The Toronto Raptors find themselves at a fork in the road. The best team in franchise history was swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, proving that the current Raptors core isn’t good enough to compete for a title and may never be considering the wealth of talent developing in the Eastern Conference. For fans, it was a sobering postseason that culminated in the firing of long-time head coach Dwane Casey.
Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s President of Basketball Operations, finds himself searching for a new head coach in a pool that is relatively shallow in terms of coaches with NBA head coaching experience. Replacing Casey with the right candidate is crucial; It is perhaps the biggest decision Ujiri has had to make since taking charge of the Raptors in 2013. He’s never hired a coach before, here or in Denver. But Ujiri must determine the direction he wants to take this franchise first. Once that is established, the coach that best fits the mold will be much easier to find.
Due to the trusting relationship this management team has built with Raptors ownership, Ujiri has the power and job security to take this franchise in a number of different directions. That can be a blessing or a curse in the NBA, as we’ve seen some savy executives like Danny Ainge pull off smart, timely moves to take their franchise in the right direction while others have abused their power to pull off shorter-sighted moves to save reputation rather than the organization. All of this is to say that Ujiri has an immense amount of pressure on him, because one good move will grant him years of praise while one mistake can cost him a job and result in years of bottom-feeding for the Raptors organization.
Ujiri has to make a decision, and he has to make it soon, regarding what direction he wants to take the Raptors franchise. The way I see it, there are three options going forward: Keep the same group together and compete for a title now, shuffle up the roster while remaining competitive, or rebuild with an eye on the future. Each option requires a different type of head coach, which is why the direction of the franchise should dictate the new head coach, not the other way around.
If Ujiri elects to bring back the same core group once again, a conceivable option considering the big-money contracts that will be hard to get off of this offseason, he may want to hire internally to bring in a coach that knows these players best and can get the most out of them. Luckily the Raptors have two of the best assistant coaches in the NBA in offensive guru Nick Nurse and defensive mastermind Rex Kalamian, both of whom already interviewed for the job. Both bring as complete a resume as you can without NBA head coaching experience, as well as interesting perspectives, and both have been with the team for a number of years, gaining respect from the star players while helping develop the younger ones.
If Ujiri elects to shuffle the roster while maintaining competitive, say by trading one of their backcourt all-stars for a frontcourt player (or by signing said player in free agency), he might want to hire externally in order to bring in someone with prior coaching experience who can quickly build a team better than the sum of its parts. Blake Murphy does a great job of highlighting potential candidates here, but with Mike Budenholzer and Steve Clifford off the market, the candidates that seem to make the most sense are retreads like the Van Gundys, David Blatt, and Monty Williams, or options to this point unknown at the head of an NBA bench like Jarron Collins, Becky Hammon, Ettore Messina (interviewed), or Ime Udoka (interviewed).
Lastly, if Ujiri elects for a rebuild, whether it be an expedited or full-blown one, he may want to prioritize hiring a coach with player development experience above all else. Additionally, since any kind of rebuild could require years of being uncompetitive – Ujiri downplayed this idea at the end of the season, so it would likely be a semi-competitive rebuild – if Ujiri elects for this option his new head coach would ideally be someone Ujiri already has a relationship with who could give him their word that they are willing to take the time to see a rebuild through. Jerry Stackhouse, the head coach of the Raptors G-League affiliate Raptors 905, immediately comes to mind. So does Nurse, who’s been with the team since 2013 and has plenty of player development experience. Hiring a college coach like Jay Wright might also make some sense in this scenario, though college coaches can be hit and miss.
Ujiri has been relatively safe since becoming the Raptors decision maker. Now he stands at a fork in the road and has much bigger decision to make than who will replace Casey as the new head coach. The direction of this franchise is in Ujiris’ hands. Once that is established, the new head coach should fall into place.