Casey brought Raptors identity, continuity after 20 years

Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri talks about what Dwane Casey means to the organization going forward, as he welcomes and congratulates him for another 3 years.

From coaching lifer to coach for life.

Not a bad deal for Dwane Casey, and a pretty good one for the Toronto Raptors too.

When Masai Ujiri met with the media to wrap up the most successful season in franchise history a week ago he fielded all manner of questions. The one he answered most definitively involved his head coach, who was poised to enter the option year on his contract.

“We’ll get that done in our sleep,” said Ujiri.

On Tuesday morning Casey woke up with the details of a new deal – widely reported as pending late last week – dotted, crossed and signed.

The option year, paying him $3 million, was torn up. In its place is a new contract for three years and $18 million that should keep Casey with the team through the 2018-19 season.

Presuming he sees the deal through – hey, this is the NBA, where only the money is guaranteed – he will have served eight years on the Raptors sidelines.

He’s already the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the NBA as well as the longest-tenured bench boss in franchise history, along with the coach with the most wins, most playoff wins, most playoff series wins and best winning percentage.

It’s a lot of winning for a guy who inherited a 22-60 team that was last in the NBA in defensive rating and which was slated to be broken up for tanking purposes in December of 2013 – a fate a avoided when the New York Knicks backed out of a trade for Kyle Lowry.

Eight years with the same team in the NBA? That’s a career for most coaches, and a sign the Raptors have made the transition from a team trying to figure things out to one that knows where they want to go and how they want to get there.

It’s an about-face from a year ago, when Casey’s fate was still up in the air following the Raptors’ flame out against the Washington Wizards. There was a need to find blame and Casey seemed the likely target.

Ujiri didn’t fire him, instead choosing to find him free agents – DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola – that fit with his philosophy, which basically boils down to: Compete hard, be consistent and be professional.

The Raptors weren’t all that far into their record-setting 56-win season when Ujiri’s decision began to pay dividends. Regardless of the schedule, the opponent or who was available to play on a given night, the Raptors were the same team. They didn’t have a ‘hot’ month. They never had a ‘cold’ month. They just won more games than they lost every month of the long NBA season.

They competed, were consistent and professional.

“That’s what you want to build and that’s what I think we’ve done,” said Casey after the Raptors’ playoff run came to an end. “Build a culture first. Here’s what kind of team we want to be or we are. This is what we stand for. These are our rules and regulations.

“I’m not a big rule guy, but we do have specific rules and things that we do that are expected once you become a Toronto Raptor and I think that’s a big part of this league. The continuity, the culture that you have, the program that you have. Guys who are in it to go through the process together, the journey together.

“It’s an identity that we built, a brand that we built of who we are…”

Over the season and (and seasons) you could see the buy-in from the players evolve. The Raptors roster is dotted with success stories, players who have improved year-over-year under Casey. The message that emerged from this past-season was that the locker room was as cohesive and connected as anyone had ever experienced.

Lowry arrived in Toronto with a well-earned reputation as a difficult player to coach and work with. Even a year ago he had a hard time endorsing Casey with any particular enthusiasm (“If he’s the coach, I’m a player”) at the end of the season.

After a difficult playoff campaign where Casey backed Lowry through all manner of trials and tribulations, Lowry’s tune was entirely different.

“He’s been great. He’s been amazing and I feel like he’s still trying to get better as a coach,” said Lowry, who has made the journey from journeyman to two-time all-star under Casey. “He’s changed every year since I’ve been here and grown as well as I.

“Every year we’ve gotten better, he’s just been a good guy and a good coach and just been able to, it’s hard to put into words, he’s been such a good coach and a guy that we can lean on and to put an emphasis on what he wants us to do and put the pressure on us to do it. We need that and we appreciate that.”

NBA Hall-of-Famer Gary Payton knows Casey as well as anyone. Casey was his assistant coach and chief fence-mender between the flinty Payton and Seattle SuperSonics head coach George Karl for six seasons where they won an average of 60 games a year, peaking with a 64-win team that lost in the NBA Finals to the 1996 Chicago Bulls.

Casey and Payton got to know each other over beers, often as Casey tried to make sure the relationship between the demanding Karl and the hard-nosed point guard didn’t splinter irrevocably.

“Coach Casey, he’s a basketball guy,” Payton told me the other day when news of Casey’s extension began circulating. “He’s going to talk about basketball and it’s going to be about basketball and the tradition. I like him because he’s old school. He goes back to basics. He’ll tell you everything. He’s not scared. He’ll tell you, ‘This is how it goes.’

Payton thinks that a long-term commitment to a coach like Casey is the key to helping a team craft the kind of central identity that can withstand the short-term swirl of news, events and drama that can cause teams to veer into tail-chasing mode.

“It’s just like [the San Antonio Spurs] with [Gregg] Popovich, you get to build on a program, you get to build on an organization,” Payton said. “He knows what kind players he wants. … When you have a coach there eight, nine years, that means the organization believes in him and knows what he’s doing and they keep winning. He gets players that he can coach. You don’t go into the draft and try and get this guy or that guy, you get someone he can build with.”

It has taken the Raptors the better part of 20 years to find a coach and a person who they can help craft an identity around.

It has taken Casey nearly 40 years of coaching to find an organization that would trust him to help that identity.

It’s made for a perfect match.

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