This season started with speculation that Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey wasn’t new President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri’s guy and therefore, his tenure in Toronto would be short-lived. Nothing changed over the summer and Ujiri moved out Andrea Bargnani and brought in a bunch of look-see players on short term deals that left everyone wondering what the future held. Now with 3 Raptors players selected to represent Toronto in headline events on each day of All-Star Weekend, perhaps it’s time to stop wondering about Coach Casey’s future.
Ujiri did leave cryptic clues about the Raptors plans for the season. He suggested you had to throw the young guys out there and see what you had. He talked about seeing what Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay had to offer and basically letting the chips fall where they may. Apparently the players on the Raptors would decide their own fates and by inference, how the players did would decide the fate of their head coach.
The first clue about how Casey would be judged this season came when he suggested – with very little prodding – that this year was all about Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan in early November.
“It’s about (Terrence Ross’) growth,” Casey said after the game in Memphis. “He was very poised out there. We ran some pick-and-rolls for him. He is growing as a player and that is what this year is all about. It is him growing. We have to get JV (Valancuinas) continuing to grow. DeMar (DeRozan) is growing.
A month later after Rudy Gay had been traded to Sacramento and the first signs the Raptors might be better than a bottom feeding lottery team were beginning to appear, Casey was even more adamant that this season wasn’t about winning, it was about player development and specifically about Ross, Valanciunas and DeRozan.
“We are still in the building process,” said Casey. “It is about Terrence Ross, growing him, getting him better. DeMar DeRozan is still a work-in-progress. Jonas Valanciunas is still a work-in-progress. We are still building – still in the improvement process of getting these guys better until further notice.”
“I love the challenge of coaching young players. I enjoy that. I enjoy winning more, but I understand where we are and what we are about in the process of our program.”
However, when a team starts to win while developing players, things can start to take on a life of their own. In the post-Gay era with DeRozan left alone as the Raptors first option on offense, Ross starting every game for the first time in his brief career and Valanciunas being pushed to play more minutes and close out games – consequences accepted, the Raptors started winning at a mid-tier playoff team level.
Casey wins Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for December going 8-6 and 7-3 with the new players from Sacramento. He followed that up going 11-6 in January. The highlights of that run included Terrence Ross matching Vince Carter’s franchise single game scoring record of 51 points, DeMar DeRozan becoming an obvious All-Star selection, and Valanciunas leading his team with 17 double-doubles on the season. Also, Kyle Lowry became a widely publicized All-Star snub and put up the first back-to-back 30-plus point scoring efforts of his career.
The recent All-Star selections are merely an acknowledgement of the success Casey has enjoyed.
Sometimes a coach doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his players’ development, but it is pretty hard to overlook how Ross, Valanciunas, DeRozan and even Lowry have progressed under Coach Casey.
It is probably fair to credit DeRozan with the work ethic required to become a good shooter and vastly improved offensive threat, but before Casey arrived in Toronto, he was lost on defense, a virtual blow-by poster child for opposing guards and wings. While no one is going to mistake DeRozan for Tony Allen, he is not a huge liability on defense any longer and has learned how to be effective in Casey’s schemes.
As a rookie, Ross often looked lost on both ends of the court, but over the past couple of months, he has looked like he belongs out there more often than not. That’s all coaching, patience and confidence and the credit goes to Casey.
It might not be Coach Casey working out Valanciunas on the practice court and watching film with him, but the head coach deserves credit for the work done by his staff. Casey keeps throwing him out there and Valanciunas continues to improve.
At All-Star Weekend, the Raptors will have Valanciunas in the Rising Stars game on Friday night, DeRozan in the Skills contest and Ross in the Slam Dunk contest on Saturday, then DeRozan will represent Toronto on Sunday in the All-Star Game.
Casey is being judged on the progress of these 3 young players and there couldn’t be a more significant feather in his cap than watching all of them perform during the NBA’s biggest promotion of the season. The big winner for the Raptors out of all this All-Star noise has been Coach Casey.
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How The Raptors Can Beat The Clippers
Two weeks ago the Los Angeles Clippers came to Toronto in the midst of a highly successful 7 game Eastern Conference road trip and pulled the Raptors into a defense avoiding shootout that ended in a 126-118 victory for the visitors. Toronto scored 37 points in the first quarter and could never get back to their defensive principles as almost everyone was just having too much fun.