Raptors aren’t good enough to get a coach fired

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss what will happen to the Raptors core heading into the off-season and what to do with the coaching staff.

There are all kinds of conclusions that can be drawn from the last two months of the Toronto Raptors’ season, and the last 10 days in particular.

Among them: They are a flawed offensive team and, at season’s end, a woeful defensive one; they have gaps in their roster that resist back-filling and lineup juggling; and they have overlap on their roster that may have served to undermine team chemistry, which had previously been a strength.

The head coach thinks the point guard needs to get in better shape. The point guard can’t quite get his mouth around an endorsement of the head coach.

Things are fine, in other words, in the same way a house with a leaky roof is fine because it’s a house with a roof.

But if I were to offer my own conclusions, it’s that the last thing the Raptors need on their plate is a search for a new coach, primarily because this isn’t a good enough team to get a coach fired.

This roster isn’t deep in veteran, accomplished players that might deserve a new voice as they try to retool for a deep playoff run. The Raptors aren’t the Memphis Grizzlies. There aren’t any superstars here that deserve to decide who they’re going to work for.

It’s a working-class team that somehow forgot how important it was to punch the clock.

“There is a level you have to play at the entire year [and] I don’t think we played at that level,” said Casey in trying to explain why a 37-17 team finished 12-20. “I think we took that for granted after the first part of the season, the winning part. We took practice as punishment, and it’s not.”

It’s quite a statement on how comfortable the Raptors became having accomplished precisely nothing of lasting significance.

It’s a team that lost Game 7 at home as the higher seed a year ago, played only half a season like it meant something in 2014–15 and couldn’t get out of its own way when things got a little tough down the stretch.

Firing Casey would be a mistake, if only because it would provide an easy out for a group that should feel uncomfortable for what they allowed to happen. Hanging the blame on the coaching staff would be absolving a young team of responsibility.

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri will meet with the media on Tuesday morning, and while his nature is to move slowly, he should take the opportunity to make a firm endorsement of Casey’s return for his fifth season as head coach.

Similarly, Ujiri should also resist the howls that the core of this team should be dismantled, reconfigured or anything else that implies panic. He should resist the lure of shiny distant coaches or the false promise of a free-agent saviour.

Ujiri should firmly restate a hard fact that sometimes gets glazed over: Less than 18 months ago, Toronto’s place in the greater NBA solar system was cold, dark and easily ignored. Their perception locally wasn’t much better.

It’s improved considerably since, but responding to a late-season meltdown by firing Casey on the heels of setting a franchise record in wins for the second-straight year and making consecutive playoff appearances would threaten to undo the progress Casey and Ujiri have made, not only with a more competitive team, but with an organization that has remained largely drama-free.

So keep Casey. Send the message that this team—or whatever elements of it that return given the natural rules of attrition in professionals sports—will have to clean up its own mess.

Casey has work to do, too. His team slipped from 10th to 24th in the NBA defensively year-over-year in part, he said, because he couldn’t get them playing the right kind of offence.

It’s not clear how popular keeping Casey would be. There are fans screaming for blood. It may not be universally welcomed within the team.

More pertinently, Raptors all-star and cornerstone Kyle Lowry had a chance Monday to provide Casey a clear endorsement as the players offered their assessment of a season that went so suddenly sour, culminating with Game 4 against the Washington Wizards on Sunday night.

Lowry was asked if he would be happy if Casey is back next season, a natural question given how things ended.

A number of Raptors were asked versions of the same thing. Most of them managed to make it sound like they would be cool with it.

“I know Case gets a lot of flak, [but] Case is a great coach,” said DeMar DeRozan. “I’ve got to give him credit, he pushes us day in and day out [and] like I said, it could be one little thing. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube—you just got to find the right side to get everything else going.”

Said Patrick Patterson: “Coach Casey is definitely a guy who’s always going to tell it as it is. He’s not going to sugarcoat things and that’s what we needed for us, especially in the second half of the season.”

But given the chance to answer the question, Lowry stalled. He diminished the club’s hot start as a product of being ahead of the curve coming out of training camp, suggesting that when other teams got up to their speed, the Raptors got caught. He spoke vaguely of “things internally that probably need to be fixed.”

And he didn’t exactly bubble over with enthusiasm regarding Casey:

“I respect Casey as a man. He’s a hell of a guy,” said Lowry, who played four of his worst games of the season against Washington, on the heels of a slump in production that began in earnest in the early days of the 2015. “[But] at the end of the day, like I said, it’s not my choice, not my decision. At the end of the day, yeah, if he’s the coach, I’m a player. I’ve said that a couple of years now. At the end of the day, whoever the coach is, if he’s the coach, then I’ll be back playing for coach Casey.”

Which is a long way from “Dwane better be back.”

That he can’t come out firmly behind a coach that gave him the ball, a green light and a platform to earn a $48-million contract, the affection of a country and a starter’s spot in the 2015 all-star game says more about Lowry than Casey.

Those who know Lowry say that it would be wrong to put too much emphasis on what he said or how he said it. Lowry and coaches have always been territory rich for head butting, but by all accounts Lowry and Casey had a positive end-of-season meeting, and if they weren’t always sending affectionate texts, were able to work together.

“Kyle’s and my relationship, we’re a family,” said Casey. “Families, you have good times, you have bad times, but you’re family … there’s no animosity or any bad feelings in our relationship. It’s a player-coach relationship.”

Which is exactly how Masai Ujiri should keep it.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.