Why the Toronto Raptors decided to fire Dwane Casey and what’s next

Eric Smith and Michael Grange chat about Toronto Raptors' Dwane Casey, his tenure with the organization, and what it means for the future.

Dwane Casey lived in Toronto for seven years but he has always rented.

As an NBA lifer, he figured that one out early: home is home. The job is the job.

“I love Toronto. I absolutely love it here,” he told me recently.

He has never wanted to leave.

But the 61-year-old will now be heading back to Seattle — where he’s owned a house since breaking into the NBA as assistant with the Seattle Supersonics in 1994 — after being fired on Friday morning by Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

Ujiri said firing Casey was “the toughest decision” of his life — a reflection on Casey’s unprecedented run of success as head coach and his status as a hard-working, team-first basketball purist.


He was recently announced as the coach of the year as voted by his peers in the NBA Coaches Association and is a favourite to win the league’s award when it is announced June 25. (He was first on my ballot.)

The two men had a strong working relationship, but in the end, Ujiri felt his club needed a new voice and a new approach to see if it can get over the hump in the playoffs, where Casey’s win-loss record was 21-30 overall and 4-5 in series.

In turn, Casey – as first reported by USA Today – was seeking a two-year extension that would line up his contract status with that of some of his core players.

Over the years there were three areas where Casey was ultimately judged to be lacking.

They included:

• In-game adjustments: the ability to respond in the moment to match-up challenges and situational plays.

• A tendency to stick with the tried and true, rather than seek out new and different approaches. The Raptors much-discussed embrace of a more modern offence, as an example, was a top-down directive rather than something Casey pushed for proactively.

• And thirdly, the Raptors will likely be looking for a coach more determined to push incumbent all-stars Kyle Lowry and, in particular, DeMar DeRozan out of their comfort zones.

Casey has essentially been the only NBA coach DeRozan has had, and while he’s blossomed into a four-time all-star, there have been frustrations internally that DeRozan wasn’t held accountable often enough for his defensive lapses that have hurt him in his development as an all-round player.

In Casey’s defence?

His teams have consistently out-performed regular season expectations. He took a team that was in the midst of being blown up in 2013-14 to a then-record 48 wins and the No.3 seed in the East. This past season the Raptors were widely pegged to win 48-50 games and fall short of home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Instead Casey coaxed tremendous production from a young, unheralded second unit, implemented new approaches on defence and offence (the Raptors finished third and fifth respectively; the only NBA team in the top five in each category) and coached them to a 59-23 record, good for a franchise record in wins (the fourth time in five years Casey’s teams set that mark), the second-best overall record in the NBA and their first-ever No.1 seed.

But Ujiri’s frustration with Casey’s inability to transfer regular-season success was rising, according to multiple sources.

After the Raptors eliminated the Washington Wizards in the first round they were favoured at home in Game 1 against a tired Cavaliers club coming off a seven-game series against Indiana. So when the Raptors lost Game 1 in overtime, Ujiri took the loss especially hard, stewing on it well into the following day. A turnover resulting from a failed inbounds play with 2:27 left in Game 1 and the Raptors up by a point was a sticking point. Casey’s decision to play Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas together against a small Cavs lineup centred around Kevin Love was another.

In Game 2, the Raptors held the lead at half-time but lost control in the third quarter when the Cavs were able to find Love in the post against mismatches, or routinely pinpoint C.J. Miles in pick-and-roll action with James. The Cavs roared ahead and led the series 2-0. In Game 3, the Raptors couldn’t get a good shot off out of a fourth quarter timeout while trailing by three with under a minute left, and most critically, weren’t prepared to double-team James when the Cavs chose to inbound the ball from under their own basket (rather than at half-court, as Casey was anticipating) out of a timeout with eight seconds left.

James would take the ball the length of the floor and hit his now iconic fading, one-legged, game-winning bank shot.

According to multiple sources the confusion and subsequent lack of execution on the final play was another log on the fire. After the game, Ujiri stormed into the Raptors dressing room at Quicken Loans — just out of sight of most of the players but not out of earshot — and rebuked Casey in the coach’s office for failing to double-team James. Ujiri didn’t reserve his frustration for just Casey – he also tore into the officials in the hallway as well. But observers noted that the intensity was more than typical for Ujiri, who can run hot at the best of times.

Even in Game 4 – which the Raptors lost in a blowout – a disastrous decision to insert little-used Lucas Nogueira at centre into a four-point game with 2:44 left in the second quarter was a sore point. The big Brazilian – looking very much like he hadn’t touched the floor in 15 days — made several rapid-fire errors and was -10 in two minutes of floor time as the Cavs cruised the rest of the way to victory.

