It was something of a surprise when, back in 2007, the Timberwolves fired coach Dwane Casey a year-and-a-half into his tenure. The previous season had been a disaster, and though the team was maddeningly inconsistent, Casey had the Wolves at 20-20. General manager Kevin McHale and owner Glen Taylor, though, felt they should have been much better.
“I was jumping into a situation where the charge at the time was to win the conference,” Casey told Sporting News. “Kevin McHale felt like we should have won the conference, we should have beaten San Antonio and Dallas. Expectations—right, wrong or indifferent—were a little out of whack with the team that we had. I think everything happened for a reason. I thought we were on the right path in the second season, we were knocking on the door of the playoffs.”
Casey was ultimately vindicated—the Timberwolves went 12-30 after Randy Wittman took over—but after that experience, he seemed to be a longshot to get another head coaching gig. But that was before he landed in Dallas and was assigned to head up the Mavericks defense under Rick Carlisle. He helped the Mavs become a top ten defense, which, of course, helped them to this year’s championship. That pushed Casey’s name back into the head-coaching candidate pool, and he was hired by the Raptors in June.
Casey credits the confidence that Carlisle had in him for his resurrection as a head coach. “It was huge because Rick did not mind giving credit where credit was due,” Casey said. “I thought that was huge because, he would stay on us, in our meetings, about getting things done, and staying focused and staying on schedule. I will always be indebted to him for having the confidence in us as coaches to help get me here. It also solidified a lot of things in my mind to identify and go with things that work. It gave me the confidence to try it and coach it and really develop that. But it was all under the guidance of Rick that allowed that to come together.”
It’s not an easy gig in Toronto, a team that underachieved even when it had star forward Chris Bosh. The Raptors haven’t finished over .500 in four seasons, and bottomed out last year with a 22-60 record. Casey understands the challenge and said he is a better coach now than he was in Minnesota.
“I have grown as a coach,” he said. “Any coach will tell you that, going through the process I went through in Minnesota, then turning around and going through what we went through in Dallas, that has made me a much better coach. It has also solidified my ideas as a coach. What I believe in, how I want to teach. I have tremendous confidence in that now, whereas in Minnesota, I was trying to do it for the first time. So you figure out your own philosophy as a head coach. Going through that was a test run, so to speak, and going through what we did in Dallas solidified it. I have much more confidence in what I stand for now.”
That is defense, primarily, and that happens to be where the Raptors need the most help. They allowed 105.4 points last season, fifth-worst in the league, and even if they don’t make any major acquisitions this offseason, Casey thinks he can shape the team up by changing the system and focusing on defensive drills.
“A lot of fundamental stuff we can do to help the team is things we can do in drills,” Casey said. “Part of it, too, is commitment. There is personnel, too, that is part of it. But a lot of the mistakes that were made last year were fundamental things we can do drill-wise and systematically, to help the team get better defensively. I do feel like there was a lot of effort last year, the guys played hard. But—not to be critical of last year’s coaching philosophy—but we have to tailor a system to fit the guys a little bit better, personnel-wise.”
Of course, all of that has been made more difficult by the NBA’s lockout, which went into place just 10 days after Casey got the job. So he has been unable to work with his players this summer and unable to start implementing the team’s defensive plan. It’s a tough way to start a new job, but Casey is just happy to be stepping back into the role.
“I love coaching,” he said. “Being a head coach is great, I am looking forward to getting started. But I never sat around and worried about getting interviews, I wasn’t trying to look around wondering where my next interview is coming from. If it happened, it happened. If not, I’d still be with Rick in Dallas, which was a great situation, too. I am just thrilled to be able to coach.”
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