As the seemingly hoped for collapse by the Raptors never materialized, recognition of what head coach Dwane Casey has been able to accomplish in Toronto this season was becoming just to hard to ignore. The pundits had already started to recognize Casey as Coach of the Year worthy and after his team completed the sweep of the NBA’s first overall Houston Rockets on Friday night, it’s over. Just give the man his award.
A couple of days prior to the big win over the Rockets, the NBA Writers Blogtable had unanimously picked Casey as their number one choice for Coach of the Year.
Steve Aschburner: Casey has helped to reinvent the Raptors after another disappointing playoff exit last spring
Tas Melas: Casey got multiple-time All-Stars to buy in to a new style of play. I thought it was unthinkable. That’s real coaching right there, and the bench’s success just puts it over the top.
Shaun Powell: My choice by a large margin is Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors. I love how he has adapted and evolved his system to fit the needs of his players, and how the bench has developed.
John Schuhmann: The Toronto Raptors are the only team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ve changed their offense, have actually been more improved on defense.
Sekou Smith: It’s not often you see a coach with his seasoning and stature scrap what’s been working and completely revamp his offense. Casey has always been a defensive mastermind, but to do what he’s done on the other side of the floor has been simply tremendous
On court success alone often isn’t enough to for an NBA head coach to get noticed. Every team and every coach comes into the season with certain expectations and the expectations for the Raptors upcoming season weren’t all that good.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton was forecasting the Raptors as 43-44 win team early in August.
ESPN’s Summer Forecast and Bleacher Report pegged the Raptors at 47 wins.
Using its CARM-ELO system, FiveThirtyEight.com evaluated Toronto as a slightly better than average team prior to the start of the season.
After back-to-back 50+ win seasons, even the positive predictions had the Raptors taking a step back this year and reasons weren’t all that hard to understand. Ujiri had shipped off veterans DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph. Key rotation cogs P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson were lost to free agency and the only veteran addition was journeyman three-point specialist C.J. Miles.
President Masai Ujiri made it clear he was going to see what his young players and rookies could do and to be fair, no one knew in advance how this would turn out. Casey was going to be under the gun to get a team of two All-Stars, three veterans and a host of unproven players still on their rookie deals playing together and, by the way, change how the team had played in those previous 50+ win seasons.
Casey didn’t just succeed. He blew the doors off of everyone’s preseason expectations.
After 65 games, the Eastern Conference’s first-place Toronto Raptors (48-17) have a 2.5 game lead over Boston and a 10 game advantage over the clinging to third place Cavaliers. FiveThirtyEight.com projects them to win 61 games. They are beating teams by an NBA second best points differential of +8.6 and that young bench has the best Net Rating in the league (as a five-man unit). Only the Western Conference’s Rockets and Warriors have more wins (51).
Their style of play really has changed dramatically from the prior year. This season the Raptors are hoisting an NBA third most three-point shots (32.9) and are top 10 in assists (23.8) compared to last year when they were bottom 10 in three-point attempts at 24.3 and dead last in assists (18.5).
The changes were made in response to Ujiri’s frustration with not being able to get by the Cavs in the postseason. The Raptors two All-Stars had proven they could carry this team in the regular season, so the buy-in by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan was going to be as critical to Casey’s ability to make the changes needed as his ability to accelerate the development of his young players.
Give credit where credit is due. Casey has succeeded on both fronts.
Coach of the Year is a regular season award, so that handful of stubborn Raptors’ doubters should have nothing to say. What Casey has been able to accomplish this season is in a word amazing and there should be no argument from anyone on that front.
(Yes the season isn’t over yet, but as far as Coach of the Year goes, this one’s in the bag.)
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.