The Toronto Raptors’ remarkable season has been woven from many threads, but none more unifying than the relationship between the head coach people thought was too nice to succeed and the player failing because he was a jerk.
Like most perceptions the standard view of Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and point guard Kyle Lowry wasn’t wholly accurate. But each of them had their NBA futures on the line this season if they weren’t able to change the way they were seen.
Regardless of what happens once the Raptors first-round playoff series against the veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets gets under way on Saturday at Air Canada Centre, for Casey and Lowry it’s been mission accomplished.
For all the years of NBA experience on the Nets – Brooklyn’s roster has collectively started 417 NBA playoff games, the Raptors don’t have a player who has started a single one – Lowry is the best player in the series after a regular season in which he set or tied career marks while averaging 17.1 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game, while finishing eighth in the NBA with 11.7 Win Shares (a catch-all statistic measuring individual impact on team success) trailing only the elite of the NBA’s elite.
Casey will be on the shortlist of candidates for coach-of-the-year for helping the Raptors pull out of what looked like a fatal nosedive early in the year and earn the Raptors home court in the first round.
A big factor was his ability to connect with Lowry, of course the Raptors point guard had to be willing after clashing with coaches at Villanova University, the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets and even last season under Casey at times.
”I was a young kid, a stubborn kid, a hard-headed kid, very closed, never opened up to anybody, a kid who never thought he needed help from anyone,” said Lowry, who turned 28 last month. “And I was wrong. I grew up.”
A cynic might say Lowry had little choice: a pending free agent at risk of heading into the summer looking for a job as a well-travelled journeyman point guard with an attitude problem – hardly the recipe for securing a lucrative long-term contract.
Lowry made his decision to begin changing those perceptions at a meeting with Casey at the end of last season. Casey told him he expected more from Lowry in the form of less: less attitude; less impatience with his teammates; less questioning of the game plan.
The points were driven home at a sit down on the eve of training camp with MLSE minority shareholder Larry Tanenbaum, president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke and general manager Masai Ujiri.
“Everything got put on the table, to be honest,” says Lowry. We all showed our hands, spoke honestly and that was that.
“I told him I could play for him and he could coach me. That was a big thing for both of us: he coaches, I play and that’s it.”
Getting Lowry on board was a triumph for Casey was well. Like his point guard, his NBA life was at stake. A long-time NBA assistant renowned for his defensive acumen and basketball junkie tendencies (Casey celebrated his 57th birthday Thursday with an all-nighter putting in his game plan in advance of the Raptors two practice days prior to the series opener) Casey had already failed once as an NBA head coach, in part because he hadn’t been able to connect with his franchise player.
Casey coached the Nets’ Kevin Garnett when they were both with the Minnesota Timberwolves. After going 33-49 in 2005-06, Minnesota was 20-20 the following season when Casey got a phone call the morning of a road game in Portland.
It was Minnesota general manager Kevin McHale calling to fire him.
Looking back Casey says he tried to be too accommodating in his first swing at the head job. In Minnesota he found himself trying to cater to Garnett, the former MVP and a character so central to the T-Wolves eco-system that he almost dwarfed the franchise.
“Everything we did we did around Kevin but I don’t think you can build a relationship in the amount of time we had,” said Casey. “It wasn’t a bad relationship with Kevin or a contentious relationship, it was more [the organization] thinking we under-achieved.”
The organization was wrong – Minnesota went 12-30 the rest of the season and hasn’t made the playoffs in 10 years.
But Casey says the experience helped forge him.
“What I learned from [getting fired] is you have to go with what you know. You have to go with your gut, teach what you know.”
That belief got tested in Toronto last season. The team was losing; he had a poor relationship with Lowry and Casey was feeling some pressure from then general manager Bryan Colangelo ,who wanted to position Lowry as the point guard for the future and the Raptors to play a more up-tempo style. This time around Casey was more determined to hold his ground.
“Bryan had a style of player he liked and he had a style of play he wanted to enforce and I respected that but it was a different style that I was used to. There wasn’t friction, we had a healthy working relationship. [But] when I tried to be more up-tempo I thought it hurt our defence a little bit.”
When Ujiri took over the general manager’s role he didn’t clean house, but he didn’t give any contract extension either. If any holdovers were going to be part of the future, they would have to earn it.
So, like his point guard, Casey entered this season a pending free agent and needing to succeed to secure his future. Long-time assistant coaches who fail twice as head coaches rarely get a third chance in the NBA.
But while Lowry shifted his approach, Casey decided to double-down; rather than coach scared, Casey has been emboldened.
“It’s a results driven league,” he says. “But results help build relationships and trust. The good thing about it was Masai really empowered us and gave us the platform and said, ‘hey, get it done, you’ll be judged on results.’”
So far, they’ve been extraordinary. The Raptors went 41-22 since they traded Rudy Gay on Dec. 9, the best record in the Eastern Conference over that span.
The team has benefitted from all kinds of efficiencies – the improved play of DeMar DeRozan; big steps taken by youngsters Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas and the veteran depth added from Sacramento.
But the beating heart has been the play of Lowry, who has discovered how to catch flies with just a taste of honey and the steadfast approach of Casey, more confident than ever in the merits of being both kind and firm.
“I’m a believer that the point guard and the head coach have to be on the same page,” says nine-year veteran Chuck Hayes who arrived mid-season from the Kings. “The point guard has to know the coach and the coach has to know the point guard. For Dwane and Kyle, it’s their second year together, I wasn’t here last year, but since I’ve been here, experiencing it and watching it, they trust each other, which is great. It’s what you need.”