It is fine for Ujiri to preach the value of chemistry and internal growth for now, since a core-altering move for a legitimate star is likely a year or two away. Following the playoffs, the Raptors now have a reputation as a plucky team that displays cohesiveness, as well as one of the most memorable home playoff crowds in recent league history. That all makes the Raptors look very good to anybody who is paying attention — opposing players, agents, potential draft picks. At the end of Tuesday’s press conference, Ujiri made a point of giving credit to ex-Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo, who hired Casey and acquired all five of the Raptors’ starters. Even at the beginning of the season, Ujiri said the same, saying Colangelo made some savvy moves. “We have to do our jobs,” Ujiri said. “We get hired to be fired. Sometimes we’re going to do some things that are not so good and some things that are good. I think the guy did an unbelievable job.”
I think that’s the crux of the matter in the eyes of most fans. No one’s dismissing the job Casey did, but like Sam Mitchell before him, was Casey the best option in terms of guiding this club beyond the first round of the playoffs? If you’re in the camp that is already shaking their head in disagreement, the next piece then is who would be a preferred option? Most of the more renowned strategists in the NBA are already under contract, and if you’re going to throw out names like Stan Van Gundy, it can’t be in a vacuum. One must remember that any coaching change that’s made by necessity disrupts the club and its current chemistry, granted, an amorphous concept, but one that I would say this season was proven to be a reality just by listening to the players’ exit interviews with the media yesterday. So to me, if you’re going to replace Casey, you need to be sure you’re getting a serious upgrade and unfortunately Tom Thibodeau, Greg Popovich and Rick Carlisle aren’t walking through that door.
“I’ll never forget, I think I told Masai. It was the Washington game right after the all-star break, I had each player sign — and it probably wouldn’t hold up in court — a document committing to the team,” Casey said. “Committing to the process. Leaving their egos at the door.” Even though the trade deadline was imminent, and even though he had nearly been dealt to the New York Knicks that week, Kyle Lowry wasted no time setting the tone. “Kyle was the first to jump up and sign it. Everybody, Paulie (Elliott, the assistant travel manager), Kevin (Dipietro, the equipment manager and travel coordinator for the team), the whole travelling party, the trainer, Scott (McCullogh), Alex (McKechnie, director of sports science), everybody signed it.”
Can Casey be a better coach? Sure, and he’ll the first to admit that there things he can learn and be better at. A bit more creative offensively would be the strategic thing that would be near the top of the list but so much of “coaching” in the NBA these days is delivering a message and getting 15 often diverse personalities with different needs to consistently buy into it. With this hiring, and it should become official later on this morning, the Raptors have sent a clear message to the players and the league: This is what we are, this is who we are and the direction is clear. Since the history has been so foggy at times, it’s a timely message that does speak to continued “culture change.”
Casey will be paid $11.25 million over the course of his new deal, with the Raptors holding a team option on the third and final year. “From day one last summer Dwane has done an excellent job both on-and-off the court,” said Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri in a team statement. “There’s been growth from each player on the roster and the team’s identity of toughness and a desire to always compete has clearly been established.”
The way Casey guided the Raptors through a season that was at times turbulent was what caught Ujiri’s eye and led him to decide on a new three-year deal. Through the upheaval of December’s Rudy Gay trade, Casey remained the same. Facing the very real possibility that Ujiri would completely blow the team up at February’s trade deadline, the coach did not flinch. Knowing that a horrid season might scar his personal win-loss record so badly he’d never get a sniff at another head coaching position, the 57-year-old Kentuckian did not vary from what he knew to be right. He told the players to hang in and follow his lead and it would work out. He did not let trade rumours disrupt the team, he did not let his own situation cloud his judgment. “Once he (Ujiri) decided I was the guy he wanted to lead the team (for the duration of the 2013-14 season), I had no other thoughts except to lead this team to where we needed to go,” Casey said. “I was focused and hopefully it bled over into the team, the consistency. I think the most important thing you can do as a coach is be consistent. I felt like I was that way throughout the year. I never talked about the contract, never worried about it and I think that was why we could be consistent as a team. . . . If I was emotionally up and down, then your team is going to be up and down.”
