Former Kentucky Wildcat and now former Toronto Raptors head coach, Dwane Casey, is looking for a new job following his most successful season as an NBA head coach. Not only was it the most successful season for him personally, it was also the best season the Raptors franchise has had since being added to the league as an expansion team in 1995. Casey led the Raptors to a 59-win season in 2017-18 – the most in franchise history – and the number one overall seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Throughout the season, there was never any debate over whether or not Casey was a deserving and elite-level coach. He was a consensus pick to be named NBA Coach of the Year by his fellow coaches, yet lost his job following a second-round playoff exit. While there is no perfect answer as to why he was fired, there are arguments for both sides.
To put it bluntly, Casey did not deserve to be fired. Everything listed in the paragraph above is more than enough pedigree for him to continue a thriving career in Toronto. When he took over as the Raptors head coach in 2011, his best players were a 22-year old DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani, and Jose Calderon, and he led them to only 23 wins. Since then, Casey coached his Raptors team to increasing win totals for four consecutive seasons. He won 34 games the following season, then 48, then 49, then 56, then dipped to 51, but followed that up with a franchise-record 59 wins this past season. Based on resume alone, Casey never had any reason to be fired and him winning Coach of the Year is a testament to what he’s been able to do with less-than-ideal rosters.
The issue with Casey in Toronto is this, and it’s not something he had much control over. Someone had to be the scapegoat for this team. For the Raptors to lose in embarrassing fashion in three straight playoff appearances to LeBron James – the greatest basketball player to ever play in the NBA – despite consistently being a top-seed meant someone had to take the hit. Nine times out of ten, that person is not going to be a player. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the Raptors two face-of-the-franchise players. They helped pull this team out of the mud and transformed them from a trainwreck into a regular season powerhouse. But they, like Casey, couldn’t get over the hump of beating LeBron, yet they still have jobs.
If every team that lost to LeBron in the playoffs fired their head coach, there would be several openings every season.
Wait… That does happen?!
Literally every year.
Losing to LeBron James in the playoffs isn’t like losing to an average NBA team. The Golden State Warriors had to recruit the second-best player in the world to their team just to make sure they could beat him. It wasn’t the fact that Casey lost that got him fired. It was how he lost. The Raptors have three straight 50-win seasons under their belt, but what they’ll be remembered for most was losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But not just losing, being swept in two consecutive playoffs and losing 10 straight playoff games to the Cavs. If Casey and the Raptors had taken Cleveland to at least a six-game, maybe seven-game series, he likely still has his job.
The last two seasons, the Raptors have been wiped off the court. Either the mental aspect of losing so often to the Cavaliers affected the Raptors play, LeBron was just too good, or a little bit of both. But no matter what happened within the team, they were never the same when the playoffs came around. That aspect falls on Casey. The Raptors were constantly underprepared and Casey struggled to create lineups that could compete with LeBron surrounded by four shooters. When Casey admitted he screwed up the last defensive play of Game 3 against the Cavs these past playoffs (which led to a running 15-foot floater by LeBron at the buzzer), it was obvious he was generally confused. When he subbed in Lucas Nogueira in Game 4 – the Raptors 10th/11th man during the regular season – it was him waving the white flag. He had nothing left in his arsenal. Nothing was hidden in his back pocket. But then again, it wasn’t like DeRozan, who played so poorly that Casey had no other choice than to bench him in Game 3, was on his game, either. Lowry would string together a few plays of brilliance only to fade into the background for ever longer periods of time. The Raptors had the best bench in the NBA last season, in large part thanks to Casey, but that doesn’t matter when none of them can stop LeBron.
Casey’s firing had less to with how he coached his team and more so with the fact that the Raptors needed something to change.
Anything to change.
Maybe they’ll hire former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. Who actually has a lot in common with Casey. Budenholzer may be the better “X” and “O” coach while Casey is a better players coach, but they both have a history of losing to LeBron. Which points to how ridiculous it is that coaches are judged off beating all-time great players without a player of their own good enough to keep up with him.
As for the roster, DeRozan and Lowry aren’t going anywhere. They’re locked under contract for at least two more seasons. Serge Ibaka is also locked in for two more seasons and together, those three will collectively earn $80 million per season until 2020. This is the team that General Manager Masai Ujiri built and this is the team he wants to run with. Ujiri is partly responsible for the team’s lack of postseason success, as this team was his creation and he helped morph Lowry into the All-Star player he is today, but the head coach will go long before the GM. Firing Casey gives Ujiri at least some sort of wiggle room for change/improvement going into next season. Odds are DeRozan won’t fetch much on the trade market (or, at least something both sides deem as fair) and same goes for 31-year old Lowry. They can try to make blockbuster trades in the offseason that may not necessarily improve the team on paper (because they likely won’t see any trade that ends with them coming out as winners, especially if Lowry/DeRozan are involved), but the current formula is clearly not working. They have young talent to work with if they decide to rebuild, but that seems like a dangerous path to take (and would be a gigantic overreaction). With Casey gone, they’ve made a change. It could be the start of a series of several changes or this could be the biggest move the team makes this offseason, but either way, the Raptors knew they needed change and this was step one.
You can’t argue that the Raptors didn’t need a change. They’ve done this three years in a row. Taken a team built specifically for making a run at the Finals finishing with the exact same result. Running it back again with Casey, especially if LeBron is still in the East, would be the definition of insanity.
So where does Casey go from here? Luckily for him, he won’t have to look too hard. With Casey now on the open market, he will be one of, if not the most sought-after head coach. He has the most head coaching experience, is known for implementing a hard-working and dedicated team culture, redefined the Raptors’ entire offensive scheme from 2017 to 2018, and took a team in the bottom of a rebuild to the top of the Eastern Conference in five seasons. He’ll have a job soon and odds are he’ll do great things there. For Casey, his rise to head coaching prominence just couldn’t have come at a worse time. He ran into the best player of this generation over and over again and shouldn’t be judged for not being able to get over that hump. Casey is an excellent coach, but he’s not Gregg Popovich.
The Raptors, despite whoever they name as their new head coach, will still be a top-3 team heading into the Eastern Conference next season. Casey will find a job before next season begins or by next season at the absolute latest. This was a confusing breakup, but one that will ultimately work out better for both parties in the long run. This Raptors team was never going to make it to the Finals once they ran into LeBron and Casey was never going to be the coach to take them there. Now, Casey won’t have to deal with living as the possible scapegoat and the Raptors will have to blame their lack of success on someone else. This hurts now for Casey, but ultimately, this was the best possible result of the situation he was unfairly placed in.