterans and young guns, figuring out a rotation that made sense, and overseeing a complete, yes, culture reset. This, from a coach who’d began in Toronto with one type of team, one type of style, one set of goals, and had progressed through it all to the other end of the spectrum.
We were collectively losing our minds as the Fun and Good Raptors amassed 59 wins and their first ever first place berth in the Eastern Conference.
But there’s a dark side here: for all of Casey’s qualities, the team’s second round series against the Cavaliers this season, the Raptors’ third in a row, turned out to be an outright debacle. In the process, it exposed the perceived flaws of Casey’s style. All of the questions about his ability to adjust on the fly and maximize his lineup combos in the hothouse of the playoffs came to the fore once again. Had we been fooled — as the song suggests: “Cause I’m a fool for ya” — or was it just time for a change?
Whatever else we can now say about Casey, he’s secured his place in Raptors history and lore. Whenever we think about the team’s accomplishments, compare and contrast them, or whatever else, Dwane’s name will come up again and again. He’s the guy that helped shepherd the Raptors from the absolute basement of the NBA to where they are now. The progress of Lowry and DeRozan, the growth of the Bench Broskis, the ins and outs of various players, attitudes, injuries, and other changes — there are many people to thank for it all coming together as it did, but Casey was the one with his hand on the wheel.
No, the Raptors didn’t reach the mountaintop, but they’re still climbing. I’ll just let the next song play us out.