Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri handled Dwane Casey’s firing poorly

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss Masai Ujiri's emotional decision to fire head coach Dwane Casey.

It wasn’t that Masai Ujiri wasn’t within his right to fire Dwane Casey as head coach of the Toronto Raptors. Even those of us who believe the Raptors president of basketball operations deserves at least as much blame as Casey for the construction of a team with the same old flaws agree that he is well within bounds to decide a new voice is needed.

It’s the way it happened; a Friday afternoon news drop on the day the Toronto Maple Leafs were announcing Kyle Dubas as their new general manager, 24 hours after Casey and Ujiri met the media separately in a pair of news conferences in which we learned that Serge Ibaka hadn’t met Casey for his exit interview – What, did Casey ask him to meet him at the three-point line? – and in which Ujiri seemed upset at how social media was poking fun at his team. Yep: playing the old “nobody respects us and I’m taking it personally” card that has been the team’s marketing campaign for what, four years now?

Absent a message, there was no reason for Ujiri to even talk to the media on the day after the team’s elimination; to make it sound like he was going to take a long, deep dive into the embers of the season and make a calculated decision then make an announcement the next day. I’ve heard people say that perhaps Ujiri wanted to move fast to send a signal to prospective hires, or even give Casey a chance to get on the market early. It seems as if there was talk about a possible extension for Casey in-season. The thinking seems to be the uncertainty would… well, I don’t know what it would do, exactly. It’s striking, too, that the Raptors and Leafs didn’t know what each other was doing,

Look: I understand that this is the business, that coaches often go into the night without one last media availability. But Casey deserved differently, because as I’ve often said, he provided salve for a city knifed by John Farrell and left spinning by Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle. It was on Casey’s watch that the Raptors more than any other team turned around the local sports scene.

(And in case you’re wondering whether or not the NBA Coaches Association was trying to do one of their own a favour and force Ujiri’s hand in this process by honouring Casey immediately following his elimination and with rumours of his departure hanging in the air: it’s the second time the award has been given out and in 2017 Erik Spoelstra and Mike D’Antoni were announced as co-winners of the inaugural award on May 7. This year’s announcement was May 9. Conspiracy? Nah.)

Further, Ujiri did an unusually ham-handed job of explaining the decision when he made his media rounds on Friday. For a profoundly engaging, smart, quick-thinker he seemed uncomfortable. Fatigued. That, I think, was telling.

So where do the Raptors turn next? They could hire Mike Budenholzer, who was fired by the Atlanta Hawks and has had decent regular-season success against the Cavs/LeBron 2.0 but, ah, who is 0-8 against LeBron in the playoffs. Woof. That’s the name that Ujiri’s many friends in the U.S. media ran with as soon as the Raptors were eliminated. In-house options include Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian, who are widely respected but … well, aren’t we where we are today because the architects of the Raptors offence and defence couldn’t cobble together an effective plan?

I’d like to see Raptors 905 coach Jerry Stackhouse get the job. First, from a purely personal point of view, it would be great to have another African-American man of conscience unafraid to use the post to speak truth to power. There is a freedom that comes with coaching in Canada, as Casey found out, and more than ever it’s important it’s exercised. Mostly, though, it seems to me that the underpinnings of all the criticism directed at the Raptors is that they’re a little soft and a little too willing to play the victim. My guess is Stackhouse would demand something different. And isn’t that what this needs to be all about?

NOW TWEET THIS

In which we wonder whether the King might want to join the kids in Philly – he’d be closer to a title there than with the Lakers; why Joe Biagini is still starting; and when will Auston Matthews start doing car ads?

• LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard. The Philadelphia 76ers are already linked to them. Question: Does Ujiri fire his new coach before a game is even played if LeBron sticks in the East? What if the window’s already closed? #easyreststhecrown

• Biagini doesn’t have the skills or demeanour to be a starter. But he would be a boon for a team facing a come-uppance in relief without closer Roberto Osuna. In that regard, this is a crisis too good to waste. #makethemove

• The Warriors’ Draymond Green is best supporting actor in the Western final, averaging 13.1 points, 11.5 boards and 9.0 assists in the playoffs. Only Magic, Wilt and the Big O hit those numbers in a playoff run of 10 games. #differencemaker

• Want to know how dominant Man City was in the Premiership this season? It trailed for a grand total of 153 minutes. #frontrunners

• Nothing says how little faith the Blue Jays have in Kendrys Morales than asking Yangervis Solarte to score from first on Russell Martin’s two-out double Sunday: down by one run, with Morales due up. #timetocutbait

• No one else will say this, but it was hypocritical that Lou Lamoriello kept a handle on off-ice endorsements while peddling cars for a local dealership. Lou’s great … but Kyle Dubas is the right guy to give this culture a little nudge. #letgotheline

• Midfielder Scott Arfield has become an integral part of the Canadian men’s soccer program and now he’s left Burnley to be Steve Gerrard’s first signing with the Glasgow Rangers. #character

THE ENDGAME

Last week, John Gibbons talked about how he thought Mississauga’s Dalton Pompey looked a little more confident than the player who was sent down to the minor leagues after all but admitting he felt overmatched. Saturday, Pompey was sent down as part of a roster shuffle that would claim Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 48 hours later as the Blue Jays balanced 40-man roster concerns with the need for infield defence and fresh arms.

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Pompey’s parting gift was a god-awful at bat on Friday, when with two on and none out he failed to execute a bunt against the Red Sox’s Matt Barnes, fouling off the first and second pitch after flailing at a second strike.

We can have this discussion about whether bunting is even more of a waste in a day when even middle relievers are throwing 97 miles per hour, but in the case of Pompey it is precisely the situation that will give him a major-league career. He is not nor ever will be an everyday player, but a switch-hitter with speed can still get paid in this game and considering the affinity this management has for giving its manager the platoon advantage – switch-hitting is part of the strength of the Cleveland Indians – Pompey has the skillset to be a nice fourth outfielder. But that at bat could have effectively killed his career in his hometown.

Gibbons reminded Pompey that everybody thought Kevin Pillar was buried when the Blue Jays sent him down to triple-A in 2014 after Pillar showed up Gibbons when he was pinch-hit for in a game. But I’m not sure Pompey’s perceptive enough to get the message and that will kill him on a team that seemingly every day sees a young player step in front of him in line.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 a.m. ET and Baseball Central from 11 a.m.-noon on Sportsnet 590/The Fan.

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