All that said, a coach is only as good as what he has to work with and in the playoffs as defences tighten and scouting reports get more detailed, it is typically talent and basketball IQ that wins as smart decisions and physical ability tend to tip the scales. In losing to the Cavs in three straight series – Toronto has lost 10 straight playoff games to the Cavs – the Raptors have fallen short in both areas.

On Bill Simmons’ podcast this week, former Cavs general manager David Griffin related an anecdote win which James – whose enormous basketball IQ is matched only by his other-worldly talent — corrected former Raptor Pat Patterson on where he should be properly standing to start an in-bounds play.

“It’s just that he knows all your plays,” one Raptors source said of James. “It’s that he recognizes every NBA action and can blow them up before they happen.”

He can make good coaches look bad, in other words.

Meanwhile, Lowry and DeRozan have sported PERs of 20.8 and 20.5, respectively, in the regular season since the Raptors post-season run began in 2013-14, but in the playoffs those numbers fall to 15.9 and 15.8. Which is why firing Casey is a gamble. There is a very real possibility that the Raptors – as assembled – are tapped out in terms of potential and whoever takes the job will be fighting against the current to even keep them a top-four team in the East.

But for Ujiri – who has tied up his core for the next two seasons with expensive, hard-to-move deals — it’s a chance he feels obligated to take.

But who will he trust with the task?

If he goes with a fresh, new voice, he’s handing a 59-win team coming off its fifth straight playoff appearance to someone in their first NBA head coaching job.

If he opts for an experienced hand, there are a shortage of names who have resumes that rival Casey’s.

In either scenario, if the Raptors slide the spotlight will be on Ujiri next.

Former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer is on the Raptors radar, according to sources. He’s widely respected for his expertise on both sides of the ball and led the Hawks to four straight playoff appearances (prior to this year) including the No.1 seed in the East and a 60-22 record in 2015.

The irony? The last team to be swept in consecutive seasons by LeBron James’ Cavs were the Hawks in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final and the second-round in 2016.

League sources suggest that Ujiri won’t take long to hire a replacement.

“One thing that every executive in the NBA knows: you don’t make a move like this unless you know what you have in your back pocket.”

Who are the candidates to replace Casey?

David Blatt has the resume – multiple championships and coach-of-the-year awards in Europe, as well as a gold at EuroBasket as head coach of the Russian national team – before coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2015. The Cavs fired him with a 30-11 regular season mark the following year after he reportedly could not get along with James.

The Van Gundy brothers and former Golden State Warriors head coach and broadcaster Mark Jackson are reportedly looking to coach again, although there is no indication that Ujiri has plans to reach out to them and according to sources the chances of it are slim.

An off-the-board choice could be San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. Ujiri would have no trouble hiring the first female head coach in NBA history, but Hammon’s NBA resume is pretty slim, as intriguing a coaching prospect as she may be.

There are options in-house if the Raptors choose to go that direction. Jerry Stackhouse led the Raptors 905 G-League team to a championship in 2017 and a Finals appearance in 2018. Stackhouse played 18 years in the NBA and was a two-time all-star. He joined Casey’s staff as assistant for the 2015-16 season before taking over head-coaching duties in the G-League. He’s a hard driver, runs long and demanding practices and there are concerns he and Lowry might not co-exist over time.

Nick Nurse has been Casey’s offensive coordinator in Toronto for five seasons and is viewed as a creative offensive mind who helped engineer the Raptors transition away from isolation-heavy basketball to a more ball-movement based, three-point reliant approach. He coached in Europe and was the G-League coach-of-the-year in 2010-11. He won a G-League championship in 2012-13 before joining Casey’s staff for the 2013-14 season.

“He is so creative,” said one former Raptors assistant. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Rex Kalamian was an assistant coach with Casey in Minnesota in 2005-06 and 06-07 and with the Oklahoma City Thunder for six seasons before joining the Raptors as a defensive coordinator for the 2015-16 season. The Raptors were 23rd in defensive rating the season before he arrived and improved to 11th, eighth and fifth under the Los Angeles native.

Casey himself will likely be in-demand but with one year left on his deal, he’s expected to be selective with his next job which could be his last of his career, preferring to avoid a rebuild if possible.

Wherever Casey goes, chances are he’ll rent. He’s been in this league long enough to know better.

As for Ujiri, this is a decision he’ll always have to own.

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