Dwane Casey returns to Toronto free of Raptors’ high expectations

Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey. (Darren Abate/AP)

Former Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has settled in. He’s found a home with the Detroit Pistons.

His kids are happily ensconced at one of the most prestigious private schools in the United States. It was recommended to him by none other than one of its wealthiest graduates – Steve Ballmer, the former chief executive of Microsoft and Los Angeles Clippers owner – and Pistons legend Isiah Thomas.

Casey and his wife Brenda have been battling the renovation dust at their new home in one of Detroit’s lushest suburbs. He’s figured out the best route to work at Little Caesars Arena, brand new just last year and the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown.

And on the first and 15th of every month for the next five years the 61-year-old will be drawing the biggest pay days of his career – his bi-monthly share of his five-year, $35-million contract to coach the Pistons.

There is landing on your feet, and landing on your feet in a bed of rose petals.

Casey’s post-Raptors transition has gone very well, which likely mitigates the awkwardness those around the Raptors might feel after pushing out the franchise’s most successful coach after their most successful (regular) season, just weeks before he was named the NBA’s coach of the year. That Casey neglected to mention Raptors president Masai Ujiri in his acceptance speech was noted. 

And make no mistake, there is some awkwardness, even in the absence of any publicly acknowledged animosity between Ujiri and Casey, or between Casey and his former assistant Nick Nurse, who was on the bench with him for five playoff seasons and got the job after Casey was let go.

In a conversation Monday with Sportsnet, Casey refused to be drawn into the ‘hard feelings’ storyline, saying only that he and Nurse have been too busy to talk – this after working side-by-side, day-after-day, for five years. He did say he’d spoken to Ujiri after bumping into him prior to the season at a league meeting. "There’s no story there," he says.

For his part Nurse seemed sincere Tuesday in expressing his admiration for his former boss: "We had five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard," he said Tuesday. "He took a team from relative obscurity, or the hinterlands, to relevance and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league… we had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy as well."

But have they spoken? Shared a congratulatory phone call? Sent a note of thanks or made plans to get together and rehash those pivotal five years?

Sometimes it’s what isn’t said that matters most.

"My communication with whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi and me or Case, or whoever. I’ll keep that to myself," said Nurse. "I am looking forward to seeing him tomorrow."

Said Casey: "I haven’t heard from him [Nurse], I think he texted me once I got the job here, but haven’t talked to him or spoke to him since then."

That’s a long way from: ‘He sent me a really nice text after I got hired’ and ‘I called him as soon he got the job in Detroit.’

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The succession between assistants and head coaches in the NBA can be difficult, but also amicable. When Sam Mitchell got fired by the Raptors midway through the 2008-09 season, he gathered his assistants in his hotel room in Denver and told them he hoped that one of them would get the job, and was pleased when Jay Triano did. But sometimes – when there’s a perception that the assistant wasn’t completely aligned with his boss or when the boss is seen as trying to hold back his assistants — hard feelings can linger.

No one has ever suggested Nurse was working against Casey – according to sources he went out of his way to avoid being seen doing anything of the sort during the job interview process. And as Nurse said Monday, he was certainly hopeful that after more than 20 years working his way up the coaching ranks he would be a head coach somewhere in the NBA this season. "I just didn’t think it would be here."

But if Casey is frustrated that his inability to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers made him the fall guy for anything that went wrong while his relatively unproven assistant — with the benefit of having Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on his roster — gets the credit for whatever goes right, you can understand where he’s coming from. Did those tensions boil over during some moments during the Cleveland series, just like Ujiri confronted Casey in frustration after their heart-breaking Game 3 loss to the Cavaliers?

No one is acknowledging that on the record, but no one is denying it either.

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Thanks to the rapid-fire grind of the NBA schedule Casey hasn’t had much time to reflect on how his world turned upside down in such a short period of time, but after a tough loss at home on Sunday, Casey woke up Monday morning and realized his next stop was Toronto.

