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Raptors fire Dwane Casey

The end of one heck of an era.

The Toronto Raptors have relieved Dwane Casey of his head coaching duties, the team announced Friday.

“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take. As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a release. “We celebrate everything Dwane has done for the organization, we thank him, and we wish him nothing but the best in future. He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are so proud of that.”

Casey holds just about every head coaching mark in franchise history, and is unquestionably the team’s best coach ever. He owns the team record for wins (320), winning percentage (.573), games coached (558), division titles (four), playoff series victories (four), playoff appearances (five), and so on. He was also the first Raptors coach to coach in the All-Star Game and was named the NBCA’s Coach of the Year for 2017-18 earlier this week.

He may also very well win the NBA Coach of the Year award in late June, joining George Karl as recent Coach of the Years to be let go the following offseason. Under Casey, the Raptors improved in five of the last six seasons, setting new franchise-bests for wins multiple times along the way. The work he did during the regular season this year was highly regarded, as he completely overhauled the team’s style of play, leaned more heavily on depth and player development, and still leading the Raptors to 59 wins. and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

This era – the most successful in team history – will be inextricable from Casey, as will all the big-picture progress the organization has made in building a culture, a winning foundation, and an improved reputation. His impact will also be impossible to separate from the growth – as players and people – of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the team’s two most important players and two of the franchise’ best ever. Casey is not losing his job because he’s not a good coach. He is a good coach and a tremendous human being, and he will immediately land near the top of the candidacy list for any vacancies around the league. He took a moribund 22-win Raptors franchise and helped slowly build them into a perennial threat. Any team with talented pieces starting their development curve upward should promptly make a call.

But the Raptors have hit the same road block three seasons in a row, consistently under-performed their regular seasons in the playoffs, and, after seven years at the helm, it’s clear the Raptors felt a new voice was in order. Whether that voice represents a shift in philosophy, a change in approach, or just a greater focus on the more minute details – in-game adjustments, late-quarter play-calling, optimized rotations based on specific matchups – that become so magnified in the playoffs is unclear. What is clear, though, is that the Raptors felt they had to at least try something different if they were going to bring the bulk of the core back and try once again to break through to the NBA Finals.

Casey also reportedly sought a contract extension to avoid his lame-duck status in 2018-19, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports, and that may have pushed Ujiri further in one direction.

There will be no shortage of candidates. Internally, Nick Nurse has long been thought to be on the precipice of a head coaching gig and had a large hand in making the offensive attack more dynamic this season. He’s incredibly bright and has head coaching experience internationally and at the G League level. There’s also Jerry Stackhouse, who has turned in about the two most impressive seasons a coach could turn in at the G League level in leading Raptors 905 to a championship and another finals appearance. His work on the player development side has been clear at the NBA level, with his imprint obvious on a number of the team’s young players. There’s also Rex Kalamian, well-liked by players around the league and the de facto defensive coordinator.

If the Raptors look outside of the organization – and it would be prudent to cast a wide net, even if the stability and continuity provided by Nurse, Stackhouse, or Kalamian gives them a clear leg up – there are a number of interesting free agents, too. Mike Budenholzer, Stan Van Gundy, and Steve Clifford all recently lost their jobs and come with strong reputations, while potential first-time hires like Becky Hammon, Ettore Messina, and others have been working the interview circuit. Budenholzer has already been rumored to be getting a look.

Ujiri will hold a press conference this afternoon to discuss Casey’s firing. It feels like this is just the start of what could be a heavy offseason for him.