We’ll have more analysis of the news tomorrow, but here’s my quick take: This should come as no surprise at all, though it would have seemed so at the beginning of the season.
When Masai Ujiri was brought in, many thought the writing was on the wall for Casey, since few general managers want to inherit a coach. However, as I pointed out at the time, GMs only get so many “bullets,” and the number of coaches a GM goes through can be a measure of the success of their tenure (unless somehow you have Joe Dumars’ leash). It didn’t make sense to fire him until he had to. He hasn’t had to and still doesn’t. There’s also the very real possibility that Ujiri has found himself a Casey fan after a year of working together, given what Casey’s accomplished and his perceived willingness to incorporate franchise goals into his strategy (more so towards the end of the year).
As for Casey’s accumen as a coach, it’s difficult to evaluate. He was solid in his first season when the team was admittedly tanking, somehow coaxing a decent defense out of a team that was led in minutes by a then-sieve-like DeMar DeRozan and noted liability Jose Calderon, flanked by help defender extraordinaire Andrea Bargnani, Leandro Barbosa, Aaron Gray, Gary Forbes and so on. Year two was nothing but turmoil and roster upheaval, but Casey then managed an average offense, though the defense tanked. Some of that was personnel, some noise, but through two seasons Casey had shown he could run a defense and at least not destroy an offense.
This season, he got more out of the team than the sum of their parts would dictate. The team finished in the top-10 on both ends of the floor, something only three other teams can boast about, despite a roster that doesn’t look exactly menacing on either end of the floor. The players clearly play hard for him, and the “never say die,” “fight to the final bell” attitude this team employs is an extension of Casey. Managing players, ego and motivation is a big part of coaching over an 82-game season, and Casey seems to have a handle on how to do that, at least with this core group.
He’s hardly a master tactician and probably needs an Xs & Os complement for the offensive end, but his defensive game plans are generally strong and he’s shown a willingness to adapt to the realities facing him, save for the whole John Salmons obsession. He’s not perfect, but few coaches are, and Casey is probably around average in overall quality, though you could argue a few spots below or above. Plus, there aren’t exactly a plethora of options waiting. Some like George Karl, who was Ujiri’s coach in Denver, and I’m a huge fan but it’s unclear if his system would fit with this roster. The Van Gundys aren’t taking this job. Really, outside of Karl, everyone either lacks a track record (which is fine) or isn’t an obvious upgrade (which isn’t).
The concern of some will be that we’ve been here before, when Bryan Colangelo inherited an unexpectedly successful team under Sam Mitchell, extended the coach and then went all-in. This isn’t the same, unless Ujiri likewise goes all-in (with the wrong pieces, no less). Ujiri doesn’t seem the type to have his hand forced and surely knows what happened with his predecessor.
Casey earned this extension with his work this season. His relationship with Kyle Lowry, the player development and the ability to be above-average on both ends of the floor, something few teams can manage, are worthy of praise. He has flaws and I know some don’t like him or that he’s not “Ujiri’s guy,” but I’m more than okay with this. He earned this contract with his work this season.