Dwane Casey’s returning for a 5th season a justifiable hold

Holster your vitriol.

By all accounts, it looks as if Dwane Casey will be the head coach of the Toronto Raptors to begin the 2015-16 season. Reports surfaced Tuesday that after being noncommittal on his status immediately following the season, the Raptors are set to retain Casey and potentially alter his supporting staff.

This, despite a disappointing second half of the season and a downright embarrassing performance in the first round of the NBA playoffs, one that left the Raptors naked as to what they really are at this juncture. Casey was a part of the problem in the series and with the team’s poor defense all season, but he wasn’t the only problem, and his retention is at least justifiable, if somewhat frustrating.

The decision will make Casey just the second Raptors head coach to man the helm for a fifth season, and it all but assures he’ll pass Sam Mitchell as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach. With a 154-158 record in four seasons, Casey not only has the best winning percentage in franchise history but trails Mitchell by two wins, if such things matter to you.

He’s also been behind the bench for the two best regular seasons in the history of the franchise, with this season’s 49-win mark likely making his ouster a tough sell. The roster is not one of a 50-win team or an Eastern Conference contender, and the league sees that. Making Casey the fall man for a disappointing finish risks sending the wrong message about loyalty, something that’s been tough for the organization to receive and something they can ill-afford to short-change others with.

In terms of the fan base, firing Casey may actually be a positive public relations move, sending the message that complacency is not an option, and that mediocrity won’t be tolerated, even if said mediocrity isn’t mediocre relative to the woeful bar the franchise has set over the last two decades. By the end of the playoffs, fans wanted Casey’s head, and a coaching change would be an easy sell in Toronto. It would probably also be an easy sell internally, as Casey has only one guaranteed year left on his deal (plus a 2016-17 team option) at what amounts to peanuts for MLSE (his salary is in the $4-million range).

In keeping Casey, general manager Masai Ujiri is saying a few things about the state of the franchise.

Formost, he doesn’t believe Casey was the sole issue last season, a correct evaluation. The roster isn’t exactly brimming with elite talent, and while the depth was improved a great deal over the previous season, luck caught up with the team in the form of fatigue and injuries, and it prevented them from maintaining their strange, ethereal chemistry over the long haul. They don’t possess a single great defender, their lone serious 3-point threat is the least consistent defender on the planet, their best scorer does so while welcoming difficult shots, and their de facto superstar appears as if he’d be best utilized and preserved at 30 minutes per game.

The roster needs – and will almost certainly receive – tweaking at a minimum, and in keeping Casey, Ujiri may be sending a signal that tumult should be anticipated. Were the team to over go significant roster changes, perhaps with their timeline for high-end competition being altered (a step back to take one forward, as it were), then making the coaching change now isn’t entirely necessary. It would be nice to build with a new coach from Day One, but it’s possible Ujiri’s offseason plans would preclude the Raptors from competing for a desirable coach, or it’s possible Ujiri doesn’t desire any of the available (and willing) coaches out there.

Scott Skiles makes a lot of sense on paper but could get competitive looks from Orlando or Denver; Monty Williams just got the axe, and while his suit game is steady proper, he just got fired for not getting enough out of an Anthony Davis-led core; Tom Thibodeau would probably take the New Orleans job if he left Chicago; Alvin Gentry and Scott Brooks could be available, and I love the former, but it’s not like either is an obviously substantial upgrade. There’s also a non-zero chance that the options better than Casey, particularly Thibodeau, want control of basketball operations, a la a Stan Van Gundy or Doc Rivers, something Ujiri doesn’t seem the type to concede. Each of those names, save for maybe Williams, is probably a better coach than Casey, but if Ujiri has a target in mind, wants to conduct a more thorough search, or simply wants to fix the roster first in order to find the coach that best suits the talent, hanging on to Casey is fine. That’s all it is – fine – but it’s fine.