“We plan on growing as a team,” Ujiri said. “I’m not going to make any crazy, quick-fix decisions here. We want to keep building and one of the things we’ve talked about is continuity.” If you take one thing away from Tuesday’s proceedings it’s that message. Ujiri has every intention of doubling down on this past season’s surprising success. Naturally, Casey was the first domino, a quick decision, no-brainer and an easy deal to get done. In his third year with Toronto, Casey led his team to a division title and franchise-record 48-win season before bowing out in the seventh game of the conference quarterfinals. He has more than earned the opportunity to stay on and see this through. In fact, Ujiri was hoping to open talks of an extension with his coach in late March, but as the team stumbled – they had lost four of six games at the time – Casey’s preference was to hold off until the end of the season. With that said, the 57-year-old never intended to test the market or throw his hat in the ring for another job. He felt it would be disingenuous and knew where he wanted to be. “My heart is here, my mind is here,” Casey said. “I’m committed to this organization and to these players going forward.”
“As far as I’m concerned, keeping our core group going forward, with Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and (Patrick) Patterson and Nando (de Colo), those guys are priorities for us. And if you want to build, I think, a team where we have young players, we have to build continuity,” Ujiri said. Lowry, the star point guard who has a shot at making the All-NBA third team, is an unrestricted free agent, available to the highest bidder. The Raptors hold the cards with the other three, though they would have a choice to make should another team make an expensive offer, hoping the Raptors opt not to match. Patterson would be the most likely to receive such an offer.
“Negotiating is easy for me if we want Kyle to be here and Kyle wants to be here,” the GM said. “Negotiating becomes tough when either party maybe does not want the player to be here or the player does not want to be here. “I think we’ll be fair with Kyle and we’ll figure it out. I think it’s important. He has grown as a person tremendously to be coached and to work with. His teammates, everybody has said that. We’re very proud of him “We’re optimistic stuff will happen.”
A number of teams – the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings pop to mind – have a need for a top flight point guard and could have the cap room to offer Lowry a rich contract. The Raptors need to be patient and see what the market dictates while also keeping an eye on other pieces like Reggie Jackson (restricted free agent) and Isaiah Thomas (unrestricted free agent). Both players are young, talented point guards who may come cheaper than Lowry. Jackson has played well in a reserve role for the Oklahoma City Thunder and he played well in a starting role while filling in for an injury Russell Westbrook. He has a strong bond with Kevin Durant but he has also stated a desire this summer to try to secure a starting role via free agency. It’s also worth noting that Oklahoma City probably won’t match an offer of more than $8 million per season due to already being pushed close to the salary cap. Both Jackson and Thomas serve as solid Option B’s for the Raptors. Or, if Lowry’s asking price gets too steep, they may serve as better options than retaining Lowry.
I was walking home at around midnight and passed by the Petro Canada at Spadina and Wellington. There were three cars parked in it; a white E-class Mercedez, a White BMW 7 Series and a white Range Rover. I saw a guy who looked like Lowry filling up the BMW. I wasn’t sure it was him until I realized it was the same black T-shirt I saw Kyle wearing in his press conference a couple hours earlier. I ran up to him and all I could think of to say in the heat of the moment was “YOU’RE THE MAN KYLE!!!”.. he looked up from his phone and said “Thanks man!”. And that was it. Biggest regret of my life was not taking a pic. I just feel bad harassing the dude. Had a pretty rough week to say the least.
If Toronto is looking to improve, how about Amir/Salmons for David Lee? GSW starts Johnson at the 4, and clears some cap space by waiving Salmons. Toronto gets a scoring PF to pair with Valanciunas for a couple of seasons.
Valanciunas is exactly the kind of player you want working with Olajuwon: young enough for the tutorial to have a tangible impact, but skilled enough to understand the nuances of movement required to develop a truly effective low-post repertoire. Following a stellar showing by Valanciunas in last year’s Las Vegas Summer League, the expectations were for a monumental leap in his second year. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the Lithuanian center showed enough improvement to reinforce his All-Star potential—even if it winds up being a year deferred. So long as he’s charging what he does for his (quite specialized) expertise, Olajuwon will likely never outrun accusations of selling basketball snake oil. But if you’re the Toronto Raptors—young, hungry, coming off a disappointing seven-game playoff loss and with one of the game’s best young bigs at your disposal—the potential reward is more than worth the risk.