By: Dan Grant
On Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors officially inked head coach Dwane Casey to a three year contract extension, worth 18 million dollars.
To extend the winningest head coach in franchise history and a man who just led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals seems like a no brainer to me.
Why is it then, that there’s a small, but extremely vocal portion of the Raptors fan base who seem to think this is tantamount to punting away the next three seasons? A group intent on slandering everything the man does? A faction that, every time a substitution is made that they disagree with, or a tactical gamble chosen that doesn’t work, or there’s traffic on the DVP, seem to revel in using his name as a curse word?
“Casey’d again”, they sigh.
I have to say, I just don’t get the vitriol. I understand that every team wishes it had a Coach Pop or Kerr or Spoelstra or Carlisle. I wish I had 50 million dollars and a talking penguin named Hugo. That is to say: what we want isn’t really the point here. Casey isn’t perfect by any means and he certainly hasn’t achieved the heights of any of those tacticians. It’s possible, or likely even, that he never will. That doesn’t mean the Raptors were wrong to retain him, or that he’s a bad NBA head coach. And yes, he’s in a profession where you’re completely entitled to nitpick his every decision, to armchair quarterback every tiny thing he does during a game. That’s a right of fandom. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize the man when he fails. Criticism is part of professional sports. It’s just that certain fans love to suggest that he’s a bumbling fool who’s somehow ‘failed upwards’, and do so with a dull-witted alacrity that makes my blood boil.
You can read about Casey’s merits in lots of places. Here’s one. What I’d rather do is re-recreate a conversation with one of these nitwits, in an attempt to illustrate exactly what I mean.
Here are the most common complaints I hear about the man who — again, just to be clear — recently led the Raptors franchise to their first ever Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
‘The Raptors have succeeded in spite of Casey’ they whine. ‘He’s given WAY too much credit for their improvement, when really that’s just the natural development of the players’.
I mean, this is just a complete, stinking load that I hear a lot, which is why I started with it. The job of a coaching staff is to develop young core talent and implement a system that best highlights their skill sets. Dwane Casey became the Raptors coach in 2011-12. Stats aren’t everything, but go take a look at DeMar DeRozan’s in 2011. Then look at them now. Now do the same for Kyle Lowry’s. Now recall that burgeoning star Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t even in the league then and has only ever played for Casey. Look at the development of Norman Powell in just one season, or the growth of Cory Joseph. Look at how much better Patrick Patterson has been as a Raptor than he was anywhere else. Look at Bismack freakin’ Biyombo, who is about to become a rich man, after being unable to catch a pass for four years in Charlotte.
If you want to crucify Casey for his mistakes, you’re welcome to. But if you assign him that much blame for Toronto’s failures, you have to credit him the successes too. You can’t say he has so much sway that his very presence is costing the team games, and not laud the implementation of player development that has them competing in these games in the first place. It doesn’t matter if it’s because of the assistant coaches, training staff or because of the natural talent of the players. That all falls under Casey’s purview. It doesn’t matter if it’s because management has constructed a roster that lends itself to success. That isn’t his concern. He has been given these pieces, and he has helped each and every one of them improve, reaching heights which they had not previously. If you want to argue that another coach might have done better, you’re entitled to that opinion — but we’ll never know, and it’s a fruitless discussion to have.
‘But he only plays Jonas, like, 25 minutes a game! That’s not enough!’ they pout.
Don’t look so shocked. I said it. You’re right.
Casey has brought Valanciunas along painfully slowly. His lack of faith in the big man in 4th quarters in 2014-15 was mostly absent this year, but still, to consistently ignore a guy that’s won the hearts of the fans with his combination of toughness and touch, has been akin to making a starving man watch a rotisserie chicken rotating through a plate glass window. He can almost taste it, or even just smell it, but can never quite take that first delicious bite.
I think Jonas is going to become an excellent all-around player, a strong core piece on a winning Toronto team for the next several seasons. His contract extension is already looking like a steal under the new cap, and he’ll have a bigger role with the team next season. After his breakout this post-season, he’s going to need to play 30-35 minutes per night, which means sticking on the floor against smaller lineups and just generally having a bigger and more consistent role. You know who agrees with that?
Jonas Valanciunas is only 24 years old. He’s just entering his prime. If the work Dwane Casey did got him here, whether you agree with the timeline or not, isn’t really relevant any longer. We’re here now, and Dwane Casey, this version of Casey, not 2013-2015 Casey, is talking about how essential it will be to play him extended minutes. This version of Dwane Casey is the one that just got extended himself, remember.
‘But he was going to get fired!’ they bluster, mystified. ‘Does two sketchy series wins really earn you this much leeway? It shouldn’t!
