Retaining Dwane Casey is a microcosm of the Raptors’ problems at large.
Generally speaking, Dwane Casey has been given an unfair shake from the fans.
He’s exceeded expectations, he’s fostered a strong and stable locker room, the players are focused, and for the most part, the team plays hard for him. Those are all reasons why Casey is the franchise leader in both wins and win percentage.
(The other reason being: the Raptors have, save for a few blips, sucked miserably when they didn’t have stars; to Casey’s credit he’s found success without having a Chris Bosh or Vince Carter).
But don’t get it twisted: he’s taken a lot off the table as well.
I’m not necessarily referring to his shortcomings as a tactician. His paper-thin playbook is nothing more than kindling for the fire Casey movement. The dual-big lineups, the isolations for DeRozan, the consistent inflexibility of his lineup patterns – outwitting the opponent was never Casey’s strength.
We can put that aside, although it’s far from insignificant.
The bigger worry is the opportunity cost of Casey’s longevity. What did the Raptors give up in keeping him entrenched for so long? We know what he can and cannot do – he’s already the fifth-longest tenured head coach in the NBA – but what did they pass up?
Casey and DeRozan have, effectively, served as the backbone for this era of Raptors basketball. We watched DeRozan develop from a pup into a full-fledged bloodhound and it’s been Casey who’s overseen the training.
As with Casey, the opinion on DeRozan is split. He’s a relentless attacker and he’s solid in almost every aspect of the game, but he just can’t quit the midrange jumpers, and he’s hit a ceiling with ball-handling and outside shooting.
DeRozan profiles as a good player with many obvious flaws. But he’s treated like a great player as if those flaws don’t even exist by Casey. And while it’s somewhat unfair to hold him to standards that we know he can’t meet, the game-to-game outcomes are still ultimately decided in large part by DeRozan’s performance.
But what if DeRozan’s performance wasn’t all on him? And what would it look like if he wasn’t asked to carry the burden of being the no. 1 guy?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer. With Casey around, DeRozan will never be anything less than the 1b to Kyle Lowry’s 1a. That means we’ll never quite know if what DeRozan can be in a different setting, and that’s a worry because he’s effectively an impending free agent.
What we do know, despite DeRozan’s much-heralded improvements, is that the Raptors cannot win at a high level with DeRozan as the no. 1, and so if he is re-signed, he would either have to make a significant jump (despite being hard-working to the point where he should have made it already, if it were ever to happen), or he’d need to transition into a no. 2 role (but that’s difficult because the Raptors have no cap room and few assets otherwise to trade for a better player than DeRozan).
Taking a step back, what if DeRozan can be better, or that he can play within a successful scheme as the no. 2 or 3? How much of his performance is tied to Casey?
Ultimately, we’ll never know, and the ship has sailed on that opportunity. We don’t know if a more innovative head coach could suss more out of DeRozan’s abilities, and while that’s an unfair critique of Casey, it nevertheless was a cost of keeping him around.
And so, general manager Masai Ujiri has an insanely difficult decision to make with DeRozan next summer. It probably would have been hard either way, but while canning Casey might have upset the team’s success in the short run, committing or jettisoning DeRozan without the full picture in mind could seriously impact the Raptors’ success in the long run.
Again, it’s unfair to lump all the blame on Casey for this one, but who has he developed? Which players have joined the Raptors and become markedly better?
The obvious answer is Lowry, and he’s definitely important enough as a player to invalidate this whole argument. But I’d argue that Lowry’s biggest issue was never his game. He always had the talent, but injuries, and a prickly personality held him back until he found a home in Toronto. Credit Casey for finding a peace with Lowry that no one else ever did (save for Rick Adelman), but that isn’t necessarily development in the sense of building and adding. If anything, that’s management, and a good job at that.
So from a strict development standpoint, who has Casey developed?
Look at Valanciunas and Ross, who have played under Casey for their whole career. They’ve gotten better, but would anyone suggest Casey maximized their talents? And would anyone necessarily argue that they’ve notedly stayed above a natural rate of development? The answer to both is no.
If not the blue chip prospects, then what about the reclamations projects? What of the DeMarre Carrolls of the world? Or even the annual renditions of “Tyler Johnson/James Ennis/Bill Walker” types that the Heat summon out of thin air? Has Casey brought anything like that along? The answer, again, is no.