There’s also a chance that Ujiri values coaching continuity with personnel changes coming, and in keeping Casey another season while tweaking the roster and his staff, the culture that’s been building can carry forward, the schemes refined, and the support pieces improved. Tom Sterner seems likely to go as the last coaching vestige of the Bryan Colangelo era, and so help me god if he’s fired, I will rage. He’s the most electrifying man in hoops entertainment, and I’m the biggest of the millions…and millions of Sternerites. I’d go to war were he my advocate, and he could turn a granola bar into A Beast Incarnate. Bill Bayno and Nick Nurse were Ujiri hires but haven’t exactly overwhelmed, and other assistants could be shuffled. Steve Kerr succeeded this season in large part because he realized that the value of a strong staff outweighed the potential cost of strong threats to his job, power, and authority, and Ujiri may force that attitude on Casey, perhaps even installing a potential heir on the bench.

By giving Casey a stay of execution, Ujiri could curry further control over the day-to-day of the team. I don’t mean to say Ujiri wants to coach – he surely doesn’t – but a lame duck Casey with a stern warning of the thin ice he’s on may be more amenable to coaching to the organization’s goals. This is a minor matter but again, if Ujiri can’t find his guy externally yet, it’s possible he feels he can get more out of Casey next season with a less secure job status and a better staff.

To be clear, Casey was an issue this season, and his removal would have been just as justified as his retention.

His defensive scheme doesn’t quite fit the personnel and he was painfully slow to adjust his strategy to the players at his disposal, and he allowed an effective but tenuous offense to exist as-is because there was little immediate reason to change it. In the playoffs, he was incredibly stubborn, refusing to use James Johnson in a matchup he was brought in specifically for, ignoring adjustments to some basic Wizards sets that they used ad nauseam, and failing to create much of anything outside of the team’s drive-and-hope-to-get-fouled offense. He was far more flexible in last year’s Brooklyn series, and his performance against the Wizards was incredibly disappointing.

Casey’s reputation on defense may be overstated. He’s known as a bit of a defensive mind, but the Raptors have finished 12th, 22nd, ninth, and 23rd in defense under him. He deserves credit for making chicken salad of chicken shit in 2011-12, when the franchise was admittedly tanking, and last season, when he molded a top-10 defense amid heavy turnover and without strong defenders. But averaging a league-average finish on defense over four seasons isn’t all that impressive, and while I like his scheme for some teams – the Milwaukee Bucks run essentially the same defense far more effectively – he needs to grow more flexible.

Jonas Valanciunas has improved, bit by bit, and can be a useful defender when used properly, but the back line of a defense where ball-handlers are intentionally funnelled to the middle is not the right role for him. His reads are slow, he jumps too easily, and he loses his peripheral vision when someone drives north-south in his direction. Part of that issue is the Raptors lacking the perimeter defenders to lessen the burden on the helpers and the centre, but unless that issue is corrected at the roster level, Casey needs to make his system more conservative.

Offensively, Casey’s actually had more success than one might think. The Raptors have been 25th, 14th, ninth, and third in offense under Casey, and while this year’s group didn’t do so in an aesthetically pleasing way, they could really fill it up. He needs to get far more creative for the team to improve or even hold steady at a top-10 standing. The Raptors were dead last in the percentage of field goal attempts that would have been assisted this year, and relying on one-on-one ball and free throws come playoff time just isn’t a tenable strategy. Advanced scouting hurts, and whistles tighten up, plus it appears to be downright exhausting for the team’s best players.

Casey actually has a few pet plays that are effective – Loop 4 is simple but difficult to guard when the Raptors have Ross and either a second point guard or Patterson on the floor – and he occasionally busts out a clever ATO that opponents don’t see coming. But they don’t see it coming in large part because Casey’s content to let his scorers just try to score, a strategy that only works until it doesn’t and has cost Raptors fans several collective heads of hair.

Despite his shortcomings, keeping Casey isn’t the end of the world. I know there are going to be some who can’t understand how that playoff performance didn’t cost him his job, but Ujiri is not evaluating this team on four games. If his desired choice isn’t immediately obvious or available, continuity is an acceptable play, especially if Casey is strongly nudged in the direction of the changes he needs to make.

Plus, these reports suggest the current plan is to keep Casey. MLSE has the pockets to swallow his 2015-16 season if a better candidate presents himself or Ujiri changes his mind later in the offseason. The team’s timeline for eventual contention does not, I believe, include the 2015-16 season as a potential title run year. It’s going to be another building season and frustrating though it may be, leaving Casey at the helm for it is entirely acceptable.

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