Blake Q&A

End-of-Season Mailbag Part 1: Raptors’ coaching search

Everything we don’t know about coaching and coaches laid plain.

Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca

Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca

I suppose the end of the season calls for a lengthy mailbag. There’s no sense doing anything but getting right to it, so let us do just that. Part 1 goes today focusing on coaching questions and some miscellany, while Part 2 will drop tomorrow and probably be all over the place.

You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here. You can ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag Twitter, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between (unfortunately, it’s too much to keep track of Qs from the comments, so Twitter/email is preferred).

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Alright, let’s do this.

Before we get started, I wrote a column on the Dwane Casey firing over at Vice, had written about the need for the Raptors to begin focusing on the smaller details before that at The athletic, and went over a ton of potential coaching candidates at The Athletic as well. I’ll probably refer to those three pieces a fair amount, so it might be worth starting there. Because a giant mailbag isn’t enough, or something.

General Coaching

From Chris B.: How much of the difference between the defensive output of any two teams (for the sake of argument – let’s use Boston and Toronto) do you attribute to coaching/philosophies and how much do you attribute to personnel?

I don’t have a percentage for it, but as with all things, defensive production is shared. You look around the league and it’s such a mixed bag of good personnel defending poorly, poor personnel defending well, and so on, so there’s this nexus causality between all the parts. In general, I’d think personnel has less of an impact over the regular season despite the sample being larger. The Raptors can be a top-five defense over 82 games without elite defensive talent and with a few clear negatives playing big minutes because of the system in place and a broad set of rules that are easy enough to follow.

Once you get to the playoffs personnel is a lot easier to attack and exploit – a system is one thing, but if DeMar DeRozan and C.J. Miles are on the floor together to attack or your scheme allows for Kevin Love to be switched against guards in the post, and your gameplan doesn’t alter that, those are areas opponents can hunt out. Here, coaching might become as much about preparation and communication as anything. The Celtics, for example, have a solid gameplan including wrinkles to negative post mismatches, but they also don’t really have any bad defenders on the floor, which makes all of that easier. Indiana is a bigger, more physical team in general that played a style more befitting Cleveland, and they accepted certain risks to ratchet up Cleveland’s mistakes. It’s also on the coach to find ways to hide defensive minuses (like not playing multiple of them together for big stretches, perhaps, or tethering their minutes to preferred matchups) and on the players to dial it up in higher leverage spots.

That is to say, the Raptors could have done a much better job with the personnel they had, and that personnel still would have been somewhat of a limiting factor. For this specific example, it is also borderline infuriating that the Cavaliers have abandoned all of their good process elements through two games against Boston and have started missing every open jumper they take again, like in the Indiana series. Toronto’s defensive execution was worse than Boston and Indiana, but Cleveland has also shot a much worse percentage on the same type of looks against those two teams.

Yeah, I’m normally not one to ascribe a psychological explanation to things from afar, but I’m not sure how you watch Raptors-Cavaliers III, hear the quotes coming out of it, and see the Pacers and Celtics series and come away with any conclusion other than that psychology played somewhat of a part. It’d be unfair to chalk it up entirely to that but it would be ignorant to ignore it at this point. Even LeBron James was pretty clear that he knew he was engaging in a psychological war of sorts with his “two points ain’t two points” quote, and there were a number of instances in the series where you could basically feel James trying to break the Raptors. The Raptors are a better team than the Pacers, were at least a notably better regular season team than the Celtics, and were a significantly better regular season team than the Cavaliers, and for as far as “bad matchups” can take you, there’s really no good explanation for the Raptors being swept than that the Games 1 and 3 losses sapped their confidence and resolve.

As for Dwane Casey, I don’t think his removal solves that necessarily, but the mental hurdle is part of why I advocated that something about the core needed to change, because there was almost no way this same group would discover that confidence again. Maybe seeing James lose to someone else or play somewhere else will help – they’ve never really doubted their ability to beat any other team – but they had to make some sort of fundamental change to where some voice in the locker room would be able to say hey, not this time, we’re different. If that couldn’t happen after 59 wins and a top-three season, though, maybe the changes need to be more wide-scale.

I would think so, yes. The Raptors’ offense finally held up in the playoffs for a change. They actually scored a fraction of a point more per-100 possessions and, at the time of their elimination, were behind only Houston in offensive efficiency. They played Washington and Cleveland, of course, but given the drop-off on that end in recent years, it was encouraging. And that came despite defenses wholly ignoring DeRozan when he didn’t have the ball and giving most of the Raptors who weren’t Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, or C.J. Miles the Tony Allen treatment from outside. Toronto managed, and the playmaking and shooting ability of their young pieces is a bit more projectable than defensive improvement.

