The Raptors dismissed head coach Dwane Casey last week, a move that shocked no one but saddened everyone. I’ve got some thoughts to share on Coach Casey, and the future of the Raptors head coach role.
I Hate the Decision, but I Get It
Dwane Casey is, very clearly, a good basketball coach. So let’s get that out of the way. Bad coaches don’t continually improve and lead a team to the playoffs five years in a row (especially without a genuine superstar).
But, Casey and the Raptors failed to meet expectations in the playoffs. It’s pretty much that simple. The franchise’s goal, and expectation, is postseason results; not even necessarily a title, but deep playoff runs, lots of home games, competitive basketball to keep “Jurassic Park” jumping, etc. Dwane Casey is a good coach, but for all of his coaching acumen, his teams were swept out of the playoffs three times, and in none of those losses were they particularly competitive. And we all know that 4-2 loss to Cleveland in 2016 was more lopsided that the results suggest.
It’s possible—and Masai Ujiri is banking on this—that Casey is a great regular season coach, capable of building a great program but unable to make the adjustments needed to win in the postseason; that postseason success is only a new coach away.
It’s also entirely possibly that the roster is flawed, and that Casey had eked the very last ounce out of this team that he could, in both the regular season and the playoffs.
But as the old adage goes, you can’t fire the players. Now, Ujiri will have a season with this core (which is likely to be back, given their contract status) and a new voice at the top. If they exceed the high bar the Casey-led team set, great! And if the results are the same, trading players with one season left on their contracts and overhauling the roster next summer (when your main players have fewer years left on their contract) should be easier than doing it this summer.
Defense Wins Championships, but a Lack of it Can Get You Fired
Perhaps the thing that contributed to Casey’s firing the most, in my mind, is that he was always considered a defense-first coach, but the defense failed so badly against Cleveland. We all heard LeBron talk about how Casey’s D made him a better player, and how many times did we excuse any Raptors offensive shortcomings (like the past overuse of iso-ball) by saying, “offense isn’t Casey’s forte”? But Casey couldn’t devise anything to slow down this version of LeBron James and the Cavaliers’ offense—three straight years.
It’s not just that the Raptors lost, or even that they got swept: it’s that the Cavs’ offense scored with such ease. And it’s not just LeBron; the Cavs’ supporting cast, all but invisible at times against other opponents (and most notably this year, against Indiana) plays their best ball against Toronto. They look like they’re barely breaking a sweat, getting whatever they want whenever they want it. That the Raptors looked so helpless would be an indictment of any coach, but particularly one with Casey’s defensive reputation.
I truly don’t think this is about “they’re playing LeBron, he can’t be beaten!” I think this is about, “you’ve had multiple cracks at LeBron and didn’t push him and the Cavs once.”
Don’t Discount the Role Indiana Played in This Decision
Speaking of that, I have to wonder, if the Cavs had swept through the Pacers in round one and then swept the Raptors in round two, would Casey still be the coach?
That would suggest playoff LeBron is simply unstoppable and no coach can beat him, not without multiple all-time great players on his roster.
But the Pacers did push the Cavs, nearly to the brink. They proved that Cleveland is mortal: The Cavs lost three games, by 18, 34(!) and two points; they won four, by three, four, three and four points, respectively.
I know the Pacers and Raptors are different teams with different personnel, but that result matters. (The Celtics winning game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals easily doesn’t help the case either, after the fact.) The Pacers were a five-seed who won 11 fewer games than the one-seeded Raptors, and yet played significantly better basketball than the Raptors against Cleveland.
Look, respect to the Pacers and all, but that team should not have been able to hold the Cavaliers to 18.5 fewer points per possession than the Raptors. (And my God, look at those turnover numbers!)
Casey is the Best Coach in Raptors History
And it’s not close, even remotely. He’s the only coach with a winning record, which alone gets him the nod, but three straight 50-win seasons (no Raptors team had ever won more than 47), five straight playoff appearances (Lenny Wilkens had three) and four playoff series victories (Wilkens had 1) put him far and above the field.
It’s easy to forget, too, that despite the “lack of postseason success” that likely cost Casey his job, that limited success is still better than anyone else has had here in Toronto. That definitely speaks to the underwhelming teams the Raptors trotted out in their first 18 years of existence (and yes, Lenny Wilkens’ 8-9/.471 record is technically better than Casey’s 21-30/.412) but for longtime fans of the franchise, who endured only five playoff seasons total in those 18 years before the current run, this sustained postseason presence means something.
Casey was also one of the best human beings the franchise has ever employed as well. He didn’t try and sue a former player, he didn’t smash lamps, he didn’t challenge players to fistfights in the locker room. He was a gentleman.
I’m going to miss Casey, for many reasons. His letter to Toronto pretty much sums up why.
Is This a Desirable Job?
John Gaudes has your candidate search recap here, but I wonder: Is this a job a potential head coach would want?
On the surface, absolutely it is: Playoff-ready roster, good mix of vets and youth, great GM, supportive ownership, etc.
But, this is a team coming off its best regular season ever, and, essentially, seven straight seasons of improvement and growth. That is a damn high bar; any new coach is always up against the spectre of his or her predecessor, but when that predecessor was highly successful, that’s a difficult situation to be in. How does it look if a new coach comes in and can’t get the same results with the same roster? Of course there are many, many outside factors, most notably, what other teams (and LeBron) do; but that won’t be the narrative. The narrative will be, “the Raptors brought in a new coach and nothing changed”, and then the new coach immediately becomes a scapegoat.
And if the roster does get blown up next summer, that coach is stuck with a rebuilding team, one that perhaps they didn’t sign on for.
Perhaps another way to look at it is by posing a common question every potential hire should ask in any job interview: “What does success look like in this role?”
The simple answer for the Raptors head coach is: Beat LeBron James in the playoffs.
Which is something not one single Eastern Conference coach has done since Doc Rivers in 2010.
Good luck, incoming Raptors coach!
Back at the end of the regular season, I wrote about the Raptors window being open “now”, in the 2018 postseason. Next year may be too late; Philadelphia and Boston are going to come back better. Milwaukee, Indiana, and Washington could all improve ahead of next year, and who knows where LeBron will go.
The Raptors may well have missed that window. Masai Ujiri believes a new coach can prop it open just a little longer, but LeBron James may have slammed it shut and locked it tight in that round two sweep.