Ujiri, Raptors testing uncharted waters as coaching search narrows

During Tim and Sid the duo talked to Chris Mannix about Dwane Casey's future and if taking the Detroit Pistons’ job is a good thing for his career. As well, where the Toronto Raptors should be looking for their next head coach.

There are two remaining head-coaching vacancies in the National Basketball Association: One is with the Detroit Pistons, who have turned over their entire front office in the wake of the dismissal of head coach and GM Stan Van Gundy. In the four-year Van Gundy era, the Pistons managed just one first-round playoff exit.

And the other vacancy is with the Toronto Raptors, the most successful regular-season team in the Eastern Conference over the past five seasons and winner of four playoff series in the past three years, second only to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Naturally one of the first people the Pistons interviewed for their job was former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, fired after a 59-win season and five straight playoff appearances — his sin his inability to beat LeBron James and the Cavs, a streak that reached 10 playoff games and included consecutive second-round sweeps.

Those talks are on-going, according to league sources, with Casey on a shortlist of three after interviewing with Pistons management in Detroit last week. Next is a meeting with owner Tom Gores, expected to happen in the coming days, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Casey will also find time to be part of ESPN’s broadcast of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, in Cleveland of all places.

Who knows? Maybe Casey will get a job before the Toronto brass hires his replacement, although the former Raptors head man is in a position to be selective.

On the Raptors’ front, momentum is building towards naming a new head coach in the next week or 10 days as a working list of candidates is expected to be narrowed to three early this week.

It will almost certainly include European coaching legend Ettore Messina, who has been an assistant with San Antonio for the past five seasons, and longtime Raptors assistant Nick Nurse, widely credited with helping Toronto achieve its offensive makeover this past season.

The other candidate is Sarunas Jasikevicius, head coach of Lithuanian EuroLeague club Zalgiris Kaunas. The legendary Lithuanian point guard who played parts of two seasons in the NBA has emerged as one of the hottest coaching prospects in Europe. He was interviewed while Ujiri was at the NBA Global Camp in Treviso, Italy, this past weekend, according to league sources.

Spurs assistant Ime Udoka — also on the shortlist in Detroit — will get strong consideration as well.

That the process has stretched into its fourth week reflects on both how careful Ujiri is being with his decision-making and that this is the first head-coaching search he’s been involved in, even dating back to his days as an assistant general manager with Bryan Colangelo in Toronto.

In his three years as a general manager or team president in Denver and five in Toronto, Ujiri never had to hire a head coach, having inherited George Karl with the Nuggets and then Casey with the Raptors.

Firing Casey was a difficult decision for Ujiri, but once it was made it put him out on a limb — if the new hire goes splat, it will be Ujiri wearing it.

But there could be something freeing in that.

Once Ujiri made the choice to move on from the known, what does he have to lose by venturing further into the unknown?

To the extent that former Atlanta Hawks head coach and recent Milwaukee Bucks hire Mike Budenholzer was his first choice to replace Casey — he was at the very least the first experienced head coach interviewed for the job — it has been interesting that subsequently there was little effort by Ujiri to line up the next group of candidates with NBA head-coaching experience.

There was no rush to the Van Gundys. Steve Clifford, who landed in Orlando, was not given serious consideration; nor was former New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams, recently added to Brent Brown’s staff in Philadelphia.

When you look at who has otherwise been interviewed, the common thread is a search for something different. The NBA’s recycling bin has been largely untouched.

Word is Udoka — who, like Ujiri, is part of Nigeria’s close-knit basketball community — impressed in his interview, but may not be a fit with a team that has a veteran core and a relatively short window to properly leverage it.

Jasikevicius is also seen as a future NBA head coach, but given that he has only two years of head-coaching experience in Europe, making the jump to Toronto at this stage may mean skipping a couple of steps.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

By process of elimination, that leaves Nurse and Messina.

Nurse gets points for his path — working his way up from being a player-coach in the relatively lower-tier British Basketball League to winning consistently in the G-League while being well ahead of the curve in terms of implementing a more modern offensive approach. No one has handed him anything.

His familiarity with the organization would also mean a smooth transition. His interview was said to be very impressive.

The question is if Nurse’s creative tendencies and willingness to think outside the box were curbed as an assistant?

Will the 50-year-old from small-town Iowa be bold yet credible as a head coach?

That’s something Ujiri will have to judge.

Messina’s resumé is unimpeachable. He’s won four EuroLeague titles and twice has been the EuroLeague coach of the year. He’s widely respected for his technical skills and knowledge — “brilliant” is an adjective often attached to him. He’s considered old-school in his coaching style but thoroughly modern in his approach to the game.

Those close to him say he badly wants the job and is determined to join recently hired Phoenix Suns head coach, Serbian Igor Kokoskov, as the first Europeans to be an NBA head coach.

But have the five years on the bench as the lead assistant in San Antonio been enough for the 58-year-old Italian to acclimatize himself to the player-driven NBA culture?

Again, Ujiri’s call.

If Ujiri wanted something safe and familiar he would have kept Casey. Those qualities may yet land Casey in Detroit.

Regardless of which direction Ujiri goes from here, it will lead the Raptors somewhere different.

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