Now, depending on who you ask, you’re either shocked by the news of Dwane Casey’s firing, or not at all.
For me, someone who has not been shy to call for a head coaching change during his tenure, Toronto changing course comes to me as both surprising and not. Some of the positives with Casey during his time with the Raptors was the slow process of a sustained culture of winning, and he didn’t just use his words, the actions from the players spoke, and the teams got better as the years progressed.
Getting to the playoffs five years in a row, after the franchise as a whole had been to the postseason a grand total of five times its first 13 years of existence, that was a major boost into the culture that both Casey and president Masai Ujiri wanted to implement going forward. He challenged his players to be better game after game, and was never satisfied with wins – he wanted to keep getting better. That’s someone you’d want to play for, because the expectations he imposed on you were challenging enough that you’d want to improve, not just for yourself, but for the betterment of the team.
At times Casey was out-coached. He was slow to react to the opposition's chess moves, and looked frantic or desperate to make things happen; forcing the issue, if you will. As a coach, you want to be the most prepared person in the room. To know the tendencies of your opponent, to take advantage of opportunities given to you, those are things that take a lot of time and experience to adapt.
It also helps that you have great players in your disposal, and one particular reason why Casey ended up canned after being swept by the Cavaliers (again), is because he was working with good-but-not-great players. DeMar DeRozan & Kyle Lowry are All-Stars, absolutely. They’re not household names outside of the country of Canada, heck, they’re probably not even household names outside of the Greater Toronto Area. They both improved their games, but not in the season that matters, and that happened to be the regular season.
We’re one season removed from the “culture reset,” which a year ago Masai Ujiri famously proclaimed that the Raptors had to do; 59 wins, the 1-seed in the East, and pretty much a lock for NBA Coach of the Year was not enough for Casey to retain his position as the head of the North.
Where I stand with the move is this: the Raptors are in the worst position you can think of in terms of their team status. They’re a good team, not good enough to be great, and other teams within the conference (Celtics, Sixers, Pacers, and Bucks for examples) are loaded with a lot of young talent and have a higher ceiling. The championship window for the Raptors is closing, and the Raptors need a leader with Championship pedigree to take them over the top. Whether it’s challenging DeMar & Kyle to take their games to another level and bring everyone along with them, or making the Raptors a team that the league will actually take seriously in the months of April & May, a lot of it falls on the roster, but it does start with the coach.
Everyone will be quick to point out that LeBron James is the reason for his dismissal, but you have to cut ties with mediocrity some time. If this is a Mark Jackson-Steve Kerr situation, then that’s what happens, but if not, it’s the risk you take in order to get better. Consistency with getting to the playoffs is good, but all that effort for early exits every year isn’t ideal, and something has to give. Being the first top seed in 49 years to get swept before the Conference Finals is frustrating, and patience is always key to building a sustained successful franchise, but you’ve got to make a move that doesn’t jeopardize the roster and send the Raptors back into the Dark Ages.
Dwane Casey is a good coach. He influenced the locker room in many ways in order for the Raptors to ascend into a team where people had to mention in the same breath of title contenders. Even if the results didn’t pan out, the fact that the inkling of respect was evident, was a lot. It was more than what was given to the Raptors in their franchise’s history, so Casey deserves a lot of credit for his contributions.
It’s time to look ahead as to what the future holds. Whether significant roster moves are coming (*cough* Ibaka *cough*) or if the Raptors land gold with a new coach, the state of the franchise is in limbo until further notice.
Thank you for your time, Dwane Casey, we’ll take it from here.
Where that may be? Hopefully upwards.