Don’t even mention the end-of-bench flyers that Ujiri seems so fond of. Those Bruno Caboclo, Bebe Noguiera, Anthony Bennett types – those guys don’t even catch a sniff. They were so stalled that the Raptors had to pony up for a D-League team (they should have had one anyway) to find an alternate route for developing fringe talent, because there was just no way for them to rise, or even become appreciably better, under Casey.
Playing both sides is hard
Look, it’s not all on Casey. He’s making the best of a difficult situation. Ujiri is trying to both compete and build toward the future, which makes Casey’s job extremely difficult.
Let’s backtrack for a moment and look back at the last two years under Ujiri’s control.
In the start of 2013-14, the Raptors were clearly trying to tank. They traded away a productive player (lol) in Andrea Bargnani and dealt Rudy Gay 18 games in. Lowry wasn’t far behind and would have been gone had the Knicks ponied up Iman Shumpert and a 2018 first-round pick.
But then the Raptors got good – as in .600 win percentage good, top-10 in both offense and defensive efficiency good. And while it looked somewhat strange coming out of left field, Ujiri’s hands were tied. So he rightfully stood pat and waited to see how his club would turn out. The consensus thus far: they can win the Atlantic, they can’t win in the playoffs.
Judging by his moves, however, it’s clear that Ujiri isn’t quite sold on the roster. He took a massive swing for Caboclo and has consistently looked to fill the end of his bench with prospects. Up until he acquired DeMarre Carroll, the onus from Ujiri was always to build for the future, and given the escalating cap environment, it can be argued conversely that even the Carroll move might be setting up the future. He never traded any first-round picks for immediate help.
He’s not completely sold on his core. He’s still building toward the future.
But don’t get me wrong, the Raptors are definitely trying to win. They’re just rebuilding on the fly as they do so. And while that means eschewing the most important part of any rebuild (getting high-end prospects through the draft), Ujiri is still desperately trying to make the most out of his situation. It’s what the best general managers do, and I’d argue that he’s in the top-10.
Except, playing both sides is extremely difficult to pull off, and circling back to Casey, it takes a tremendous head coach to execute that strategy.
Look at a team like the Celtics. They’re rebuilding, but they’re also competing. General manager Danny Ainge brings in spare pieces and ships off veterans, but the team continues to win because head coach Brad Stevens knows how to develop talent. He’s a flexible coach who doesn’t ever waste talent. He figures out a way to maximize his roster, and that includes finding roles for his younger players.
Stevens groomed Marcus Smart into an all-consuming defender. He’s got Avery Bradley to become a playmaker and a capable shooter. Jae Crowder is basically DeMarre Carroll with a less functional jumpshot. He even found a productive role for Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger.
One hand washes the other. Stevens’ coaching ability gives Ainge better cards to deal. Crowder was an afterthought in the Rajon Rondo trade. Now he’s on a dirt cheap contract and he’d likely fetch more assets than what Rondo commanded. Stevens makes his players better, and that helps Ainge build more assets for when the next Kevin Love/Dwight Howard/Carmelo Anthony/James Harden becomes available.
The Raptors don’t have that luxury because Casey isn’t at that level. He’s not good enough to play both sides. He has one way to win in his mind, and he’s going to do that. He’ll play John Salmons a ridiculous amount of minutes over a developing player like Ross. He’ll make defensive gameplans that don’t fit Valanciunas. And while his style grinds out wins, that’s only one half of the equation, and quite frankly, he’s not even particularly good at that.
That traces back to Ujiri, too. He’s seen enough from him to know full well where Casey can take this team. And if he’s going to build on the fly with a mediocre core, then he needs to maximize through every other channel, including at head coach.
Stay put once you’ve made it
The Raptors have painted themselves into a corner with continuity. Getting good was both a gift and a curse. They got too good to tear down, but they’ve also hit a ceiling.
This team isn’t a championship squad. It’s not even a conference finals team.
Again, it’s no one’s fault. No one in their right mind would have blown the whole thing up after they started winning. Ujiri’s decisions have been logical and calculated at every step, but after two years, it’s unclear as to where the team is really going. Are they really getting better with this core? What’s the bridge to the future? What’s are the short-term goals?
What they have right now is nice. They’ll make the playoffs every year. They’ll win enough games to be respectable. There’s no shame in being middle of the pack, but I thought the Raptors weren’t going to be “caught in the middle?”
If that’s the case, why is Ujiri so beholden to this roster? Why play into continuity if neither the core pieces, nor the head coach, are up to par?