There were never any overt disagreements between Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey and his former boss Bryan Colangelo, however, Casey was a defensive specialist with a team built around offensive players. In Casey’s ideal world, his roster would look a lot more like the Indiana Pacers than the Toronto Raptors and with Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri now running the show; Casey might be getting his wish.
“We don’t have an abundance of defensive stoppers, but a lot of teams have that want and need,” Casey said. “That is something we are going to address with Masai [Ujiri]. We haven’t talked about names [Casey would get fined if he mentioned any], but we will address our roster in the next couple of weeks of where we want to go – to fit how we want to play. A defensive minded team first. Our core guys can score. Jonas [Valanciunas] these past two weeks has shown he is going to be a dominant scorer in the paint. DeMar [DeRozan] is a scorer. Rudy [Gay] is a scorer. We have that, but now we have to surround them with the right – whether it’s young, old, medium aged – type tough players.
“I look at Indiana as the example we should go by, can go by or are a lot like and go by. I look at them as one of the top three defensive teams in the league, very efficient offensively and play the style that I think wins in the playoffs.”
The Pacers play the tough-minded, in your face, “smash-mouth” basketball style that Casey believes in. The Raptors just haven’t had the pieces to emulate it.
It wasn’t that the Raptors were not trying to become a tougher and more defensive minded team. Previously Colangelo had brought in the likes of Jermaine O’Neal, Linas Kleiza and Reggie Evans to add some toughness and grit, but each player suffered through unexpected injuries while in Toronto and Kleiza, as the last remaining piece, is now a likely amnesty candidate because of that. Casey has gone to great lengths to not blame the Raptors former president and general manager for his team’s lack of toughness. New boss Ujiri and Casey, however, have been on the same page since day one and have an unexpected history between them.
“I am very excited and impressed [with Ujiri],” Casey said. “We share the same vision. We have talked about what we need to improve on. The direction we need to go.
“I have known him since Masai was a scout in Denver. When he was an intern in Orlando I knew him. I have known Masai [Ujiri] for a long, long time. Probably more than I have known anyone else here. That helped that I knew him. I knew what Masai was about. He is about a lot of the same things that I stand for. Toughness and playing hard and being accountable, just all of the things it takes to win.”
Outside of missing defensive tough-guy(s), the Raptors have put together some of the pieces required to move towards Casey’s goal of looking more like the Pacers. Mid-season acquisition Gay provides a small forward with a similar skill-set and defensive capability to the Pacers Paul George and Gay is stronger and further along in his development. Like George, Gay is one of a handful of players who can provide at least some measure of one-on-one defense against LeBron James and Gay must become more of a leader in Toronto. Valanciunas could be Toronto’s answer to Roy Hibbert and Casey keeps hoping DeRozan will improve on defense and develop a reliable three-point shot.
“I will tell you who went through a similar process with similar type athletes is Indiana,” said Casey after the season ended. If you remember they brought in Granger, George – Hibbert there took a few years to get it going, get it together – added a few pieces. It took Stephenson a few years. He is a lot like Terrence Ross. (Took time to) come in and get together. Brought in a point guard in Hill to go in and kind of glue it all together. It took a while. It didn’t happen overnight. They did a lot of it organically.
“[Gay] is one of our leaders. Whether it is by example or by voice, he has to be that leader, so called veteran leader at the ripe old age of 27 and he agreed with that. He has to take us to that next step. One thing he has done – and I challenged him – was to get stronger. That is where his back issues came at a very critical part of the season for us. That is going to help. He has put on 13-14 pounds of good weight and that is going to help his overall physical toughness because to go from where he was in Memphis where he was a third option to where now for us each night he has to carry the load and he is doing that, taking care of that.”
Overlooked in Casey’s analysis was the impact the addition former All-Star power forward David West made on Indiana. If Toronto wants to make the big leap in respectability Indiana took, they will be hard pressed to do it without a similar addition of veteran toughness, but Casey believes the Raptors are headed in the right direction.
“We have been at this a year and a half now and I think we are going in the right direction,” Casey said. “The thing that threw us off was the terrible start last year and everybody knows that, but after the tough start, we were 30-29 and going in the right direction.
“Ultimate goal is to develop it into not just a team that sneaks into the playoffs, but a team that can consistently – each year – say we have a chance of fighting for a championship. For 18 years this franchise has been in a situation where they have some success, fall back, have some success, fall back. You want to build something that is going to sustain and grow. We have some work to do with our roster. Whether it is adding young toughness or veteran toughness, there are some things we got to do.”
The Raptors organization is feeling the heat for missing the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. Excuses about injuries and bad starts have worn thin on the fan base and Toronto has developed a “show me” attitude towards their NBA franchise. However, this roster does have more talent on it than in recent years and finally appears to have ownership committed to winning and a Board, CEO, GM and head coach that are all on the same page. In a city that will believe it when they see it, this off season’s moves carry a deserving level of importance. If Ujiri can add the toughness and defensive talent Casey is looking for, the Raptors will be better next season and other step closer to their ultimate goal.
Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Center since 2009. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.