Simply put Coach Casey worked wonders last year. Taking a team from the cellar to a respectable middle-of-the-league defensive rating without a training camp or a regular practice schedule was an amazing feat.
I think that Coach Casey is the reason to many Raptors fan are optimistic for this year. A full training camp, a regular practice schedule, and an infusion of "Casey" talent to the roster could produce big things defensively. How high is the ceiling this year defensively? Top 10? Top 5?
Here's how I see each member of the roster responding to Casey's coaching this year. (In order of Defensive Improvement)
Lowry was already a bull at the point, now he's going to be a beast. He is exactly the physical point guard that fits the Casey mold. He should slow down opposing PGs from driving down the middle and make the defence more balanced. Less help defence covering-up, means fewer holes. It all starts here this season.
JV's defensive accumen is well-documented and his impending impact has been widely discussed. I feel that while there will be nights that he struggles and ends up on the bench in foul trouble, overall his impact will be big. He can protect the hoop and is a better help defender than any of the current bigs. His combination of size and speed will allow him to cover a large area and a variety of match-ups. His youth will still get him in trouble against the craftier veterans, but on a nightly basis and, equally important, in practice he will set the tone. "Protect our hoop!!"
Now for the biggest talking point (likely), calling Andrea Bargnani a big leaper in terms of defensive improvement. My caveat!!! Bargnani will seem better without actually being better. Bargnani is already a decent 1v1 man defender in most situations. The majority of his issues continue to stem from his poor help defence. Will Bargnani suddenly become a better help defender? Not significantly. Will he be expected to play that role as much this year? Hopefully not. JV is now the primary hoop protector. After JV it is going to be Amir, Gray, and some ED that protect the hoop, not the 7' smooth-shooting Italian. Take Bargnani out of his weak area and let him focus on his man more, and he will be less of a defensive issue. I do believe that Bargnani will continue to improve a bit under Casey. He looked better last year than any other year and seemed to really take to Casey's pushing. I'm hopeful (optimistic? Dillusional?) that Bargnani will continue to put forth that effort, and be a better player this year. I personally expect him to be at the All-Star game this year.
All of these guys already have some decent defensive game and will benefit a lot from Coach Casey. Kleiza is a crafty player who should excell in the zones. Fields is quality defender and should fit in very well to the system. Acy will go balls out to do whatever Coach asks him to do, making up for whatever physical limitations he has. ED and Amir both have the skills and talent to be good defenders, they simply need coaching to understand defence better. Coach Casey should be able to teach Amir enough to limit his fouls and ED could be poised for a breakout year if Amir doesn't. Ross looks like all the players we've had come and go over the years in that he has the tools to be a good defender, but unlike the previous guys, he is stepping into a situation where the Coach has created a defensive environment and Ross should thrive in it.
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The status quo is fine for Gray. He is what he is. A big burly 7 footer. And that is perfectly fine. Not so much for Demar Derozan. I'm not sure he is ever going to get it, but I really do hope I am wrong. He has all the skills necessary (like Ross) but came in a developed bad defensive habits that went unchecked for too long. If he was a rookie this year, he'd have a much better chance of getting it, but it's always harder to unlearn and relearn than to learn anew. Jose will be Jose but thankfully will be matched up against 2nd unit guys, so it wont be as bad. JL3 is the 3rd PG for now and until that changes, his game isn't likely to either.
Overall this team should be even better defensively. I personally hope the team goal is a top 10 defence this year, and I think it is attainable. Go Raps Go!!!