Toronto Raptors: The Case for Dwane Casey

May 17, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey during the second quarter in game one of the Eastern conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
May 17, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey during the second quarter in game one of the Eastern conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Dwane Casey has instilled a culture of hardwork, intensity and defense a mantra that is finely curated for players still developing in the early stages of their career.

Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has actively been one of the more divisive characters in the NBA. On one side of the fence they throw darts at a picture of him every time the ball movement halts in place for a DeMar DeRozan post up. While on the other side of the fence another ray of light beats down on the marble sculpture of Dwane Casey after every Norman Powell dunk.

Casey’s was still under contract for another year, but Masai Ujiri thought he was fit for an extension right after the Raptors extended playoff run had come to an end. For some this is a pleasant surprise, but for others this is the darkest timeline.

But lest us forget that Dwane Casey joined the Raptors in 2011 at a time where the direction was towards rebuilding. The league had just ended its lockout and he had a starting lineup that consisted of Aaron Gray at centre, Andrea Bargnani, James Johnson, DeMar DeRozan in his third year and Jose Calderon. All this along side a raw rookie centre from Lithuania, that didn’t play until the 2012 season. It wasn’t exactly a desirable time to be a coach.

Each year the team was supposed to get worse, the veterans that were on the team Casey was first a part of either left  in free agency or were traded. Masai was trying to get younger each year, banking on young talent and project players to develop and make the team better in the long-term. The Raptors have never been a franchise that could make huge moves for massive star players, it’s a big market team that operates like a small market team. Masai Ujiri recognized this and decided to grow a team and Dwane Casey is the perfect curator.

Whenever someone mentions the Raptors, the words overachievers are soon to follow. Dwane Casey is the person who operates as the nexus for this overachievement. Casey is adamant on playing his young players, allowing them to be put in positions to grow and prosper. He understands that his younger players need to make mistakes on the floor so they can learn. He inspires the team to be the best version of themselves not so they can get better individually but as a collective, and the team repays him with absolute effort.

When Rudy Gay was traded to the Raptors in January of 2013, the team had won more than it had the previous year, but that was logical, the starting lineup had been the best since the Bosh era Raptors. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Jonas Valanciunas and the ever admired Amir Johnson spearheaded the roster.

But when Gay was traded away in December of 2013, the team seemed doomed to all fans, the team had made a misguided acquisition in Gay and decided to take a step back for more talent development and for better position in the draft.

Receiving what looked like spare parts in Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson from the Kings, the Raptors ripped off a 10-2 run. Coach Casey was able to adapt on the fly, switching in and out parts that didn’t seem like they could work beside one another.

The team grew together, responsibility shifted to the younger players on the roster and they responded by pushing themselves to Game 7 in the first round against a Nets team that was designed to beat the LeBron led Miami Heat.

Toronto Raptors
Apr 18, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) has a shot blocked by Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and guard Norman Powell (24) in game two of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Pacers 98-87. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

In all honesty, that Raptors team was never supposed to make it that far but each year that’s what everyone thinks of the Raptors. Dwane Casey has instilled a culture of hard work, intensity and defense a mantra that is finely curated for players still developing in the early stages of their career.

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Remember when DeMar DeRozan couldn’t handle the ball? Or when Terrence Ross would only take two shots a game due to confidence woes? How about the time when JV would consistently turn over the ball in the post and lapse defensively?

It may come as a surprise to many, but the thing coaches care about the most is defense, and Casey is a large proponent. When a player is a positive on defense the coach will be confident in keeping that player on the floor. Defense is a premium in the NBA and additional offense is a bonus. When the coach is confident and believes in you, you want to prove him right and show the rest of the league what you are capable of as a player.

This year Ujiri brought in young defensive players to supplement his coaches’ mentality and those players had an immediate impact. Rookies on 50 win teams usually ride the bench, but Norman Powell got extended run in the regular season and played a pivotal role in the Raptors winning their first ever seven game series. His offense is okay, hes athletic and can shoot the 3, but his defense is what made him eligible to play in the Pacers series since they needed someone to help guard Monta Ellis.

Every time a young player needed to be relied on they showed they could be dependable and continued to flourish in their role. Casey has been able to push his players to be better every single year. JV, T-Ross, DeRozan, Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph have all posted career bests in subsequent years. Especially DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Both of which were middling starters when first part of the team have now evolved into star players for an Eastern Conference team.

Casey morphed the culture of the team from being a ridiculed rebuilding team north of the American border into a team where playing for each other and winning are paramount. Injuries are not an excuse to get down on the team and give up, in fact the Raptors have not only survived long stretches without their starting centre in Jonas Valanciunas this year, but the team thrived without him this year. When Valanciunas went down in the regular season and playoffs nobody hung their head. Instead, it galvanized the team pushing Bismack Biyombo to the best season he has ever had and pushed the team to the best season it has ever had.

Toronto Raptors
Apr 7, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reacts during the game against the Atlanta Hawks during the first half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

But there will always be people who ignore the development and culture of the team and only be concerned with micro decisions. Detractors will continue to ignore that the Raptors have been better every year Casey has been part of the team. Disparagers will continue to ignore that the culture has noticeably changed from a team that was an afterthought to a team that players love playing for. The critics will continue to point to the offense and how its run.

It’s true, there is little ball movement and if there is it’s for an inefficient shot. There has been more than one occasion where a game was hanging in the balance and Kyle Lowry shot a contested deep three and those can only go in so often.

People who mention the stagnant conveniently tend to forget that his two best players are isolation based players. DeMar DeRozan’s game, even though he has grown tremendously, has never stretched out to the three-point line and he’s never been a creative passer. So Dwane Casey does what a good coach does best, he puts his players in the best position to succeed. That’s why you’ll see a lot of motion before DeRozan catches the ball and then watch the play slow down.

Casey runs action a lot of actions to get mismatches for DeRozan, so he can exploit them with his athleticism and post up game. Or Casey will run actions to get DeRozan on the run with a defender trailing behind him. Kyle Lowry isn’t necessarily known for his passing so Casey runs a lot of pick and roll and pin downs to get Lowry his points.

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It’s not perfect but Casey has made it work. He has recognized that three-point shooting is the new wave of the NBA and adjusted the roster in the playoffs to adhere to that. Patrick Patterson made an appearance in the starting line up for most of the playoffs and there has always been shooting off the bench in CoJo, Powell and T-Ross resulting in the fifth most efficient offense in the league this year.

It’s easy to look at the offense and say the coach is bad, because offense is the most visible thing in basketball. Blocks and steals also get their shine but nobody is pumping their fist and cheering for a good closeout or excellent defensive rotation. Fans aren’t in the locker room or around during practice to see how much influence the coach really has on the players and their habits. So if the offense is bad the coach will always be heavily criticized.

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But make no mistake, this is a young team. Most of the talent on the roster is below 25, Casey and Masai have shown that you can’t put the cart in front of the horse. The Raptors aren’t championship caliber yet but in a small market you can’t buy success, you build success. The architect can imagine the fancy schemes and shiny materials to make an amazing building, but there needs to be a great foreman in place to make sure everything is being used and built correctly. Dwane Casey has done it since he was originally named as head coach and will continue doing it for the next three years