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In axing Casey, has Masai Ujiri placed his own head on the chopping block?

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The Raptors GM did something very uncharacteristic in firing his coach. He acted rashly, and that might just leave the formerly untouchable GM at risk.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Masai Ujiri has proven himself to be a patient man. He resisted the calls to lop off Dwane Casey’s head after the ghastly series sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards in 2015 and was rewarded by the best three years in franchise history.

He ignored the seemingly yearly clamour to deal DeMar DeRozan, and now has a player who can legitimately be called an All-Star.

He decided to double down on last year’s core, even after LeBron James and the Cavs eviscerated it, and saw Toronto, for all the playoff hand-wringing, have a season 28 other NBA teams would have loved to have.

Previous to that, Masai beautifully out-waited the New York Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony deal, giving the Nuggets a trove of assets that led to a 57-win season and which were flipped into other assets the Nuggets still consider key today.

So, it’s not like he’s a man to make rash moves. Which is why his decision to fire Dwane Casey last week, as defensible as it may be, is also so out of character.

Masai has left himself exposed.

He’s sitting on a team, whose four “best” assets — in terms of players the team would presumably like to move, could fetch the most, and would do the most to reshape the team are all locked in for at least two more years. (I’m calling it that, since Jonas Valanciunas will likely opt into his $17.9 million player option in 2019-20.)

However, due a number of factors like the flat-lining cap, their fit in the modern NBA, desultory playoff resumes, Serge Ibaka, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, are all players who will be hard to move with even that relatively short amount of term left on their contract. Which means, the big shuffle that so many Raptors fans, expect and or hope for, may very well be another season down the road.

And that means those in the camp that the Raptors recent playoff disappointments are more a personnel issue than a coaching one, are going to get some ammo.

As a recent ESPN piece stated, the Raptors outperformed their RPM forecast in six of Casey’s seven seasons. Twice, by over ten wins. When Casey was fired the general reaction could be summed up in two camps: 1) those who felt Casey was one of the best people they had ever come across, and: 2) those who felt he had effectively maximized the talent at hand.

It’s entirely possible those people were wrong on the second point, and that the Raptors were, in some way, fundamentally mismanaged by Casey and his staff.

It’s also very possible, that the 2018-19 Raptors might find themselves taking a pretty big step back. Sure, part of it will be that there a bunch of good young teams on the rise in the East, but what if the Raptors sink back to 48 or 49 wins? That can’t all be explained by a healthy Boston, and an ascending 76ers. What if, instead of taking a step forward, a chunk of the Raptors young team stays stagnant, or, worse, regresses?

What if it becomes clear that this team is farther away then everyone thought? There’s an old adage in sports that goes something like this: once you fire the coach, all eyes look upstairs.

At that point, those eyes might start asking questions: Why did Ujiri offer a rich three-year deal to Serge Ibaka, when both his recent performances, and his time with the Raptors in 2017-18 suggested he might already be well into the declining phase of his career? Shouldn’t Ujiri have realized he was over-reacting to Norm Powell’s handful of great moments by handing him a $40+ million-dollar contract? Did Ujiri toss away a competitive Raptor team’s last chance to draft in the top-10, by effectively taking a back-up centre in Jakob Poeltl? (And, in a league where multi-position wings grow more and more important, if Taurean Prince continues his strong play, could Poeltl become one of the great ‘what if’ draft picks in franchise history?)

If Masai had continued to roll with Casey he would have caught a lot of flack. The Raptors may still have regressed. They may have been blown out, again, in the playoffs. But, just as many people would have defended holding onto a man who was both a Coach of the Year, and a beloved human being. And hell, under Casey’s proven hand, it’s possible the young core would have improved enough that Toronto, if the draw broke the right way, might have been good enough to beat all other comers and get back to a Conference Finals.

Either way, Ujiri could have waited a year to fire Casey, and then, with so many expiring contracts on the books, it would have been much easier to start a true re-tooling, or, maybe even a detonation.

Either way there, whatever came next with the new coach, would also come with a new roster — and Ujiri would have spared himself what could prove to be a very awkward season.

For a man whose proven himself so patient, and so strategic, it’s interesting that he would willingly take on that heat. Because if Ujiri can’t make any significant moves, and Toronto regresses, the next move might be to find his successor.