For some fans and “experts” being the winningest coach in Raptors history and the only coach to ever lead Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t enough to acknowledge the team with the best record in the East with only 25 games left this season should be considered the best team in the East, but slowly, grudgingly, this team and head coach Dwane Casey are gaining respect. And they deserve it.
As of the All-Star break ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight calculates that the Raptors are the only team in the East with a puncher’s chance (20%) at winning the NBA Championship and have a better than 50 percent chance of getting there.
ESPN’s NBA BPI Playoff Odds gives the Raptors an Eastern Conference best chance at a championship (26%). The Celtics are at dismal 3.6 percent and the Cavs at just 0.3 percent. Although the Cavs have started to reverse their downward slide with a trade deadline roster re-make.
These days the Raptors head coach is getting regular high praise from the opposition’s game callers as Toronto at 41-16 has built a two-game lead over the Boston Celtics and a 6.5 game bulge over the Cavs, but this wasn’t the way the “experts” thought this season would go. The preseason prognosticators had the Raptors as low as sixth place in the East and now Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports has Casey on his short list for Coach Of The Year.
This season, he is among the small group of coach of the year candidates. It’s not just because of the Raptors’ record
Casey changed the way the Raptors play.
Casey implemented offensive changes. They shoot more three-pointers and run fewer predetermined sets, making them less predictable.
Defensively, they switch more, a sign of versatility on a deep roster.
Ujiri took a chance with this season’s roster. With a mantra of let the young guys play, he handed Casey a roster with few veterans, but lots of rookies and unproven players still on their rookie deals, and told him to see what he’s got. Apparently this was the right call and Casey deserves a lot of the credit for making it work.
“One of the hardest things to do in any sport is win and develop at the same time,” Casey said. “Our guys have worked hard and gotten better.”
But Casey is making it work. DeRozan is turning in an MVP-caliber season, and Lowry is an All-Star for the fourth consecutive season.
Rookie forward OG Anunoby, who is in the starting lineup, center Jacob Poeltl, forward Pascal Siakam, guard Fred VanVleet – all in their second seasons – and third-year guards Norman Powell and Delon Wright form a promising and productive youth movement.
Casey didn’t need to say it – again, as he says it every year he’s been in Toronto, but….
“We’re still not a finished product”
If coach Casey can lead this young roster to a first place finish in the East, he deserves to win Coach of the Year.
None of this would be possible without Casey, whose seven years of equity in Toronto allowed for the Raptors to change shape. The NBA has seen its share of smart, well-intentioned coaches promise their team a more modern style. But there is always some star to cater to, some veteran to indulge. What made Toronto’s conceptual exercise into reality was the trust that Casey and his staff had built.
Continuity is often an undervalued asset in the NBA where coaches are seen to be hired to be fired, but it’s been the All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s trust in Casey and Ujiri’s willingness to give young players a chance to show what they got and his head coach a chance to show he can grow with his roster that has created this year’s version of the Raptors.
Casey’s success this season was finally thrust into the spotlight when he was announced as a head coach at the NBA All-Star Game, an honor reserved for the first place team in each conference (subject to certain restrictions). It wasn’t enough that he is coaching a Raptors team that set a franchise record for wins at the halfway point in the season and has real chance at surpassing the team’s previous best of 56 wins from two seasons ago. It took an All-Star appearance to get noticed.
This core has never been better. This franchise has never been better. For that, the Raptors can thank Casey, their third representative at this weekend’s All-Star festivities.
Maybe those talking heads on the ESPN and Fox talk shows should stop drooling over LeBron James in the hopes of yet another Cavs/Dubs Finals re-match and acknowledge there are other teams making noise in the NBA this season.