"I would be disingenuous to say it’s not going to feel funny," he said. "But [when] I thought about who we have next and it has to be the Toronto Raptors I thought ‘oh my goodness, they’re a good team’ … [but] any human being worth his salt it’ll be a different feeling, a funny feeling, but I think once the game starts and they throw it up it will be one of 82 and I’m sure it’s going to be the same for the players from the other side too." 

The Raptors enter Wednesday’s game against Casey’s Pistons with a league-best 12-2 record even after their own stumble against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena. The Pistons are 6-6 and looking to Casey to revitalize them after three years out of the playoffs and having failed to win a playoff series in 10 years.

The Raptors are planning a generous video tribute to Casey and Ujiri wants it understood that whatever heights the Raptors now aspire to reach rest on building blocks Casey put in place.

"He was really important for me, he was really important for us," said Ujiri. "He was almost a father figure for our organization, with his steadiness and his sense of calm. He was a big reason for the success we’ve had the past five years, and we needed that in this city, a period like that."

And beyond Casey’s franchise records for wins, playoff wins and winning percentage, his legacy is everywhere. Casey helped elevate coaching in Canada. The Raptors 905 head coach, Jama Mahlalela, was given his NBA start by Casey and Mahlalela’s lead assistant Charles Kissi was part of a mentorship program Casey provided. The Raptors’ young core cut their NBA teeth under Casey as well, and over his six years of occasionally butting heads with Kyle Lowry, the Raptors point guard transformed his reputation from talented malcontent to a four-time all-star and Olympic gold medallist.

The simplest explanation for the move to fire Casey and hire Nurse would be the need for fresh eyes. Nurse’s most obvious departure from his previous boss’ ways has been the decision to split the up the minutes at centre between Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. After starting nearly every game they played together since Ibaka was traded to Toronto midway through the 2015-16 season, the two big men haven’t been on the floor for a minute together yet this season.

Playing exclusively at centre while surrounded by shooters and playmakers has Ibaka on pace for one of the best seasons of his career in his 10th year. And while Valanciunas’ minutes are down, his productivity is up significantly.

Nurse visited with both players shortly after being hired to sell them on the idea early on. Getting them to buy in has had the added benefit of opening minutes at the power-forward spot for emerging young guns Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. It seems an obvious move in retrospect.

According to team sources, dividing up Valanciunas and Ibaka was broached last season, but when there was resistance from Ibaka the matter was dropped. Casey eventually tried it in the playoffs to start Games 3 and 4 against the Cavs but it was too little too late. You can hear echoes of that decision when Nurse emphasizes the need to experiment with a range of lineups and roles so that when the situation requires something in the playoffs, they’ll have at least tried it before.

Would Casey still be coaching Toronto if he’d pushed for that adjustment harder and earlier, or if he’d been more flexible in his approach, or looked further down the road than the next game?

Was his unwillingness to have those tough conversations perceived as a short-coming on his balance sheet? It feels like nit-picking to suggest so. But in that sense Casey was the victim of his own success – by elevating the franchise to levels not seen before, the margin for error when it came to getting the Raptors over the top got smaller and smaller.

The Raptors’ quick start has bolstered Nurse’s position. On Wednesday night, he’ll face the challenge of not having his team lose consecutive games at home for the first time this season, with the added pressure of facing his former boss. And no matter what happens this season, Nurse and Ujiri will be measured by what happens in the playoffs. That’s where Casey left his old team – burdened by high expectations.

Those aren’t Casey’s problems any more. He’s got a long, lucrative contract and the full confidence of an owner, Tom Gores, who actively recruited him after he was fired in Toronto – "he convinced me … I needed to be back in, that I was a coach at heart."

Casey has found a home, doing what he loves and paid well for the privilege. But on Wednesday night he’ll have those funny feelings, they’re unavoidable, and maybe he’ll wonder ‘what if?’

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