Coaches are hired to be fired, so as the fourth longest tenured head coach in the NBA with six years under his belt in Toronto, is Dwane Casey coaching for his job this season?
Basketball Insiders editor Steve Kyler seems to think so even if the lack of recent advancement in the postseason is pretty hard to blame on Casey.
Unexpectedly, the Raptors won and became one of the up and comers in the East, keeping Casey on the bench.
Casey has done a remarkable job, especially when you consider how many drafted players have not panned out in Toronto, as well as some of the questionable free agent moves the club has made.
Since president Masai Ujiri’s arrival the Raptors have enjoyed a level of success previously unseen in franchise history and that’s despite the numerous stumbles along the way as Ujiri has tried to improve the roster within the financial restrictions imposed by his profit conscious ownership.
However, keeping Casey around and extending his contract for three more years in the summer of 2016 hasn’t been one of those stumbles.
The only team to actually stop the Raptors in the last two postseasons has been a Cavaliers squad with the highest payroll in the NBA and, well, LeBron James.
Casey had led his team to more victories than in the previous season for five straight years, only slipping back to 51 wins last year after setting a new franchise record for wins in a season with 56 in 2015-16 and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. A slip, however, that should have been anticipated with the roster Ujiri handed to Casey last summer.
The Raptors fortunes turned around on one easily identified impact trade when Ujiri sent Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray to the Kings for Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez on December 9, 2013.
However, Ujiri’s best moves since then have involved other trades and re-signing his own free agents. The draft and free agent acquisitions from other teams haven’t exactly been helping out his head coach.
Ujiri is adamant about developing “his own” young talent and without a draft pick in 2013, the youth movement started in earnest the next summer and, hopefully, mercifully, has finally peaked this year.
Bruno Caboclo was drafted 20th overall as an 18-year-old project player in 2014 and has yet to play a meaningful minute in the NBA.
“I want to almost blame myself for bringing him too soon to our team,” Ujiri said about Caboclo. “It’s almost like he’s gone thru college on our team.”
Ujiri traded for the draft rights to the 2013 16th overall draft pick Lucas Nogueira and also acquired the veteran Lou Williams for John Salmons, a solid trade by any measure.
However, Nogueira played his first meaningful NBA minutes last season and then lost his spot in the rotation to rookie Jakob Poeltl.
Lou Williams was the sixth man of the year, but he was a square peg in a round hole, costing the Raptors badly on defense. He didn’t fit and was allowed to escape in free agency that summer without even a phone call.
Ujiri signs DeMarre Carroll to a four-year $60 million contract, but the “3-and-D” forward is rehabbing or hurt for nearly his entire stay in Toronto and Ujiri had to pay the Nets with draft picks to take him this summer.
With the 20th pick Ujiri selects Delon Wright, but the young point guard has only played in 27 games in each of his first two seasons. He looks very promising and is destined for a bigger role this season, but as of yet hasn’t been any significant help to the Raptors.
Ujiri traded Vasquez for second round pick Norman Powell and a 2017 first round pick (OG Anunoby). Powell has been an impact player in both postseasons and could be Ujiri’s best draft pick while in Toronto.
Ujiri signs former first overall pick Anthony Bennett. He appeared in 23 games before being cut.
In 2016 the youth movement is in full effect with Ujiri adding three rookies to Wright, Powell, Caboclo and Nogueira. That made seven players on his roster and only one Casey could have any confidence in heading into the season (Powell).
Ujiri drafted center Jakob Poeltl ninth overall who was accurately described as the player least likely to be a bust in the draft. Poeltl will be an effective NBA rotation player maybe as soon as this year or next.
Forward Pascal Siakam was drafted 27th overall and pressed into the starting lineup because of an injury and an obvious lack of depth on the roster. The 38 starts were good for Siakam, but it was the equivalent of asking Casey to coach with one hand tied behind his back.
Ujiri then added undrafted rookie Fred VanVleet as his fourth point guard. VanVleet shows promise and might be good enough to take on a backup role as soon as this season, but last year it meant Casey didn’t have enough forward depth.
The plan at forward was free agent Jared Sullinger, but the big man broke his foot in preseason, later admitted being fat cost him the season and the Raptors dealt him at the trade deadline. Can’t blame Ujiri for an unanticipated injury, but that didn’t help his coach.
When Pro Bball Report asked Ujiri prior to the 2017 draft how many young players he could have on his roster for next season, he answered “17” and from what he’s done, that wasn’t too far off.
All seven players on rookie deals are back from last season. Lorenzo Brown and Malcolm Miller have been added on the new two-way contracts. Invited to training camp are Alfonzo McKinnie, Kennedy Meeks, Kyle Wiltjer and K.J. McDaniels to fight over two open roster spots.
Ujiri drafted injured forward OG Anunoby 23rd overall and the hope is he’ll be ready for training camp, but there’s no guarantee he’ll even play this season.
Ujiri could have 10 players on rookie contracts and only five players with at least five years experience on his roster for this season.
“You got to give (the young guys) a shot to play and that’s just the way our team is built,” Ujiri told Pro Bball Report.
He should have said, ‘that’s just the way I’ve built this team.’
In every way Ujiri has upped the level of difficulty for Casey to win more games than last year and advance further in the postseason. Guys like Powell, Wright, Nogueira, Poeltl, Siakam and even VanVleet had better be ready to step up or it could be a tough year for their head coach.
This happened despite the annual promise of being willing to spend to win. However, that’s never actually happened in Toronto, so no one should be holding their breath expecting the Raptors ownership to actually risk a penny of their massive and growing profits. (The Raptors ownership group just signed a new building naming rights deal that pays them a record $40 million per season.)
“I don’t have to build a team the way Cleveland is built,” Ujiri pointedly told Pro Bball Report. “We don’t have to do that.”
Casey is under contract for this season and next, so it’s unlikely Ujiri would make any coaching moves during the season no matter what happens. As Kyler points out,
It’s highly unlikely the Raptors make a coaching change in-season, but with how much the Raptors have locked themselves into this current roster, Casey is the only thing they could really change if they can’t get the job done this season.
While Ujiri says the goal is to beat the Cavs and thinking about it keeps him up at night, he hasn’t exactly provided Casey with any veteran depth in case of injury or attempted to use his “excess” salary (Carroll) to try to package with those draft picks he gave away to acquire an impact player or even just someone proven/useful now.
This summer was all about getting below the luxury tax threshold and adding young cheap talent that might be useful in the future.
“I don’t just think about Toronto Raptors for today. I think about the Toronto Raptors five years from now too,” Ujiri said.
“All we are trying to do is set up ourselves to try and become competitive, to put yourself in the position to maybe compete for a championship.”
The key words from Ujiri were “try” and “maybe” as the Cavs are the overwhelming favorites again this season and advancing past them shouldn’t be how Casey will be judged this year.
If his main guys – Lowry, DeRozan, Miles, Ibaka and Valanciunas – stay relatively injury free and the young guys – Wright, Powell, VanVleet, Nogueira, Poeltl, Siakam as a group continue to show progress – it’s fair to expect another 50-win season. It’s fair to expect a return to the second round of the playoffs with anything beyond that depending on favorable matchups.
However, Kyler is right that the four-time Eastern Conference Coach of the Month Dwane Casey could be on the way out after this season if he isn’t seen as getting ‘the job done.’ Coaches are, after all, always coaching for their job.
Getting the job done as Ujiri has built this team, however, is merely keeping the veterans on board with your program and seeing the young players develop. Ujiri hasn’t given Casey the tools to expect more than that – yet.
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.