Dwane Casey is pretty much a lock to coach in the NBA all-star game for the first time in his career. His Raptors are 3.5 games up on Tyronn Lue and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference standings with just eight games left before the Feb. 4 deadline.
Because of the “Riley Rule” no coach can lead their conference’s all-star team in consecutive years.
So, since Boston’s Brad Stevens and Golden State’s Steve Kerr coached in the game a year ago, the honour will by default go to the coaches in the runner-up spot two weeks before the game.
When Casey is formally announced as the coach, you’ll begin to see a bunch of think pieces about how justice has been served, given that Lue usurped Casey from coaching the game in Toronto two years ago after Lue was the Cavs coach only for a few weeks following David Blatt’s dismissal.
There will be the narrative that Casey is getting his just desserts after off-season speculation that the “culture reset” Masai Ujiri famously referred to included Casey’s unemployment.
You’ll hear that being the leader of the East is a neat reward for one of the nicest men you’ll come across in professional sports.
All that is true, but the high praise doesn’t go far enough. It’s not too soon to make the case that Casey should be experiencing another first this season: being named coach of the year.
If you want to make the argument that Gregg Popovich should win the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award every year because he is undisputedly the league’s best coach, I get that. But just because you are the best player doesn’t mean you’re having the best season. If that was the case, nobody not named LeBron James would have won an MVP award in the NBA over the last decade.
If your belief is that Kerr has led the best team by far this year, that I can’t argue. But is anybody surprised that the Warriors are where they are in the standings?
No coach has done more with less than Casey. Nobody in their right mind thought the Raptors would be where they are right now. And nobody deserves more credit for that than Casey.
There are other coaches who have similarly put their teams in places nobody would have guessed in the pre-season. Stan Van Gundy (Detroit), Mike Malone (Denver) and even Nate McMillan (Indiana) come to mind. But the precedent has been set that to win the award you not only have to do a surprising job, you have to do it with a contender. Each of the coach of the year winner over the last five seasons had at least 55 wins, a mark Casey is on pace to meet.
Casey has Toronto with the second-best record in the East and fourth-best record in the league despite the fact that he’s had to overcome injures to Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Lucas Nogueira and now Fred VanVleet. The Raptors have had 46 man-games lost due to injury this season. That lack of health has forced Casey to field nine different starting lineups already this year.
Casey has Toronto playing with the league’s third-best differential at plus-7.7 despite the fact he had to incorporate a rookie in OG Anunoby, a free agent signing in Miles and previously developmental youngsters VanVleet, Wright, Nogueira, and Jakob Poeltl. Of the other teams in the top five in the league in win percentage, only Boston has a younger bench than the 24.9-year-old average Casey is playing with every night.
All this while trying to get his all-star backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to buy in to a new offensive philosophy that stresses ball movement, with an emphasis on valuing the three-point shot even though the Raptors have historically thrived in isolation and in the mid-range. That offensive upheaval has worked as not only is DeRozan having his most efficient offensive season ever, but the Raptors rank third in points and seventh in field-goal percentage.
Casey has had the reputation of being a defensive coach since he was the defensive co-ordinator for Rick Carlisle when the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 title. But that downplays the fact that the Raptors have been a consistently premier offensive club with him in charge. This year is no different: The Raptors are the only team not named the Golden State Warriors in the top five in the NBA in defensive and offensive rating. The sole team in the league in the top 10 in points per game and points allowed per game is Toronto.
The fact of the matter is Casey has been slept on as an elite coach for quite some time. Since 2013-14, Casey has the fifth-best winning percentage behind only Kerr, Popovich, Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni. Of that group, Casey is the only one to have not won coach of the year; the other four have won the award a combined seven times. If your argument is that they’ve won championships, D’Antoni has taken home the award twice and has yet to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. And for the vast majority of his career, his teams have only been good on one end of the floor. The award is for coach of the year, not offensive co-ordinator of the year.
Casey doesn’t have a broadcasting background or act in commercials so he’s not readily top of mind and in the conversation about the league’s brightest. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Casey’s seventh year in charge of Toronto amazingly makes him the fourth-longest-tenured coach in the league behind just Erik Spoelstra, Carlisle and Popovich.
It’s a testament to the job not just Casey, but the staff of Nick Nurse, Rex Kalamian, Jama Mahlalela, Patrick Mutombo, Jim Sann and Jamaal Magloire have done.
It’s always puzzled me that players like Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, Bismack Biyombo, and Lou Williams, and even executives like Jeff Weltman have parlayed the success that Toronto has had in the Casey era to lucrative opportunities elsewhere, while the same hasn’t been true for Casey’s staff.
It comes down to Casey and Co. not being widely accepted as the drivers of Toronto’s success but instead the benefactors. Any credit for the team’s consistency and internal growth goes to Ujiri and the front office and not the coach or his staff. The undrafted VanVleet, second-round pick Powell and late first-round picks Wright and Pascal Siakam are seen as good draft choices and not as well-groomed players by Casey.
The reality is that both can be true. It’s time for Casey to get his due.