When new head coach Dwane Casey arrived in Toronto after winning the NBA championship as an assistant coach in Dallas only a few weeks earlier, he was taking over a team that had spent the previous three seasons in the lottery and had every intention of being there for the fourth season in a row. The Raptors needed both a plan to escape futility and to ditch a culture of losing. While Raptors President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo had the plan, it was going to be up to Casey to change the culture.
Evidence of a culture change can be found in hard statistics everywhere one looks. The Raptors have languished near the bottom in defensive efficiency, points allowed and opponents’ field goal percentage seemingly forever, but that is no longer the case.
“We are fifteenth in defensive efficiency and we were about 25 (last season) and I didn’t think we would make that big of a jump in year one,” Casey said. “All I can go back to is in Dallas where we started very low and we got to the middle of the pack in year two, so we have really exceeded expectations to get to fifteenth and be consistently in the top 10 in field goal percentage (against).
Coach Casey came to Toronto as a defensive guru with a mandate to recreate the magic he was responsible for in Dallas, giving an offensive-minded team a defensive heart. Toronto’s trio of defensive whipping posts Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon were not being given a pass by their new head coach either.
“Andrea bought in very quick and did a great job of becoming more defensive-minded,” Casey said. “He knew he had to do the job. I like Andrea but I would get on him just like I would Solo (Alabi).
He was held accountable. Andrea is smart. He has a high basketball I.Q. so he knows the right way to play, the right way to play defensively and the right way to play offensively.
“(Calderon) is solid within our system. The bigs support him and we have a system built to protect him.
He has to be where he is supposed to be and he has done that and the system has helped him a lot. Is he a one-on-one breakdown stopper, no, but he is such a smart player that he can play within the system.
“DeMar arguably has played at a higher level with more basketball intellect.
“Our guys have bought in and done a great job within our system.”
Much has been made of Casey’s zone defense and his ability to get players to play defense within a system and the results have been impressive during individual games against the NBA’s best teams.
“Even with some of our pieces out, you can see the talent that we have and the drive that we have,” Aaron Gray explained. “Like Coach Casey says, ‘this used to be a place where people would come to get their numbers and get an easy win.’ Now the teams that come in with that mindset, we take full advantage of. Beating New York here, playing San Antonio, L.A. down to the wire in games maybe we should have won, beating Boston twice here, you can see the change. I don’t think it’s as evident in the record, but if you just look at the games we have played, we have been in every game except three or four and that’s a huge compliment for the guys that we have.”
As much as the change to a defensive-mindset, the change in culture that Casey has brought is a belief this team is better than their record and more importantly, everyone is on the same page.
“We are helping each other a lot more and we included the zone which has been good for us throughout the season,” Amir Johnson said. “Our zone has been getting better and better every game. We are just getting stops and playing together so our defense has been tremendous. I haven’t paid attention to the stats but I see it on the court, we definitely play defense a lot better.”
What has held Toronto back from seeing more success this season has been the time it has taken for Casey to implement his system, the impacts from the lockout and injuries. While Casey was able to push ahead defensively, the offense struggled due to all the injuries.
“We were rolling when we had Andrea and no one was planning on losing one of our best players,” said DeRozan. “I benefited from him a lot when he was out there and when he went down, a lot of teams started focusing in on me and I had to find other ways to get myself involved in the game.”
“(Missing Bargnani), it’s huge, it’s hard to win ball games, it’s hard to be consistent,” explained Gray. “We have changed our offense and defense so many times because of all of our injuries. Jerry Bayless, it seems he plays a month and he’s out a month and he’s one of our premier guys. Jose has had a few injuries but he has done a great job of battling through things. L.K. is one of our main energy guys and he’s been dinged up and started out the year like me sitting out. So it’s tough just being consistent. One of the reasons teams are so good is because they play together and build that chemistry, for us it seems like we’ve had a different identity offensively every night. Defensively, obviously we have to try to be consistent no matter who is on the floor.”
“We have been playing good, but our consistency hasn’t been there,” said Johnson. “We do well against good teams but we aren’t consistent, but that will come as we stay together. We have a new coach and a new system so everything will get along and I think we will be even better next year once we have a full season.”
The surprising end result of this lockout-shortened season isn’t Toronto’s upcoming trip to the NBA draft lottery, it is just how fast Casey has been able to change the culture and the perception of his new team.
“The main thing I look at is our improvement defensively,” Casey said. “I am really happy that it’s further along than I thought.
“No matter what happens from here on out, we have accomplished the goals set out this year, changing the culture, becoming defensive-minded and improving players.”
Mission accomplished? Casey has accomplished his side of the bargain with Colangelo in year one. It’s hard to not give Casey credit due for changing the culture in Toronto.
“We have accomplished that, no matter what happens, but next year is a different story getting re-loaded, re-vamped and everything else is going to (create) a different goal.”
The next steps belong to Colangelo after the season ends so Casey has a tougher and potentially more rewarding mission to accomplish.