Casey in running for Coach of the Year
After 7 seasons, he has Raptors rolling
Had life taken a different turn, Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey might be a hospital or health insurance executive.
Following graduation from Kentucky, he interviewed with Louisville-based Humana.
“I just don’t think that’s what I want to do,” Casey remembers thinking.
His college coach, Joe B. Hall, asked what he was going to do.
“I told him, ‘Coach, I have no clue,’ ” Casey replied. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. He said, ‘Stay here as a grad assistant.’ ”
That’s what Casey did, and after a long journey that has taken him around the world, he found a home in Toronto, where he has the Raptors atop the Eastern Conference at 40-16. In his seventh season with the Raptors, he owns the best winningest percentage in team history (.566) and just won his 301st with the Toronto.
“It’s a been a long, long journey, but very fruitful, rewarding and a lot of fun,” Casey said of a career that has included a variety of coaching jobs — college assistant, head coach in Japan, NBA assistant with Seattle and Dallas and head coach of Minnesota. Before that, Casey worked in a coal mine and on a tobacco farm in college.
On Sunday, Casey will coach Team LeBron in the NBA All-Star Game.
This season, he is among the small group of coach of the year candidates. It’s not just because of the Raptors’ record or that they’re one of two teams (Golden State is the other) that rank in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Casey changed the way the Raptors play. Always known for his defensive mind — he still gets credit for stopping LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals as a Mavericks assistant — Casey implemented offensive changes. They shoot more three-pointers and run fewer predetermined sets, making them less predictable.
“Passing is so important in the style of play we’re trying to play,” Casey said. “Passing on time, on target was a big challenge.”
Defensively, they switch more, a sign of versatility on a deep roster. Toronto is fourth in both offensive and defensive efficiency, scoring 110.5 points and allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions.
Toronto had to makes changes. Last season the Raptors were swept by Cleveland in the second round, and in 2016 they lost to the Cavs in six games in the conference finals.
“We were top 10 offensively last year. It wasn’t bad,” Casey said. “But that way didn’t work. We had to find a way to be more successful in the playoffs.”
The front office, led by president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, had another mandate. Win with All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and veterans Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles while developing young players.
“One of the hardest things to do in any sport is win and develop at the same time,” Casey said. “Our guys have worked hard and gotten better.”
But Casey is making it work. DeRozan is turning in an MVP-caliber season, and Lowry is an All-Star for the fourth consecutive season.
Rookie forward OG Anunoby, who is in the starting lineup, center Jacob Poeltl, forward Pascal Siakam, guard Fred VanVleet — all in their second seasons — and third-year guards Norman Powell and Delon Wright form a promising and productive youth movement.
Toronto’s bench has the second-best net rating at +8.3 points per 100 possessions, trailing Golden State (8.4).
“We’re still not a finished product, but we’re growing,” Casey said. “It’s always a challenge. I don’t care what season it is, every season is a challenge. Nothing’s easy.”
Three seasons ago, Casey didn’t know how long he would be Toronto’s coach. “You never know because you’re at the mercy of general manager and president,” Casey said. “But Masai has been up front and honest.”
In the immediate moments after the Raptors lost a first-round playoffs series to Washington in 2015, Casey said to a reporter, “Did you come to write my obit?”
Casey was on the hot seat, and he was again in 2016. But Ujiri wasn’t interested in making a coaching change. Ujiri likes the way Casey communicates with veterans and younger players and is confident in Casey’s ability to grow as a coach.
Sometimes, the coach you know is better than the coach you don’t.
When the time comes and Casey is no longer the coach of the Raptors — which is inevitable — Casey said he will “shake his hand and say thank you.”
But before that day arrives, Casey is trying to get the Raptors back to the conference finals with a chance to play in the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Coach Dwane Casey has the Raptors leading the NBA Eastern Conference.