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A Top NBA Coach: Time To Finally Give Coach Casey His Due

It’s about time we start putting some respect on Dwane Casey’s name.

Dwane Casey is a top ten coach in the NBA. Point, blank, period.

Most dissenters are already counting the coaches in their head as they read this. There’s Gregg Popovich in a tier of his own. You’ve got Kerr, Carlisle, Spoelstra and Stevens who are definitely above Casey. That gives you five coaches. I’ll accept Thibodeau (ugh) and D’Antoni. That’s seven. You know what, let’s accept Budenholzer too, for arguments sake. Eight. Van Gundy? Nope, not now. Stotts? Nah. Clifford? Hell no. Snyder? Too early. Scott Brooks? Dude’s been blessed with Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka, Wall, Beal and Porter and still doesn’t have a single ring to his name? Next. Well what about Doc Rivers? Maybe three years ago. Doc has just never proven he can do more with less, a test he’s currently failing with the LA Clippers. What about that Tyronn Lue guy? With all due respect, LeBron is the GM, coach and best player on that team. Dan Gilbert might as well give up his seat, too.

You won’t catch me here proclaiming Casey as a top five NBA coach who nobody seems to ever pay attention to. I have him firmly in that 7-10 range, whereas most pundits and fans alike rank him in the 12-15 range.

We’re talking about a man that rarely receives praise from his local fanbase, despite leading the best team in franchise history for a half-decade. When you step out of the bubble, which is hard for many fans to do, you begin to realize that the Raptors organization has been quite lucky to have Casey lead this team. Now, when I bring up just how lucky the Raptors are to both friends and family, they come with the same arguments I’ve been hearing for years:

  • The Raptors success is mainly attributed to their players, rather than Casey.
  • Throughout his Raptors tenure, Casey severely lacks a ‘creativity’ attribute that other coaches in the league have manifested into their systems.
  • Casey isn’t a personable head coach, but rather reserved, stern and sometimes standoffish.
  • Casey constantly mismanages lineups and rotations.
  • Casey cannot develop young NBA prospects like other coaches can.
  • Casey has zero clue of what a modern NBA offense should look like.

Shall I continue?

I’m sure you’ve heard all, if not most of these arguments (unless you were the ones shouting them, of course). Don’t get me wrong, Casey isn’t an infallible head coach  by any stretch and definitely comes with his handful of downfalls. Another thing that’s important is, some of these criticisms are totally conceivable.

Are the players more responsible for franchise success than the coaches? Probably. I mean, common sense tells you in any sport that when your roster is talented, coaches generally have success. There’s one caveat though. Regardless of the sport, coaches must have the ability to simultaneously tailor their system to the players they have at hand while not straying too far from their own foundational principles. It’s a tough task to handle, but in Casey’s case, he’s done an incredible job of doing just that. It first started with his pound the rock principle, where he got his players to buy into the meat-and-potatoes of what his system embodied— toughness, mental fortitude and defensive awareness. Once Casey instilled these central facets, it was about giving leeway into what his stars (Lowry and DeRozan) did best — iso ball (with your general pick and roll/pop concepts). It became a drive-and-kick system that put Toronto at the top of most regular season offensive metrics. Then, the playoffs came around where DC struggled to adapt. In fact, most of Casey’s criticisms stem from his playoff struggles with Toronto. Again, fair criticism.

Let’s keep it straight, Casey’s offensive systems throughout the years have looked bland, chock-full of isolation sets with little to no ball movement. Also, there are times where Casey botches lineup/rotation decisions during games, however that explicit criticism can be applied to just about every NBA head coach. For me, to make a claim of that nature is subjective as there’s no discernable statistic to prove Casey has more mental lapses than your average NBA head coach.

Some of you are reading the third-listed criticism like “Really? You just made that one up”. Believe it or not, I’ve heard this countless times when I find myself defending Casey’s coaching credibility. First off, there’s no way one can make judgement on Casey’s character as a coach when the only time 99.9999% of fans (Hey, Blake) can observe him is when he’s in a 6XL suit on the sidelines arguing with referees. Casey’s known by local media and former/current players alike (minus James Johnson) to be respectful, mindful and sociable in almost all situations. Yes, he may lose his cool at the occasional referee and menacingly glare at his players every so often after a defensive breakdown, but is this really what we’re talking about? Coach is a former NCAA player who thoroughly understands player perspective and easily relates to the group of men he coaches on a nightly basis.

