Can you believe it’s been five years since the Toronto Raptors organization brought in Dwane Casey? What felt like a panic-button move at the time has transformed into the best stretch of Raptors basketball in franchise history, with their most noticeable accomplishment appearing in the form of 56 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Casey came with some pedigree: He served as an assistant with the Sonics for 11 years, was head coach of the Wolves for two, and won a championship as the Mavericks’ lead defensive coach in 2011. Still, in a city that prides itself on innovation, Casey’s pleated wool pants and wispy voice seemed like a step backwards for a team already taking one. It didn’t help that his opportunity began with the task of focusing on culture while the front office not-so-subtly tanked, putting him a little behind on public favor to start.
Fast forward to 2016 and the pants are still there, but the confidence has changed. Casey has led this team to a better record in all five seasons he’s coached while commanding the respect of his players through hard-work and open communication, a respect that wasn’t always there. That mentality of hard work finally rubbed off on a team that struggled to show resolve in it’s first two early-round exits against Brooklyn and Washington. When two game sevens reared their ugly heads this past postseason, Casey was there to guide the team through it. If you wonder where Casey’s old-school toughness comes from, look no further than this piece by Ian Thomsen on Casey’s childhood in Kentucky working in mines and tobacco plants. “Pound the Rock” was kind of a funny mantra for a while, but a few years later, the players are still buying in and it’s one of the cornerstones of the most successful run and team history.
That hard work was rewarded with a three-year contract worth $18 million this offseason, with Casey posting a 210-184 record in his five years with the team. That’s not only the best record among Raptor coaches, but among all squads in the Eastern Conference during that span.
While it’s true that Toronto’s offensive efficiency (107.0) ranked fifth among teams last season, Casey still has tendencies to run overly simplistic plays, ranking 10th in isolation plays last season. There’s a general feeling that it gets worse in close games and tight situations, which serves to exacerbate the issue in the public eye. Part of this is a reflection of his players (specifically DeMar DeRozan), but seeing the Raptors work better out of the post (25th last year) and in transition (20th) will go a long way in improving plays out of a time-out.
Casey’s defense is a staple of his coaching style, and that will be no different this year. Jared Sullinger replaced Luis Scola in the starting lineup, and as Cooper Smither brilliantly explained, that’s a huge upgrade any way you look at it. Casey also loves floor-spacing power forwards, and with Sullinger trying to improve his shot from deep, he may quickly become a favourite of the coach. The challenge for Casey will be making a Sullinger-Jonas Valanciunas pairing work on the defensive end, where Sullinger should still be an upgrade but where he presents some similar challenges to Scola in that role. The team also lost their best rim protector in Bismack Biyombo, and Casey and company will have to figure a way to scheme around his absence or improve the perimeter defense to make it less of an issue.
Casey isn’t afraid to make tough decisions, either. He sat DeRozan in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, and Biyombo in overtime against the Heat in Game 4. One of those decisions worked, and one didn’t, but at least both were made with confidence. Now Casey has more decisions to make: How to manage Patrick Patterson’s minutes, where to help develop Norman Powell, and what do about rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poetl being real rotational players on this team. He’s done a nice job serving the developmental goals while also winning, but that only gets harder as expectations are raised higher.
If anyone’s up to the task, it’s Dwane Casey and his pleated pants.