TORONTO – Back on the court at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday morning, it was like Dwane Casey never left.
The 62-year-old was seen jovially chopping it up with members of the Raptors’ press corps like old times shortly after he and his visiting Detroit Pistons got some early work in during morning shootaround in preparation of their game later that evening against the defending NBA champions.
And speaking of those NBA champs, up until the end of their 2018 playoff run, Casey was the man at the helm of the good ship Toronto Raptors, presiding over the most successful period in Raptors’ history with 320 regular-season wins to go along with four Atlantic Division crowns and a Coach of the Year nod, to boot.
So in many ways, that Casey walked into his former club’s building like he was still part of the time is no surprise.
The key here remains, though, the word “former.”
For all of his accomplishments with the Raptors, the most bizarre might have been delivering his Coach of the Year award acceptance speech after he had been fired by the club, mainly on the dubious distinction of accumulating 21 post-season victories over his seven seasons in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Casey’s successor, and long-time former assistant coach Nick Nurse, made it to 16 playoff wins after just one season with the Raptors.
It’s got to be a bitter pill to swallow, to see the team you helped build from nearly nothing and then, immediately after you get let go, see it reach the top of the mountain.
It would be hard to handle for just about everyone not named Dwane Casey, that is.
“I’ll say this out front, I’m so proud of the team from last year, how they came out, won the championship, seeing the banner up there is beautiful for the team, for the organization, for the country,” said Casey. “I can remember … first, go there we won 23 games, every year we got better and better and better, [Raptors president] Masai [Ujiri] did a heckuva job of changing the team and making sure he got those pieces that they needed and they won a championship. Nick did a good job of bringing them home.”
These are words and sentiments that echo remarks Casey made to The Athletic’s Michael Lee on the eve of the NBA’s opening night and the Raptors’ banner and ring ceremony.
Reaction to Casey’s words in Lee’s story were met with much skepticism, as they’re likely to be met with from this story. But if Casey is to be believed, he was genuinely happy for his former club winning it all last season.
“It’s great for everybody. Great for the NBA, great for the fans and I can’t say enough good things,” said Casey.
Still, Casey’s heard all the noise and disbelief over his words and he wants to try to set the record straight.
“It irks me when I read the narrative that Dwane is salty. I can’t say anything right. I say, ‘OK, we got better every year.’ ‘Oh, he’s salty.’ Or I say that we developed those guys. ‘Oh, he’s salty.’ Nah. Dwane Casey is not salty at all.
“I’m happy for everybody who’s here, I’m happy for the organization. Masai and I talked this summer, Larry Tanenbaum and I, we text back and forth with each other after it was over with. … So there’s no animosity in my heart whatsoever. I can sleep at night. There’s no saltiness, no pepper, not hot sauce, anything, whatsoever.”
This lack of animosity was reverberated by Nurse just before the Raptors tipped off against the Pistons.
“We had a great run together. We won a heck of a lot of ball games, and fought a lot of battles together,” said Nurse.
“I mean, I remember I was always in fights with guys in the D-League,” Nurse continued, laughing while responding to whether things get personal between coaches. “This seems to come at you so fast, you know, you just, you go, you play, you wave to each other at the end, and you’re literally, by the time you hit your office there’s another scouting report of a team that’s coming two days later, usually at max, and you don’t have much choice but to get on to the next game. …
“I think at this level there’s a tremendous amount of respect. There’s not guys coaching at this level who we don’t have a lot of respect for. And, certainly, [Casey’s] been in this league forever and very, very well respected all the way across the league.”
Despite the warm words, it’s likely Casey’s and Nurse’s words will still be met with a great deal of apprehension. What’s undeniable, however, is that under Casey, Toronto’s vaunted player development program – that’s seen players like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet flourish – really took off.
“Well, all of them,” said Casey of who he’s most proud of seeing develop. “Fred VanVleet’s story. Here’s a kid who’s not very fast, not very tall, undrafted, had every excuse to not make it big and here he is and he’s gonna be one of the top free agents.
“Pascal, his story going from school over there in Africa to college over here, his father passed away, and then to see where he is now.
“So all of those stories are beautiful stories, and I remember when they weren’t stories. So, again, I’m not being salty, but I remember that.”
Given his ties to the Raptors, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that Casey has been in contact with a number of players from the team.
He said he caught up with Siakam at the NBA Awards when the Raptors forward won the Most Improved Player award, texted Kyle Lowry immediately after the buzzer sounded and Toronto won the championship, and did the same with Ujiri, the man who fired him and then thanked him for what he did after the Raptors won the title.
“It’s one of those things where you are always in a situation where as a general manager where you’re not always going to agree,” said Casey of Ujiri. “You’ll have disagreements, but it’s never personal.”
And as for the question of what Casey could’ve done with the team Nurse had last season, he doesn’t even want to entertain it much.
“‘Coulda, woulda, shoulda,’ but didn’t. It wasn’t here. Did I think the moves that the organization made were the exact perfect moves? They did a good job of letting them go and letting them play and getting them there. But getting Kawhi here was huge, a great get for the organization. Then add Danny Green and add Marc Gasol. Those are great moves for any organization – not just for here – because we were so close.”
So if Casey’s still bitter over how everything went down between him and Toronto and what happened after, he certainly does a good job of hiding it – well, except for maybe one thing.
“It’s the best feeling in the world when you hold that trophy up and you get that ring,” said Casey, who won a championship ring as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. “I’m a little jealous because their ring is bigger than my ring, but it’s a beautiful ring.”