In closing out the 2016-17 season with his usual “B.S.” media availability, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri uttered two words that will reverberate through the long, difficult offseason: “Culture reset.” Normally, either one of those words suggest wide-scale changes, and putting the two of them together would seem, on the surface, to be Ujiri taking a blow torch to the seat of head coach Dwane Casey, decidedly heating it up.
To be clear, Ujiri’s 41-minute press conference was rife with great quotes and tea leaves for the reading but light on actual answers. In talking to other writers and readers after the session, people seemed to come away split on whether the totality of Ujiri’s words spelled the end for Casey in Toronto or whether it was a tepid but ultimately still placed vote of confidence in giving Casey another shot. The split takeaways are likely due to the fact that Ujiri himself has not decided, which is at the very core of why he thinks an end-of-season presser is a waste of everyone’s time.
“(If) I came in here and said we are going to decide we are going to do this and this and this, I think I would be a bad leader, right? One day after you lose?” Ujiri explained. “Is there any decision I can make right now that is the right decision today? I can’t tell you I’ve made a decision on anything. I wish I could, I’ll take the questions…I hate to be like this, but I would be a bad leader if I come to you today and I tell you that, ‘Okay, we are not bringing back Kyle or okay we are bringing back Kyle or we are going young, or we are not bringing back Pat or we are bringing back Serge. I don’t know that I can make that decision, that we collectively can make that decision today.”
What Ujiri was very clear about, though, is that whatever path the Raptors take – a tear-down, spending into the tax to keep the core together, any tweaks in between – things are going to need to change. The Raptors have enjoyed the best four-year stretch in franchise history, and there’s great value in that. There was value, too, in trying to run everything back this past season and see if the team and system could take another step forward. But they didn’t, and the accountability for that stagnation is going to be shared across the front office, the players, and yes, the coaching staff.
“Let’s call a spade a spade. The end of the year was disappointing for us. That series was disappointing for us,” Ujiri said. “We thought we could do better. I don’t know what it is. We’ve started to study it and I can’t tell what exactly it is…We are going to hold everybody accountable because we need to. After that performance, we need a culture reset here. We need to figure it out.”
The way the Raptors have approached things the past few years assures them of certain things: A competitive team that will finish safely above .500, one that will post a top-10 offense, and one that will probably be able to put itself in a position to win at least one playoff series. The defense took a step forward late in the year, too, as the personnel improved. That’s a good baseline for a team, and the Raptors can rest easy knowing they’ve accomplished the innocent climb portion of the team development cycle.
That’s not where the Raptors want to end, though, and it’s taking the next step that’s much more difficult. It’s that step that makes the offseason so complicated and renders it lacking a right or wrong answer. Whatever way the Raptors go, it will be with the aim of eventually being able to win a title.
“Yes, there’s been some success, but at the end of the day we are trying to win a championship here. To me making the playoffs is nothing,” Ujir said. “That was back in the day. Now we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal…And that’s our job. That’s what we are going to try and figure out. Whether it’s now or in the future, I have to figure that out.”
If nothing else, Ujiri was adamant that what the Raptors have been doing won’t continue. If they evaluate things and deem that this core can’t reach the height they want to reach, then they’ll take a step back. If they decide there’s enough talent and momentum to try again, then they’ll do so in a much different fashion. Either of those decisions cast the future of Casey into doubt some.
In a vacuum, Casey probably does not deserve to be fired. He is the best and most successful head coach in Raptors history, and he does a lot of the macro elements of coaching well. The stars buy in, the role players know and accept their roles, the young players develop well, and the Raptors were in a position to be a very good team four years running in part because of what Casey has helped create. He is also, by all accounts, a terrific human being, and his players speak the world of him when it comes to matters of relationships and quality of people. It’s difficult to find anyone willing to say an unkind word about Casey the person. Casey the head coach, though, has struggled with some of the micro elements of the job. His play-calling late in games can run redundant, his adjustments, while often eventually good ones, usually come between games rather than during them or proactively before them, he can be slow to make bigger-picture changes.
There’s also the matter of his not-so-occasional butting of heads with star free agent Kyle Lowry, and there were rumblings before Lowry’s last contract that his camp suggested maybe a coaching change was in order. Lowry has, from time to time, taken what appeared to be veiled shots at Toronto’s system in general or inability to adjust it. All involved downplay any disagreements as nothing more than the usual fires of competition, and Ujiri surely won’t let a player’s whims dictate such a decision.