The biggest issue on the defensive end in the playoffs was inflexibility. Toronto’s system made a ton of sense over 82 games, where you can trust the shooting variance to smooth out and know that offenses aren’t going to be specifically designed to exploit what you’re giving them. Not much about the approach changed in the postseason, though, and while you can argue that John Wall and LeBron James shooting well in the mid-range and Mike Scott and J.R. Smith and Jeff Green shooting above their heads in general inflates the numbers, the Raptors’ playoff defensive rating would have ranked last in the league in the regular season by nearly two points per-100 possessions. Short of downsizing and getting even more switchy – already a questionable approach given the number of mismatches an opponent can hunt on the Raptors’ roster – they didn’t have much of an answer to stop the bleeding.

I’m not sure exactly what the solution is on defense with little personnel turnover expected. Accountability on that end is going to be a big buzz word with whoever the new coach is, I would guess, and Toronto will lean on general improvement and improved size/strength from their youths to lift their play. Whoever comes in will likely be changing a fair amount on both ends, and adding an element of stylistic versatility on defense should be high on their list of priorities.

A big part of this is that the Raptors are often at a talent disadvantage in the playoffs. It’s easy to say that the better team should be the one to dictate matchups and the terms of engagement in a series, but that often comes down to the whims of the team with better players. That’s an oversimplification, though it’s worth noting the Raptors maybe haven’t had the best individual player in a series since the Miami series, the only time they’ve had that edge in their last seven postseason series (depending on how you feel about John Wall or Bradley Beal).

The Raptors are a depth team as much as they are a dual-star driven team, and that’s not an across-the-board positive in a playoff environment where the leverage on every possession is higher. It’s also a little harder with a guard-dominant offense to hunt size mismatches or attack individually weak defenders, as the opponent can gameplan for those situations with extra help and trapping. Now, the Raptors did a much better job of this in the playoffs this time around thanks to the more diversified offense, but it was still a case of the Raptors making the most of what the defense was giving them rather than manipulating a defense (that they didn’t push the pace in transition and semi-transition against Cleveland remains frustrating). They also did a better job of leveraging Jonas Valanciunas’ advantage on the glass and around the rim in response to perceived disadvantages, though they were inconsistent in that regard.

Beyond talent alone, a lot of this is preparation. It’s these kind of micro-areas I outlined in the one piece linked above; once you reach a certain level of quality as a team, those tiny details become far more important, because the playoffs are decided at the margins.

I’m a little torn on this one. In general, I’m in favor of trying a lot of different things in the regular season to improve familiarity and see what might click. At the same time, I understand a coach wanting to stick to a certain rotation as best he can for both role familiarity and to expand the sample for what project as a team’s primary lineups in the playoffs. It’s not as if trying something for 20 minutes over five games tells you a heck of a lot, anyway, you know? There’s a tipping point at which being reactionary in the playoffs becomes too much given how steady everything was in the regular season, both because of lineup unfamiliarity and because of the messaging it sends – I would suggest that it makes sense for a team to stick to the level of lineup flexibility it maintained for the regular season as best they can. Now, some of Toronto’s lineup gambles I thought worked well and were rooted in decent enough logic, but a lot of them, especially late in the Cavaliers series, seemed to be change for the sake of change and never touched on what could have been some of their best options. That’s easy to say with hindsight, but I’d think whoever comes in next will want to try a few new things and have some extra, matchup-specific options the team is familiar with for the postseason.

Raptors Coaching Search

In general, Mike Budenholzer and Dwane Casey share a fair number of strengths and weaknesses. Primarily, both drew positive reviews for strong regular-season systems and came under some fire for in-game adjustments and playoff rotations. That’s painting with a broad brush, but you can see why, given those brief descriptions, people might see this as a lateral move. I wrote a bit more about it here. There are differences as well, obviously. Budenholzer is considered a better tactician and Xs & Os coach, while his sideline demeanor is far more demonstrative and his temper a little shorter (whether that is a good or bad thing is debatable, though I lean toward “bad”). It’s also unclear whether the system Budenholzer employed in Atlanta – five-out, leveraging playmaking bigs, a lot of cutting and off-ball action – is something he’s dogmatic about or flexible based on the roster, which would be important to learn since that system doesn’t exactly suit Toronto’s personnel (yet).