What about Casey not being able to develop his young prospects? Ed Davis has carved out a significant role in the Blazers rotation and is one of the best pure rebounders in the NBA. Valanciunas has been a solid NBA center, somehow staying relevant in a league that’s abandoned the big man. Terrence Ross turned out to be a more-than-useful NBA player (in what turned out to be a horrendous 2012 Draft). Lucas Nogueira was acquired for almost nothing (Sorry, John Salmons) and turned out to be a welcome addition to the Raptors bench rotation. Delon Wright has gradually improved into what is probably one of the better backup PGs in the NBA. Norman Powell is widely recognized as the biggest steal of his respective draft, being selected 46th overall by Milwaukee (technically Ujiri advised this selection, as there was a trade in place involving Greivis Vasquez). Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam have been a breath of fresh air for Toronto, showing significant improvements from Year 1 to Year 2. That one Anunoby kid seems to be doing alright. I mean, people also forget Casey did a fair job with a 22 year-old DeMar DeRozan, too. The only blip on the radar seems to be Bruno Caboclo, who up until now has plenty of success in the NBA G League, but struggles badly in the NBA. So what is it that we’re talking about? Is the ultimate standard we’re setting for Casey fair? Are we subconsciously hoping every player he coaches up becomes an All Star or future Hall of Famer? And again, we can’t play a game of double standards where it’s “He doesn’t develop anyone!”, but when tons of names are mentioned like the ones above, it becomes “Well, they all developed on their own!”. It’s give-and-take with player development at a young stage. It’s unanimous that most of it falls on the player, but the coaching staff in place definitely has an effect on the overall learning curve.

Casey has long been the scapegoat for Raptors fans who pounce on him for his failures and shortcomings, but wholeheartedly neglect his accomplishments and overall success relative to other NBA coaches. According to basketball-reference.com, out of 324 possible head coaches who’ve coached in the National Basketball Association, Dwane Casey falls at 73rd overall in winning percentage (.530 win %). Again, out of three hundred and twenty four possible coaches. Take away those who have coached in less than 500 NBA games (Casey is currently at 619 games coached), and Casey rises from 73rd in winning percentage to 40th — of all time. Despite his hefty accomplishments, DC has been a punchline in Toronto and across the NBA pond with many pointing his playoff struggles. On the other hand, you have Budenholzer (widely believed to be a superior coach to Casey) who won 60 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, but got swept in the Eastern Conference Finals and was literally a John Wall wrist injury away from losing in the EC Semi Finals. Where exactly do we draw the line between Casey and these other coaches? Because if it’s team success, Casey is right there with them.

For a refresher on Casey’s resumé, even before his Raptor days, Rick Carlisle revealed Casey was the mastermind behind the Dallas Mavericks neutralizing LeBron James and the Miami Heat — eventually winning the 2011 NBA Championship due to their stingy defense. In Toronto, DC set the Raptors all-time franchise record for regular season wins not once, twice, but three different times in the 2013-2014, 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons. Most home and road wins in a single season? Check and check. Longest winning streak in franchise history. Got it. Most points scored in a season? Casey was coaching. Biggest margin of victory ever? Dwane was there — and still probably yelling. He was the first head coach in Raptors franchise history to win a game 7 in a playoff series. Also, the first to lead his team past the second round of the NBA Playoffs, entering the Eastern Conference Finals and ultimately falling short of the NBA Finals by just two games.

Dwane Casey is well known in NBA circles for his impeccable defensive acumen, but this season has been totally different. Introducing a new offensive system prior to this season while learning from his preceding mistakes, Casey has made momentous strides to becoming a more well-rounded NBA coach. One of Casey’s biggest criticisms — his team’s offense — has abandoned their isolation-heavy past and currently ranks 6th overall in team assists per game. This wasn’t a case of major roster turnover, but rather a total mentality change that Casey and the Raptors stuck to. The offense looks extremely fluid, with both backcourt stars sacrificing scoring for constant ball movement — a team characteristic that translates directly to playoff success.

We saw the year-by-year win total improvements by Casey and the Raptors from 2011 all the way up until 2015. The Raptors went from 23, to 34, to 48, to 49, to 56 wins until finally dropping down to 51 wins in the 2016-2017 season. Casey has put it all on the line with his job previously being in jeopardy — succeeding in what many deemed for him an all-or-nothing season in Toronto. Earlier in the offseason, Masai Ujiri made it public information that he wanted to see clear systematic differences in the Raptors offensive identity. Casey has taken that, like any other challenge he’s endured in Toronto and approached it head-on. The results thus far are exceedingly promising.

It’s about time we start putting some respect on Dwane Casey’s name.

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