A few nights ago in Minnesota, Dwane Casey was asked if he has heard the rumblings that have him linked to the NBA’s Coach of the Year race.
To his credit, the Raptors bench boss shrugged off the attention and tried to deflect it back to his players and the success his team, as a collective unit, has had on the floor. But Casey’s story is hard to ignore and the case can certainly be made that he’s the East’s leading candidate to win the coaching hardware.
With due respect to Indiana’s Frank Vogel and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, no coach in the Atlantic, Central or Southeast has had a more impressive run than Casey. Following a 6-12 start and a trade that drastically altered his roster and the style of play that had been instilled for months since training camp, Toronto has turned its season around under Casey’s watchful eye. He has trusted his primary point guard, Kyle Lowry, and allowed DeMar DeRozan to step into the spotlight as the go-to guy in the Raptors’ offence. And, through it all, Casey has not wavered from his defensive principles and he has built his team into one of the toughest outs in the NBA on any given night.
The biggest competitors the Kentucky-native will have for COTY honors can probably be found in Portland’s Terry Stotts and Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek. In fact, Hornacek may be the frontrunner at this point in the season based on what he’s been able to squeeze out of the surprising Suns.
“That’s not a good list,” Casey joked when told about his name being mentioned alongside the best of the best. “I’m not into that. I promise you I’m not worried about [my] job and I’m not worried about ‘Coach of the Year’ or none of [those] individual honors. It’s about the team. I preach that all the time and I truly mean it.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Toronto has had this kind of turnaround in 2013-14. Many believed that the early-season trade was a sure sign the Raptors were raising the white flag in preparation for June’s stacked draft. And more than a few eyes were focusing-in on Casey’s expiring contract and what might happen to the personable but demanding coach when April rolled around. Now, it’s hard to imagine him not being offered a contract extension by General Manager Masai Ujiri. Toronto may win the Atlantic Division and earn home-court advantage in the playoffs, and nearly every player on the roster has elevated his game under Casey. Plus, the Raptors are winning while still developing two sophomores in the starting lineup (Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross).
How could Casey not be in Toronto for years to come?
“I’ve been in this too long to get caught up into that—next contract, et cetera,” said Casey. “I’m never worried about the ‘next job’ … My thing is as long as you’re doing the best you can do—preparing these guys the best I can—giving them the right information [and] trying to put them in the right place to be successful, you’re always going to be employed in this league.”
When Casey first came to the Raptors two seasons ago, he immediately instilled a defensive mentality and tenacity. But the club struggled to score. Last season, the Raptors attempted to up the ante on the offensive end, but the defence started to lapse and Toronto fell short of its goals yet again. So, this season, Casey promised to get back to the ‘D’ and build his team in the mould that he has generally stayed true to over the course of his diverse coaching career.
“My approach has been the same—from when we were getting our tails kicked every night,” he said. “We’re trying to change and turn things around and build. And we’re still not there. We’re not even close to being able to thump our chest or anything like that. We’re still growing and building.”
But they’re getting there. As a whole, the Raptors are night and day from where they were before the deal with the Sacramento Kings in early December, let alone where they were a few seasons ago. Casey—the prototypical example of the coach that lives, breathes, eats and sleeps X’s and O’s—has helped fast-track Toronto’s rebuild and brought respectability back to a franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs in five years.
“Nobody is going to outwork us and our staff,” he said. “I think we have one of the top working staffs in the league. Guys do a great job of teaching, working with the players, developing them and watching film. We try to outwork people and hopefully that leans over to the players and they see how hard we try to work and get them ready and that goes out onto the court.”
I'm no advocate of Casey, but while his late game play calling leaves much to be desired for, his overall game planning has been a success.
The Raptors are the only team in the East to rank in the top 10 in offense (10th) and defense (6th). They also have the best 4th quarter differential in the league, so they can make huge comebacks, just struggle at times at finishing the game.
That's a big testament to Casey and the coaching staff. Were probably seeing best team in franchise history here and while that's not saying much, it's a start.