All told, I’m not a huge fan of the immediate and intense interest in Budenholzer (though I think it’s coming from his camp, anyway) given some of the big-picture similarities, but he has enough residual magic Spurs dust on him and a strong enough reputation as a tactician that I’ll trust Masai Ujiri’s decision if his first coaching hire goes that route. Personally, I lean toward trying something/someone new for a fresh voice and perspective (and because jobs are so finite it doesn’t make sense to me to go through retreads), but it’s admittedly very difficult to evaluate coaches who you’re not watching every single day at a micro-possession level and even harded to evaluate first-time candidates. There is a lot we don’t and can’t really clean about potential coaching fits from outside, which is endlessly frustrating during the first coaching search I’ve ever covered intently.

I don’t think Budenholzer having been swept by James with a 60-win team should really hold much water, even if it did come almost literally at James’ hands given Cleveland’s injuries. It’s a few years ago now, for one, and if we’re evaluating coaches on how they’ve done against James, the list of potential candidates becomes really short. Even Brad Stevens was 1-8 against James before this playoff series. I do think, as noted above, that the criticism of Budenholzer for his in-game adjustments and rotations in that and other playoff series would warrant going under the microscope quite intently (I’d have to go back and watch to confirm how much of that criticism was reactionary hindsight and how much was legitimate), and I’m sure “how would you have done things differently” is going to be a pretty common interview question.

It’s not really that annoying. I’m happy when people ask compared to just assuming the answer. Raptors 905 attendance, viewership, and our 905 traffic all suggest that people really haven’t seen or read much of Jerry Stackhouse, so at least asking acknowledges that. Plus, it’s part of the job and part of why I’m at Hershey Centre so often; it’s not realistic for everyone to watch 132 games between the two teams, and there should be someone down there passing along progress updates and scouting reports on the young players and coaches. I’ve gotta have some sort of purpose here, right?

Oh, you all think you’re funny, I see.

Jerry Stackhouse is a two-time NBA All-Star who retired in 2013 and almost immediately set out to begin a coaching career. Really, he started it earlier than that, playing the veteran mentor role in a few of his last stops in an 18-year career. While he was most prominently trying his hand as an analyst in the 2013-2015 window, he also began coaching at the AAU level, gaining some experience doing just about everything, right down to the team’s laundry. In 2015, the Raptors hired him as an assistant coach, and Stackhouse spent the season primarily focusing on player development, working with the team’s young players and often still getting out on the court with them. In 2016, he accepted an offer to become the team’s G League coach with Raptors 905, looking to gain invaluable experience (former G League coaches Nick Nurse and Jesse Mermuys have both likened a year in the G League to five years at any other level given the amount of roster turmoil and downright strangeness a team goes through in one season).

He’s had about as good a two-year stretch as you could have at that level. In his rookie season behind the bench, he earned Coach of the Year honors and helped lead a talented, experienced team to the G League Championship. He followed that up with a trip back to the finals with a much less polished group on paper, perhaps an even more impressive coaching performance than the year prior. In both seasons, the 905 were the league’s best defense, with Stackhouse eschewing the easy path of getting gimmicky to exploit the lower talent level there. It’s been more of a mixed bag offensively, as the roster had loads of playmaking talent and shooting in 2016-17 and moved the ball accordingly, while last year’s version was a little lighter on those elements due in part to personnel. The impact of the Raptors’ entire player development program has obviously been felt with the NBA club, and Stackhouse has had a large hand in that (specifically with Pascal Siakam, Lorenzo Brown, and Norman Powell, despite Powell never actually playing under Stackhouse).

In talking to players around both rosters, the biggest thing that stands out is that Stackhouse is very detail-oriented. His teams watch a ton of film, the team’s schedules are plotted out well in advance, and as a general teaching philosophy, the idea that every wrinkle matters has been pretty common. Kennedy Meeks, Aaron Best, and E.J. Singler have all remarked at the level of preparation, and the fresh-from-college players credited Stackhouse with helping them grow up as professionals pretty quickly. There have also been some legendary practice lengths, particularly in training camp, and he hasn’t been shy about using playing time as a tool for maintaining accountability, even with more established players. The cache he brings as a successful pro who can still get on the floor to mix it up and lead by example has seemed to really help, too.

All of this sounds great, and it is. Stackhouse couldn’t have made a better impression over two years. It also comes with a sizable G League caveat. There is very little track record of G League coaches jumping to the NBA, and how difficult that transition might be, especially for a coach without lead assistant experience, is unclear. The leagues are dramatically different, and certain elements of Stackhouse’s approach – shifting a 50-game workload for 82, managing star egos (he has sometimes employed a break you down to build you up tact that might have to vary player to player), tweaking his defensive scheme for the NBA talent level – would probably need to be adjusted. It’s at the same time risky to assume Stackhouse’s methods would carry over and unfair to assume he couldn’t also adjust when making the jump. We just don’t really know. What we can be pretty certain of is that Stackhouse at least has the player development side of things down and has done well enough with his opportunity to warrant consideration.

