Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is a “nice guy,” as nice and polite a person as you are going to meet, but he’s proven himself to be ruthless when it comes to his vision for his team. No one survives in his organization solely on merit, you have to fit into his plan or you’re out.
Casey built his reputation by fleecing the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade as the Nuggets GM and as a result came to the Raptors as the Executive of the Year in 2013.
In his first big move with the Raptors, Ujiri fleeced the Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani trade in which he got a future first round draft pick (Jakob Poeltl). During the season, he unloaded (arguably) his team’s best player, Rudy Gay on the Kings. He then tried to unload Lowry on the Knicks, but owner James Dolan stepped in because the burn from the Bargnani deal was still fresh and Ujiri had to backtrack on tanking, but he proved no player is safe if they don’t fit his vision.
It’s easy to forget Greivis Vasquez and Ujiri were friends when Vasquez was shipped out to Milwaukee for a second (Norman Powell) and a future first (OG Anunoby) round draft pick. Even friendship is no protection from being dumped in a good deal.
Then there’s the case of Lou Williams. Third in scoring at 15.5 points per game, Williams won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Raptors and Ujiri completely ignored him during free agency that summer despite William’s pleas from the wilderness that he’d like to return.
Ujiri traded away Terrence Ross who the Raptors had invested significant and painful “development” minutes in the failed 2014 and 2015 playoffs. The team needed three-point shooting, but Ujiri decided Ross wasn’t going to be the guy.
In a move that hurt locally, Ujiri traded away Cory Joseph from the “6” to create the salary cap space to sign journeyman three-point threat C.J. Miles. It was a good move in terms of pushing a culture change on the Raptors, but that was ruthless.
In many ways firing Casey was the equal in ruthlessness to anything Ujiri has done before and he did it a politely as possible.
“I just want to use this opportunity to thank Casey and his family for a great time that he has given us the last 7 years in the organization, the last 5 years I have worked with him,” said Raptors President Masai Ujiri as he announced his head coach wouldn’t be back for next season.
The winningest coach in Raptors franchise history with 320 wins to 238 loses, a franchise record 21 wins in the postseason, and the team’s only coach to ever win fifty games (56, 51, and 59 wins) in a season, the 2018 N.B.C.A. Coach of the Year was fired only a couple of days after Ujiri said this about him.
“I believe in Dwane Casey,” Ujiri said. “I believe in the work he has done.”
Ujiri should believe in Casey. Casey has always worked with whatever collection of talent Ujiri has given him, played the style of basketball Ujiri wanted and turned the franchise around from one of the NBA’s easiest home courts for visitors to get a win at and into the team with the most wins at home last season.
Where Casey wasn’t necessarily the top on-court tactician among NBA coaches, he got all of his players to believe in his system and buy into the roles assigned to them and it’s the lack of that skill that usually gets coaches fired.
Many put the blame on Casey’s team getting swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers in the second round twice and a lack of playoff success was undoubtedly a factor, but when you are dealing with a guy as ruthless for his team as Ujiri, there’s bound to be a better reason than merely losing to LeBron James.
Casey was entering the final year of his contract with the Raptors this summer. A contract that would make him 62-years-old at its conclusion and it’s been suggested his agent was looking for an extension in years and dollars reflective of Casey’s record. This isn’t speculation and you don’t need a source to know this. Casey’s agent would be derelict if he wasn’t doing this and no coach and few teams want to be on an expiring contract during the regular season as it creates a veil of uncertainty that can be very distracting.
Ujiri had a decision to make. Does he commit to a coach that his two All-Stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, genuinely like and respect, but would be 66-years-old at the conclusion of a reasonable four year extension or does he dip into what looks like a very promising pool of free agent coaches for the next guy to lead his team for the another long stretch.
It was time to get ruthless once again. Avoid the lame-duck coaching scenario, dodge the possibility of committing to a coach into his mid-sixties and find the next leader for his players.
Ujiri wasn’t about to tip his hand about why Casey was fired or what he’s looking for in his next head coach. The Raptors are careful about their own image and trying to make sure every departure happens on good terms, but rationalizing why the move had to happen now isn’t that challenging. Ujiri is just plain ruthless when it comes to what’s best for his team.