Coaches may be hired to be fired in professional sports, but not all of the time and not by all of the teams in the NBA anyway. Good teams value consistency, know how hard it is to win and by those measures, it’s time for everyone in Toronto to give Raptors head coach Dwane Casey his props. Things have never been this good or good for this long for the team previously slagged as being best represented by the soft cuddly children’s Barney the dinosaur.
An extensive ESPN panel recently rated all the NBA’s head coaches and tagged Casey as the eighth best and that’s a far cry from the never ending stream of fan experts on social media that have been trying to convince anyone who would listen that Casey can’t coach and a few in Toronto’s mainstream media that should know better.
We asked our ESPN Forecast panel to rate every team’s coach. In particular, we asked the voters to rate each coach on his guidance and leadership in terms of how it affects overall on-court success, both in the short and long term.
The Raptors are about to head back to the postseason for an unprecedented fourth season in a row with home court advantage in the first round.
Before Casey, this organization’s best previous run was three trips to the postseason season in a row and only one-time with any real expectations of doing anything. Last season this team went to the Eastern Conference Finals and there are reasonable expectations they can get back there again this year.
Casey will hold the franchise’s top four records for wins in a regular season after the 2016-17 season ends with 48-34 in 2013-14, 49-33 in 2014-15, and 56-26 in 2015-16. The team is at 46-30 with six games remaining this year assuring they’ll do better than the 47-35 records held by Sam Mitchell in 2006-07 and Lenny Wilkens in 2000-01. He passed Mitchell (156-189) for the most wins by a Raptors head coach almost two years ago. In his six seasons with the Raptors, he already has a 256-214 record and he’s the only Raptors head coach with an overall winning record while with the team.
However, a winning record shouldn’t be the only method of evaluating a head coach. The respect of his players is critical to success on the court and after the season is over. Quickly, players your team has drafted or traded for will become free agents and no one wants to re-sign with a coach they don’t respect. If you’re good, you can get paid almost anywhere.
“The one thing that I respect about coach Casey is his being consistent,” DeMar DeRozan said after losing Game seven in the first round of the playoffs to the Nets in 2014. “He’s been the same Dwane Casey since he’s been here. Preaches the same things. Told me to stick with the same principles and it worked. Everything he said came together like he said it would. You got to respect coach Casey he never changed. You can go in his office, knock on his door and talk to him. You can text him, he’s a players’ coach. He’s a great dude. You can talk to him about any situation.
“It feels great because you don’t question if your head coach tells you something. You going to listen because he’s not just saying something just to say it. He’s not going to tell you something just to do it. There’s a reason why. Once you respect a man’s word like that, you going to work for it.”
Those words weren’t just words and those feelings extended beyond DeRozan. Proof came later that summer when Kyle Lowry signed a team-friendly four-year deal when the consensus was he could get more money elsewhere. Lowry didn’t really even bother to look. Mid-season acquisitions Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez also re-upped with Toronto on team-friendly deals.
It was a pattern that was going to repeat itself in the future even after a devastating first round loss to the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs the very next year. The Raptors players still believed in their head coach.
“I know Casey has a lot of flak,” said DeRozan after getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Wizards in 2015. “Casey is a great coach. I got to give him credit. He pushes day in and day out.
“I would like to assure (the fans) that it is definitely not (going in the wrong direction). We will be better next year.”
At the end of the 2015 season, Lou Williams signed with the Lakers, but he made it obvious he wanted to return to Toronto. Unfortunately, the Raptors needed their cap space to sign Cory Joseph. Amir Johnson had spent six seasons in Toronto going overboard as a voluntary team ambassador. He loved it in Toronto and wanted to stay, however, the Celtics made him an unexpectedly huge offer he couldn’t refuse and the Raptors couldn’t match.
Then with a year still remaining on their rookie deals, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas signed team-friendly extensions a year ahead of the well-known biggest increase in the NBA Salary Cap in league history, potentially, scratch that, with near certainty they were leaving a boatload of money on the table.
At the end of the 2016 season DeRozan had his chance to leave and as the second leading scorer in the Eastern Conference, he had his choice of destinations including his hometown Lakers, but he wasn’t even remotely interested in leaving Toronto and told anyone that would listen the same.
Bismack Biyombo said he wanted to stay as well, but no one was surprised when he took the $70 million offer from the Magic the Raptors couldn’t match. Biyombo does nothing to hide how much he misses playing in Toronto on his return visits to the Air Canada Centre. There was (still is) a lot of love and respect between Casey and Biyombo.
Part of the change in the perception of the Raptors as a place to play came as result of winning. Part of it came from president Masai Ujiri’s deft methods of dealing with NBA players. But, none of that would have worked if the players didn’t like playing in Toronto for their head coach.
If all you care about is winning, then you have to give Casey his props. He’s the winningest coach in Raptors history and with his next victory, he’ll have averaged 50+ wins a year over the past four seasons. Only Scott Brooks, Gregg Popovich, and Doc Rivers can make the same claim. (Steve Kerr will get there next season.)
If your evaluation is based on getting players to buy-in, then you need to look no further than the Raptors two three-time All-Stars Lowry and DeRozan. Neither of these players were All-Stars before Casey arrived and neither wanted to leave when they had their chance.
You can’t trick NBA players into thinking you know how to coach (for all those in Toronto’s social media that believe they know better.)
ESPN putting Casey into the top 8 of current NBA head coaches isn’t even a stretch. The real question is, how did they get him this low?