He has an interview this week, as he should, and it comes on the tail of three other interviews (Charlotte, Orlando, and New York). I’d hazard against anyone getting too narrowed in on one candidate given the unknowns with all coaches and the difficult translation between leagues here, but the Stackhouse buzz/excitement is about more than name value, suits, and quotes. He’s had a really good two years with the 905 and is going to be an NBA head coach at some point.

As a follow-up to the earlier response, I would say it is unfair but understandable to think of him through that lens.

We can only judge people off of what we’ve seen, and Stackhouse’s professional experience has been on the player development side, first with the Raptors and then with the 905. A G League coaching job is about more than just player development, though, and Stackhouse has been able to show a bit more than just helping players improve. On the tactical side, the 905 employed some nice set pieces – some borrowed from the parent club like “Loop 2,” an action run heavily for Axel Toupane when he was around that’s similar to some DeMar DeRozan sets, and some fresh to the 905 – though their offense was a bit behind their defense this past season. (A lack of shooting really cramped things and often led to the ball being in Lorenzo Brown’s hands to create, a fair strategy given he was, you know, the MVP). For context, the 905 were third-last in clutch net rating this year but fifth overall the year prior, and Stackhouse was 31-20 in games that entered clutch situations (a 60.7-percent win rate compared to 70 percent overall) across his two seasons.

It’s probably worth holding off on labeling Stackhouse – or any candidate – as any one thing until you’ve seen them try to do more, although that’s obviously difficult with the limited information we’re always working with for coaches. That makes a straight comparison to Budenholzer difficult, though as noted earlier, Budenholzer has a reputation as a strong tactician but struggled some with in-game decisions in the playoffs.

I’m sorry if this sounds like a cop out, but the honest answer is that I don’t have nearly enough information to go off of to make a call like that.

The best handle I have on any candidate is on the guys who have coached at the NBA level (obviously), and I’m naturally a little hesitant to go with an established name, so that’s not particularly useful. Of the retreads, I think Steve Clifford is probably the one I’d lean towards, followed by Mike Budenholzer and Jeff Bzdelik, infinity names, and then Mark Jackson at the bottom. Of the potential first-time hires, I’ve heard only good things about the Spurs’ candidates (Ettore Messina should be an easy sell given his resume, Becky Hammon is at least worth an interview given the rave reviews her early work has received, and everyone seems to think Ime Udoka will be on the interview circuit soon enough), and Jarron Collins in Golden State is intriguing given his combination of being a recent player and locker-room guy, scouting experience, time on the Warriors bench, and his reported general basketball nerdery. I also, clearly, think Jerry Stackhouse is going to be an NBA coach eventually, and Nick Nurse is by all accounts a very intelligent and creative offensive thinker.

All of that is to say, I don’t have a list. For any non-established candidate, I’m working off of snippets of information and reputation or trying to extrapolate from work as an assistant or in other leagues.. I do like the idea of a newer, fresher perspective on the bench rather than a retread, to paint with broad strokes, and I think there could be value in either choosing an in-house candidate or choosing a candidate you’re confident can keep some of the in-house options around, because during what could be a tumultuous offseason, maintaining some semblance of the stability and continuity the team’s built the last few years is important. I’d also have a heavy emphasis on detail orientation, because the general foundation has been built up enough at this point to where it’s the more marginal elements of the role have taken on greater importance. Anyway, it would be somewhat disingenuous of me to narrow in on a specific name, but these are the sort of criteria I’d be considering in casting a wide net were I making the hire.

Well, let’s see…

Ah.

Tomorrow

Absolutely they do. I’m not sure it’s fair to frame it as Casey being a scapegoat regardless given that you can’t expect a ton of job security with back-to-back sweeps to the same team, but I think most reasonable people would say the Raptors’ failings were a collective failing and shouldn’t fall solely on Casey, who was a good coach and an important building block for the entire franchise. If the Raptors think that simply changing the voice is going to lead to better results, I think they might come away disappointed in early May once again. There are some pretty clear limitations to this roster, and even accounting for growth from a very young core, Masai Ujiri should be aggressive beyond just the coaching change. Whether or not that aggression can actually produce change is less obvious, but the aggression should be there nonetheless.

That will be the focus of Part 2 of the mailbag tomorrow.

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