TORONTO — Heading into an off-season of uncertainty, Bryan Colangelo said he was certain of two things: the Toronto Raptors will make a run for the playoffs next season, and if he’s back as general manager Dwane Casey will remain his head coach.
Colangelo and Casey met with the Toronto media — perhaps for the last time — Monday, a few days after the Raptors (34-48) wrapped up their fifth consecutive season without a playoff appearance.
"I will take that squarely on my shoulders and say that is the new expectation going into next year," Colangelo said on playoff expectations.
The Raptors went 34-48 on a season in which they spent most of it digging out of a horrific 4-19 hole, and now the biggest question about the off-season is the future of the team’s general manager and head coach.
Colangelo doesn’t have a deal for next season, with the club holding an option on what would be his eighth year. The GM said he believes his contract situation will be "resolved" within the next two or three weeks.
And if he indeed returns, he said Casey will be back as well. He was clearly annoyed when asked if he considered firing Casey during the team’s 4-19 start.
"Absolutely not. Put that one to bed. I’ll leave it there," Colangelo said of the coach who has one year left on his contract.
"Coach Casey and I get along in a way that most coaches and management people do. We challenge each other. There is give and take and it needs to be that way. If we are both saying the same things all the time it is probably going to be less productive.
"I will tell you that anyone who was trying to drive a wedge between us failed to do so. We are fine. We get along great and if I come back there will be no question about who the coach will be. Dwane Casey will be the coach of this basketball team."
Colangelo, who saw Toronto make the playoffs in his first two seasons, said Casey has the players’ respect, for the "the way he approaches the game and they respect his thoughts and ideas."
The Raptors finished four games out of a playoff spot in what Colangelo called the third year of his building process, and both he and Casey said they feel confident in the young players they have.
"Obviously at the beginning of the year I felt like we were all hopeful internally to possibly make the playoffs, knock on the door, but at the end of the day it didn’t happen," Colangelo said. "I believe where we are is a much greater place, a much more developed team, much further down the path then a number of people in the media seem to think. And that’s not to be defensive or take offence to what’s being said, but we are pretty much exactly where I thought we would be with respect to the roster make-up.
"I believe three years ago year one we won 28 per cent of our games. Year two it was 35 per cent and this year we won 42 per cent. The next step is obviously to get to the point where you exceed 50 per cent and guarantee yourself a playoff spot."
Colangelo said there was nothing new to report on Andrea Bargnani, who the team attempted to trade this season before two significant elbow injuries derailed any serious interest. The puzzling Italian centre, who looked so good at times last season, spent more than half the season on the bench.
"I want the healthy Andrea to be able to put in our lineup with this group to see because we need that skill set. We need that three-point shooting," Casey said. "His teammates need him. That’s the Andrea we need to see, a healthy Andrea to be able to show that."
Casey said he tried every which way to get Bargnani back to playing the way he had a season earlier, easily the best season of his career. But he needs the former No. 1 draft pick to meet him halfway, the coach said.
"I can draw up all the X and O plays that I want to, but now he’s got to get it done and he’s got to produce," Casey said. "Andrea as a teammate, Andrea as a man has never been contentious. He’s always done exactly what you’ve wanted him to do, but again it’s about productivity and producing in those situations and again health has been his biggest bugaboo this year."
The coach and GM said there are reasons for optimism, starting with the development of 20-year-old rookie Jonas Valanciunas, who was a favourite target of opposing teams at the beginning of the season but was more than holding his own by the end.
"He’s one of the top most productive centres in the league at the end of the year," Casey said. "He’ll get stronger, but his offensive output was unbelievable at the end of the year. Boston was even double-teaming him. Atlanta was double-teaming him. Brooklyn was sending a half a man down. He did a heck of a job of reading those situations, kicking the ball out and finding teammates outside of the paint which is hard for a veteran to do, no less a rookie.
"The first year we took some hits and took a lot of Ls, but it was a great lesson and learning experience and laboratory for him to get better. That’s why it’s always hard to develop and win at the same time. Believe me, the dividends of him becoming the player that he is were worth it."
Colangelo pointed to the mid-season acquisition of Rudy Gay, calling the former Memphis Grizzlies swingman "the closest thing to an all-star that this team has seen since Vince Carter and Chris Bosh."
The two talked about the improvement of Kyle Lowry, who lost his starting spot to Jose Calderon before the latter was traded to Detroit in the deal to acquire Gay. There had rumblings about Casey and Lowry butting heads.
"The one thing I was guilty of with Kyle is — and I probably hindered him a little bit — was making sure he got the ball to (guard DeMar DeRozan) first and then to Jonas rolling to the basket because we have all those weapons," Casey said. "Kyle’s strength and his gift is attacking the rim, attacking the basket and his stubbornness and his toughness is also a gift.
"As the year went on he got much, much better at finding people, getting the ball to people at the right time, reading situations and at a the same time not taking away his gift … that balance, it took time. It was a process of building that understanding and he did a much better job at the end of year of calling plays."
Colangelo said he’ll look at tweaking the roster this off-season, rather than making any major moves. The Raptors don’t have a draft pick this off-season — it will go to Oklahoma City unless the Raptors move up to the top three in the lottery. But the GM said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
"If we do move up to one, two or three in the draft, we will retain that pick and we wouldn’t be disappointed with that. But equally we’re not disappointed to not have a pick in this draft," Colangelo said. "There’s a lot of good players, but the overall depths of star power and talent is down this year. It’s not a bad year to take a pass."