Whenever you asked Dwane Casey about his contract status, he would smile and wave a hand.
“I know how to fish,” he would say.
It’s short-form reference to the axiom: “Give a man a fish and you have fed him once; teach him how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime.”
That ultimately was his leverage as he coached the Raptors from a 6-12 mess to a 48-win season and the franchise’s second-ever Atlantic Division title. He was confident in his craft, sure that if he wasn’t going to be working here he’d find a good job somewhere else.
Casey learned how to fish – or, in his case, coach basketball – decades ago from a roll call of giants in his sport. He was rhyming them off the other day as the Raptors were getting ready to play their first elimination game. Casey, the 57-year old in his first ever playoff series as a head coach, was talking about why he felt he could do the job.
He started back with Joe B. Hall who he worked for at the University of Kentucky in 1979 and didn’t stop until he’d listed half a wing at the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“You never stop learning,” he said.
Casey’s been around, with 20 years as an NBA assistant on his resume and one failed head coaching stint with a troubled roster in Minnesota.
Along the way he seemingly never fell prey to either of the common coaching stereotypes: the power-hungry bullies or the permanently paranoid, twitchy, shoulder-checking type.
He knows how to fish. He’s confident. He never wavered.
“One thing I respect about Dwane Casey: he’s been the same Dwane Casey since I been here,” Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan said Monday before the news broke Monday night. “Preach the same thing. Told us to stick with the same principles and it worked. Everything he said came together like he said it would.”
Whatever else can be made of the decision by Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri to kick off the Raptors off-season by signing Casey to a new three-year contract worth nearly $12 million, it’s at the very least one for the good guys.
Confident in his craft, he has time to pay attention to people. He sends inspirational texts to his players and staff nearly daily. He freely admits they can be a bit corny, but he believes in their spirit and they open up a line of communication, as every text sent is an opportunity to get one back.
“He’s never changed up,” said DeRozan. “You could go in his office, knock on his door, text him, whatever. He’s a player’s coach. He’s a great dude. You could go up and talk to him about any situation. I think that’s what helped us a lot.”
The timing of the news was moderately surprising but perhaps not, given Ujiri and Casey are looking back on the season that was and looking ahead to next year Tuesday morning at a press conference.
Getting the deal out of the way saved a lot of awkward questions.
There was never any indication that the Raptors were seriously considering not bringing Casey back, particularly as he improved the club’s winning percentage for the third straight season.
Throw in his relationship with key cogs such as DeRozan and Lowry and seemingly nearly everyone on a roster that prided itself on its chemistry and it seemed inevitable.
With the Raptors one-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets barely 24 hours old, word spread Monday night that Casey had agreed to a deal, something that was not a surprise to any of his players, based on their comments earlier in the day.
“I think he’ll be back,” said Lowry. “As a matter of fact, I’m sure he’ll be back.”
Asked about Casey returning DeRozan smiled knowingly: “Don’t ever worry about it.”
With Casey taken care of the focus immediately shifts to Lowry, who finished the last year of his four-year, $24.5-million deal this season with a bang: setting or tying career marks with 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists while shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc. He was an advanced stats all-star, ranking eighth overall in the NBA in Win Shares with 11.7 and trailing only Chris Paul and Steph Curry among point guards.
Still, signing Lowry might be stickier than signing Casey, whose salary doesn’t count against the salary cap. The last point guard Ujiri signed was Ty Lawson in Denver, who received four years and $48 million from the Nuggets.
It’s believed the Raptors won’t want to go that high or long, Lowry might wonder why not.
Contract details aside, Lowry sounded like he wanted to be part of what he started here with Casey.
“I love this place, it’s as simple as that,” Lowry said in his most definitive comments on the matter yet. “I’m very happy. This has been one of the best situations I’ve had, through and through, coaches, teammates, upstairs. It’s been great. I am happy. Without a doubt I can say I’m happy.”
There was plenty of that going around as the team said its goodbyes before heading out for the off-season. To a man they pledged they believed that the core deserved to return and that they were truly touched by the intensity of the fan reaction set off by their playoff run.
“It was unreal. It was like playing for an overseas soccer team, the way fans were turning out,” said Terrence Ross.
And now they know who they’ll be cheering for: A head coach who has seen his team improve year over year by staying the same, and – the betting is – Kyle Lowry, a point guard who has finally found a home.
For a franchise still learning to navigate the NBA post-season, not a bad catch.