It’s been about 72 hours since Dwane Casey—the Toronto Raptors’ eighth head coach in 23 years—was fired, following a record-setting 59-23 mark in his last season. Casey is easily the winning-est coach in franchise history—not only in quantity of wins, but in winning percentage. Following Casey’s mark of .573 over 558 games is Lenny Wilkens, who amassed 113 total wins in 246 games, good for a .459 winning percentage.
It should come as no surprise then to see the outpouring of support for coach Casey in these few days following his dismissal (especially after this beautiful letter to the city). Some consider him the benchmark of excellence for the Raptors’ entire history, dating back to its 1995 inaugural season. It can be argued that no single person has had a bigger impact on the team than Casey, whose seven-year tenure in Toronto was the longest streak of any head coach in team history.
Despite being a franchise for 23 years now, most can understand the reality that a sports franchise isn’t born with an identity—it has to grow into one over time. This organic realization can only be achieved through both the experiences a team endures, and by the actions of the extraordinary individuals that come and go.
In that regard, Dwane Casey is the first figure in the team’s 23 year history that succeeded in installing a true identity for the team. The name “Raptors” now has a mental image to go along with it (aside from the logo). There’s a big-picture culture here that didn’t exist before Casey was hired, and his influence will linger inside the Air Canada Centre long after today.
With his influence established, where does this achievement rank among the legends in Raptors’ history?
5. Vince Carter
The prodigal son of Raptors basketball: Air Canada, Vinsanity, Half-Man, Half-Amazing—he meant something to us all during the heyday (2000-01 was a hell of a season). Sure, Raptors basketball would’ve survived without him, but the path this franchise took as a direct result of his influence is irreplaceable.
Carter launched the Raptors into the forefront of the minds of NBA fans world-wide with his dunk-a-palooza 18 years ago in Oakland. And while he didn’t exactly make Toronto a “destination” for free agents (Hi, Hakeem. Bye T-Mac), he put the city on the map for the rest of the league to notice.
Toronto has a love/hate relationship with the singer/songwriter/global ambassador. You either love his presence, or you hate it. For those that appreciate what Drake has done for the team, his influence is clear—he waves his pom-poms in whatever he does, and while he may attend a Warriors game this June, he still loves his home-town team.
With Drake’s presence coinciding with the franchise’s most successful stretch in its history, not only has he been able to talk the talk, his Raptors have thus far walked the walk—and that’s given the Raptors a renewed global presence. He’s been an irreplaceable figure in the marketing wing of the ACC for nearly five years, and it doesn’t look like Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will regret this decision anytime soon.
3. Bryan Colangelo
I know many will be yelling “pump the brakes” after reading that name, but allow me to make my case. At the time Colangelo was hired, the Raptors had just traded away Vince Carter for a candy wrapper and a player who ultimately refused to board the plane to Toronto, while somehow employing both Kevin O’Neill and Rob Babcock—this was dark time.
Toronto was desperate for anyone who could prove they had a working brain. What we got, surprisingly, was Bryan Colangelo, a suave, well-dressed career NBA professional whose father—under whom he was groomed—was responsible for constructing multiple championship-calibre Phoenix Suns teams. Colangelo would prove to be a prime-time gambler who handed out money like charity (which is what got him fired), but who also managed to conduct business in a way that allowed the Raptors and their fans to have some sense of self-respect for the first time in nearly five years. His seven years at the helm were a fitting transition into the state in which the franchise exists now. Remember: without Colangelo, there would be no DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto. He also hired the next guy on the list.
2. Dwane Casey
It seemed kitschy to put DC at number one, and while it’s really hard not to, I think that even Casey would understand—given his big-picture approach to everything he did. Casey was the foundation on which the most successful core has been able to prosper—with all the moving pieces he encountered eventually assimilating with ease.
No matter who came into town, Casey had that individual discovering their better selves in no time. He instilled an air of professionalism in the locker room that simply hadn’t existed before he arrived—which is something every person associated with the team has picked up on over time. Not only is he the most seasoned Raptors coach in history, he is the most successful in every measure. His impact is legendary.
1. Masai Ujiri
I guess it’s even more kitschy to pick the “Massiah” for the top pick, but he’s the obvious choice here. From “F*** Brooklyn” to his transcendent drafting ability, I wager nearly every fan trusts the words and decisions of Team President Masai Ujiri—and if he thinks the team needs a new voice, then that’s what we have to go with. Ujiri has proven more than enough times that he knows full-well what he’s doing.
All the sustained success we’ve enjoyed since 2013 would not have been possible if it wasn’t Ujiri himself watching over and tinkering with all of the team’s machinations. As the architect of the current version of the Raptors (with some borrowed pieces, of course), Ujiri has constructed a rock-solid foundation of productive talent in both the present and for the future. His ability to balance these two ideals is almost unparalleled in the league, and that alone makes him one of the most valuable figures in the entire NBA, let alone in the team’s 23 years. With that said, there has never been a more universally loved and trusted individual in this team’s history. Debate me.