Grading Dwane Casey's Season for the Toronto Raptors So Far
Credit for the seemingly improbable 33-26 record of the Toronto Raptors falls mainly on the players, but head coach Dwane Casey deserves just as big a pat on the back as anyone for the way they've performed this season.
There have been eight head coaches in franchise history, dating all the way back to 1995. Only one (Sam Mitchell) has been part of more than 300 games. The position has been a revolving door for men who have attempted to right the ship and create a winning atmosphere for players and fans alike.
Since joining the Raptors in 2011, Casey has accumulated a record of 90-117, which comes out to a winning percentage of just .434. There were certainly some growing pains when he first took the job, but in 2013-14, there has at least been some semblance of consistency.
With a 3.5 game lead over the Brooklyn Nets (29-29) for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, the Raptors are well on their way to qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2007-08. Whether they'd be able to reach that level of success with someone else at the helm remains to be seen.
A basketball team is only as good as the man or woman standing on the sidelines calling the plays. There are several intangibles that make a great coach, which include the ability to motivate, work a rotation effectively and organize a game plan.
For the most part, Casey thrives in all of those areas. It's not always pretty, but it works.
All statistics are accurate as of March 4, 2014 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless indicated otherwise.
This is where things get tricky. Dwane Casey isn't the perfect coach. The "perfect coach" doesn't even exist. In a line of work where everything you do is put under a microscope and scrutinized to the highest degree, you are always going to be called out when you make a boneheaded decision.
On Nov. 6, in a game against the Charlotte Bobcats and with his team trailing 92-90 with 26 seconds remaining, Casey elected not to foul. Instead, Charlotte ran down the clock, eventually hoisting up a high-arching three-pointer that ended the game. Casey believed that his team would be able to grab a defensive rebound, call a timeout and get off a clean look on the other end.
How wrong he was.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Casey has shown that he can draw up the right plays at the appropriate time.
In a 104-103 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 27, Casey conjured up the blueprint that led to Patrick Patterson stealing the basketball off an inbounds pass, leading to the game-winning bucket (via ESPN New York).
We knew exactly what Brooklyn was going to run. Our defense was set. Kyle Lowry was on the ball because he had five fouls and we were going to take a foul if Brooklyn got it in and we didn’t want to waste him with that foul. Usually we have our big man on the ball and we have a special coverage that we have for that type of lineup. In a scramble situation we had numbers and Kyle Lowry had two or three options to throw the ball to and we made the right play at the end.
Things have gotten better as we've gone deeper into the season. The Raptors have lost back-to-back games just once since Jan. 20.
It doesn't erase some of the baffling mistakes that were made earlier in the year, but it proves that Casey knows how to learn from previous mishaps.
A luxury Dwane Casey has with his team is that his players are self-motivated. Winning basketball games isn't something this franchise is accustomed to doing. The fact that the Raptors are in the position they are in (third place in the Eastern Conference) is enough to keep the juices flowing. There is very much a light at the end of the tunnel this time around.
There have been some instances where he had to put his foot down and make moves to motivate certain guys. One moment that comes to mind is when Amir Johnson was benched against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 1. The reason being that it would not only inspire Johnson to get out of his slump, but also because Tyler Hansbrough provided more grit and toughness in the paint (via rotoworld.com).
Defense is something Casey has preached since his days with the Dallas Mavericks. The Raptors have never garnered much respect around the league for being a potent defensive squad, but in 2013-14, that has changed drastically.
Toronto ranks sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (101.1), fourth in opponents scoring (97.1), eighth in opponents field goal percentage (44.5) and 11th in opponents turnovers (14.6).
There are always going to be games where the Raptors struggle to put points on the board. It happens. Shots aren't always going to fall. That's the nature of basketball. However, with Casey getting his players to buy into being a defensive-minded team with just as much skill (if not more) on offense, they can get the best of both worlds.
Even Kyle Lowry, a player with whom Casey butted heads on a regular basis just a year ago, has become more of an extension of what the coach wants as Toronto's floor general, via Eric Koreen of the National Post.
"I know what he wants. And he knows that I’m going to do what he wants," said Lowry. "He’s still a hard-nosed, defensive-minded guy. That’s his calling card."
Since Rudy Gay was sent packing to the Sacramento Kings back in December of last year, Dwane Casey has gone with a starting unit of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross (the only real replacement), Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. There have been some injuries sprinkled here and there, but for the most part, that has been Casey's go-to lineup.
The compensation the Raptors received in that aforementioned trade provided Casey with something he didn't have in months prior: a credible bench. John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, along with Tyler Hansbrough, have all seen their fair share of playing time.
Casey loves to play matchups. Rather than forcing the hand of the opposing team, what Casey does is fall in line with what they're trying to do. If they're going small, the Raptors will go small. If the opposition is trotting out a larger lineup, Casey will do the same.
The biggest victim of this mindset has been Valanciunas, who is often considered a liability in the fourth quarter of games. Casey tends to go with a frontcourt of Johnson and Patterson, with Hansbrough often seeing the floor ahead of the second-year center as well.
Of Toronto's 59 games, Valanciunas has only competed in 44 fourth quarters, averaging 6.7 minutes. The team leads the NBA in fourth quarter defense, holding their opponents to just 39 percent shooting. I suppose the only one suffering from having Valanciunas on the sidelines late in games is Valanciunas himself.
Everyone on the roster has their role. Casey will even go as far putting his 11th or 12th man on the bench into his lineup in order to preserve the rotation. An example of this came on March 2 when Landry Fields, who has only played in 25 games all year, started in place of an injured Ross against the Golden State Warriors.
Demeanor with Media
Dwane Casey is very well-spoken during his media scrums. You'll be hard-pressed to find a question that he can't answer. He'll always give it to you straight.
He's also extremely personable. There have been numerous instances when he's referred to certain members of the media by their first names. Casey has a strong relationship with those who cover the team in Toronto, and it comes out in his interactions.
People easily gravitate to him. He's an X's and O's guy who can clearly spell out the strengths and faults of his players on a game-to-game basis.
Whether in victory or defeat, Casey is always clear and precise in his evaluations. It makes the jobs of beat writers much easier.
Confident, cool and collected. He's not going to always give you the most compelling soundbites in the world, but of course, there's nothing wrong with that.
Dwane Casey's contract will expire at the end of the season, so his future as head coach of the Toronto Raptors remains up in the air.
Masai Ujiri has frequently said that he would use the year as an assessment to determine whether Casey will maintain his position moving forward.
If the season were to come to an abrupt halt, you'd have to think that he's done enough to warrant a new deal. A playoff berth and winning record should be the icing on the cake, don't you think?
Casey was recognized in December as NBA Coach of the Month in the Eastern Conference, helping lead the Raptors to an 8-6 record, which included six wins on the road over some of the best home teams in the NBA (Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder). Only two other coaches in franchise history (Lenny Wilkens and Sam Mitchell) have ever earned that honor.
What Casey said after learning that he had won just goes to show what kind of coach and human being he is, via Eric Koreen of the National Post:
Personally, I don’t give a crap. It’s not about me. It’s about that team out there in the locker room. I’m going to be in coaching for a long time. It’s about those guys in the locker room. For them, I think it’s another huge step as far as their growth is concerned.
Those are the words of a man you can put your faith in. Casey is a coach you can believe in and get behind.
Winning changes everything. The fruits of his labor are beginning to show.