“Honestly, I’ve thought about it, and they’ve bumped heads,” Ujiri conceded. “We can come here and say all the right things to you guys and blah blah blah. When it’s time to work, they work. That’s the bottom line. And I think we make this argument, do they bump heads, do they do this? At the end of the day, last year 56, this year 51. So they should hold hands and sing hurrah and kiss and do whatever they want to do and we win 30 games, what the hell is that doing for anybody? Nothing. Zero.”
Mental image of Casey and Lowry holding hands during timeouts aside, Ujiri once again gives the impression the coaching decision will be one of system rather than personality. The degree to which the failures of the system fall on Casey is likewise mixed. It is archaic, to be sure, but the Raptors have enjoyed a great deal of regular-season success scoring the basketball. Given how much noise there was in the previous two playoffs runs (an injury to Lowry against the Wizards, injuries to both Lowry and DeMar DeRozan last year), the team was probably justified in wanting more information about how it could translate to the playoffs. It didn’t, again, and as the sample grows, the list of caveats and qualifiers to describe the chasm between 82-game offense and seven-game offense begin to fall to the side.
Casey’s offense isn’t quite as isolation-heavy as some make it out to be, but with two of the best players in the NBA at creating points on the drive, it’s been built around putting Lowry and DeRozan into positions to attack. That’s meant a lot of high screen-and-roll to get Lowry a head of steam, and it’s meant a lot of action to get DeRozan in a position to attack one-on-one. Again, given the personnel, it’s a reasonable approach, but as Ujiri suggests, it might just be easier to slow down in a playoff environment where teams have more time to study and the Raptors’ role players are forced to do more. This has always been a question, it was just one with a very noise sample to answer it with. The lack of 3-point shooting volume is glaring, too. Through either of those threads, it’s unclear how much a change in approach would have brought better results – the Raptors’ non-All-Stars are pretty thin when it comes to passing and playmaking, and only three rotation players were above-average 3-point shooters. The team thinks DeRozan’s adaptable to a new system, but if the ball wasn’t in the hands of Lowry and DeRozan as much, the Raptors may have been even worse off. The problem, as always, is that there are no controlled experiments. The one they’ve run has struggled four times in a row.
However much of the blame falls on each pillar of the team’s structure, things need to change.
“There are things that I question, you know, like I think our style of play is something we are going to really evaluate. Like, how we play,” Ujiri said. “I think there are times that I think coach did a great job and I think there are times that we struggled.”
This all seems to point toward a change at the helm. Again, Casey is a good coach and there is a lot of nuance in evaluating a system, but there’s also not a large body of evidence supporting that Casey can be the one to steer a changing ship. There’s not necessarily evidence he can’t, either, and the playbook he and Nick Nurse rely on is much bigger than they normally show. But the Raptors want a fundamental shift, and that often means a shift in leadership. There are optics involved, too, and a more general philosophical question as to whether it makes sense to bring all of the same pieces back without making at least one notable change, even if that change isn’t borne of abject failure. Change isn’t good just for the sake of it, but neither is inertia.
Through all of this, Ujiri seemed to offer support that he believes Casey can be the one to lead the shift, and that Casey has acknowledged the need for change (which the coach himself did Monday).
“My short answer to that, honestly, is yes, there is commitment,” Ujiri said. “But we are all going to seriously question ourselves now, and figure out the best way to do it. Because Coach Casey has been a phenomenal part of our success here, and in some ways, we owe that to him. But I’ve told him that we all have to be accountable.”
It’s all very noisy, and the thermometer on that vote of confidence reveals a fairly tepid reading. Breaking the offseason down into a probability tree gets even clunkier, not more revealing. Blow it up, and Casey might cede control to a fresh voice like Jerry Stackhouse, who did a terrific job with Raptors 905. Decide to compete again and maybe Casey’s given a year to implement system changes, or maybe he’s pushed aside for Nurse, Rex Kalamian, or an outside hire, though the market isn’t exceptionally deep with proven names. Ettore Messina might be at the top of the list of external candidates, and Ujiri was clear the team wants to think progressively, so there’s nothing to suggest NBA head coaching experience would be mandatory. Every option brings with it uncertainty and risk. Retaining Casey eliminates that but also introduces the perception of a ceiling.
For now, nothing has changed. Casey is the head coach, and depending on how the dominoes fall when Lowry makes his free agent decision, the system will be reshaped and the culture will be reset. Unfortunately, the Raptors will probably want to make a call on their path behind the bench earlier than Lowry’s decision, as it could inform their approach to the draft and offseason. This may not have been Ujiri’s last media availability for the time being. Like he always says, one or two days after the season is a “B.S.” time for answers, and everything will take some time to be evaluated. Whether that evaluation deems it fair or not, Casey’s seat can probably be considered hot until the Raptors figure out how they want to get where they aim to go.