Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey was originally hired by Bryan Colangelo as a defensive-minded head coach to change the culture of one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. It wasn’t a match made in heaven, however. Where Casey truly is a defense-first coach, Colangelo had most of his success putting together an offensive juggernaut in Phoenix and it showed in his thought process. The Raptors new President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has been successful using a different and more repeatable philosophy. A general manager’s job is to find players his coach can be successful with.
“It is very important for me in the job that I do or the job that I’m put to do,” Ujiri said. “It was the same thing in Denver. George Karl liked to run, so you bring players that do that. That’s my job to find him those players. Coach [Casey] here is tough, defensive-minded and a grit-type guy, so I’m out to find those kinds of talented players that will come and give us that.”
With his first free agent signing in Toronto, Ujiri landed the Indiana Pacers free agent forward Tyler Hansbrough. There wasn’t a tougher, grittier defense oriented power forward available. Ujiri delivered.
In his first season in Toronto, Casey had enjoyed an unexpected level of success from a defensive standpoint, but last year, the Raptors took a step back defensively and that hasn’t sat well with Casey or Ujiri. Heading into this summer, the emphasis has been on getting younger, tougher, grittier and defense-first.
“This year is not going to be about offense,” Casey said. “We are going to start out the year going into training camp with a huge defensive emphasis. That is going to be a big part of what we do, probably 60 percent of the training camp.”
“You sit by Coach Casey and he is all defense,” Ujiri said. “Which is great for the team.”
So far this summer, Casey has been able to touch base with most of his players and he likes what he has seen. Casey met with players in the months immediately after the end of the season and almost the entire squad made it to Las Vegas during Summer League.
“One thing that (Rudy Gay) has done – and I challenged him – was to get stronger,” Casey said. “That is where his back issues come and 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.”
“We were with Rudy for about a week in Las Vegas as he was watching practice and having workouts with us. So that was a huge first step we didn’t have last summer with him. That is going to be a great start for us putting those guys together as a unit.”
“(Valanciunas) did a good job of reading defenses, understanding when to pass, when to score, when to attack. His defense has gotten better against the quicker athletes and gauging the speed of the NBA game. Defending the speed of the NBA game is something he has gotten much better at.”
“Kyle (Lowry) is in shape. He has lost 10-15 pounds which is going to help him in a lot of ways, stamina, defense, offense.”
Where Coach Casey described DeMar DeRozan as having taken a half step back defensively last season, that was in part because Casey put an emphasis on offense in training camp a year ago. With the same defense-first approach in camp that DeRozan improved under during his first season with Casey, even the offensive-minded DeRozan should be back on the right track this fall.
“I still hang my hat on the growth of DeMar DeRozan,” Casey said.
Casey believes teams win with defense and sites how the best defensive teams are the ones most often seen deep in the playoffs. It makes sense from a Raptors standpoint. Toronto has never been a big free agent destination for the league’s elite offensive talent, but strong defensive clubs like Indiana can make noise in the playoffs with limited offensive punch and that is the model Casey is trying to emulate. This version of the Toronto Raptors will play defense more like the team Casey coached during his first season in Toronto. They will just have a lot more talent at their disposal and, thanks to Ujiri, are built better for task.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors