Casey in run­ning for Coach of the Year

After 7 sea­sons, he has Rap­tors rolling

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS | NBA - Jeff Zill­gitt

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.

DAN HAMIL­TON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Coach Dwane Casey has the Rap­tors lead­ing the NBA Eastern Con­fer­ence.

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