Right, so you want to gas the guy who’s the all-time franchise leader in wins, who has improved his teams win total every single season he’s been here — read ’em and weep: 23, 34, 48, 49, 56 — who motivates his guys to buy in fully, to go out there and actually play hard every night (an underrated skill) and then somehow use that as a selling feature to land a new coach?
‘Hey New Coach X! Come here to Toronto. Yeah, I mean, the last guy did everything we asked, did a great job and everything, but he only got better every year and got us to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, so even though we have a young and still improving roster that he helped to cultivate and build, we felt we had to give him the axe. But I’m sure it’ll be different with you!’
Even if he was going to be gone if they lost to Indiana in seven, he’s earned the right to continue his work. He didn’t lose. He didn’t lose to Miami either. Does it matter that both were shaky series wins? Of course. You use it as a tool for evaluation, of both the coaching staff and the roster. But you can’t fire the guy for doing what he was supposed to do. It sets a terrible precedent for the franchise, and yes, that matters.
‘The ‘win total’ thing is misleading rhetoric! He was tanking before the Gay trade worked out — by accident!’
That was what, three years ago? Only Patrick Patterson remains from that trade. When was the last time you even thought about John Salmons or Chuck Hayes? How do you explain the growth since then? How do you explain that he’s put together excellent seasons despite being asked to heavily feature flawed players like Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez and Luis Scola?
The win totals aren’t everything, but they matter.
It’s not growth if you’re not winning ‘the RIGHT way’. All wins aren’t created equal!
I mean, you’re right in a vacuum, I guess. I’d love to be playing the same style as the Warriors or the Spurs. I’d love to see constant ball movement, relentless switching defense and utter dominance. I’d love for this team to play the ‘right way’.
But I also don’t want to see this team losing. We’ve had 21 years of mostly that. This guy is winning. Why can’t we just let him win?
‘Alright. Casey has gotten better’, you concede, ‘but there were so many good coaches available this off-season. I really feel like we missed our chance to get someone who will take us to the next level.’
I threw in that first concession for semi-diplomacy, because this point is frequently made without it by people who seem to think Dwane Casey took their mother out for a nice seafood dinner and never called her again. However, it’s still one that doesn’t hold water for me.
Yes, Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, Frank Vogel, Dave Joerger and a variety of other talented coaching candidates were technically available this off-season. However, we have no idea if any of those guys were even remotely interested in the Toronto job, should it have come available. Brooks and Vogel I can certainly see, but the Minnesota-born Joerger was destined for Sacramento as soon as Thibs took the Timberwolves job, which itself is a plum coaching situation that no other NBA franchise can hold a candle to. It should also be mentioned that none of those four names has ever had markedly more success than Dwane Casey. Like Casey did in Dallas, Thibodeau won a ring as an assistant with Boston, but wore out his welcome (and his players, for that matter) in five seasons with the Chicago Bulls, after 20 full seasons as an assistant. He’s a fantastic coach, but I can’t imagine Toronto was even on his radar, given his options. Brooks made an NBA Finals, but if there’s any guy in the league who’s in-game decision making has been more dissected/lamented than Casey, it’s him. Vogel is a fine defensive coach and managed to make a chicken salad out of chicken shit the past two seasons in Indiana, on the back of two Conference Finals appearances, but again, it’s not like he’s Phil Jackson.
Are lateral moves just for the sake of it really the solution?
‘I still don’t like him’, whispers the defeated dickweed.
What it comes down to is this: If you don’t believe in Dwane Casey, on some level, you don’t believe in this version of the Raptors. This is actually fine. If you think Toronto should deal DeRozan and Lowry and rebuild around Valanciunas, I’ve got zero problem with that. Personally, I’d rather them push the ceiling of this team and see how far they can get, but I can at least see where you’re coming from.
But admit it. Don’t passive aggressively express that opinion by bemoaning a guy who’s program, whether you agree with the style of it or not, is bearing fruit. Don’t second and third guess the guy who’s done a truly unexpectedly great job, given the talent and turmoil he’s been given to contend with. Don’t be a ‘championship or bust’ truther, when ‘or bust’ is all this team has ever known.
The next time you see DeMar DeRozan drive into the lane and kick to an open shooter instead of going up into traffic, I wanted you to say Casey’d.
The next time you see Jonas Valanciunas eat Hassan Whiteside’s lunch, I want you to say Casey’d.
The next time you see Norm Powell playing lockdown defense, or hitting a three in a big moment, I want you to say Casey’d.
The next time you see Kyle Lowry take over in a fourth quarter, or see the former ‘coach killer’ and ‘bad seed’ start in the All-Star game, or write a beautiful, impassioned letter to the fans of his NBA home, I want you to say Casey’d.
When you catch a glimpse of Bismack Biyombo sleeping on a giant pile of money with many beautiful ladies, I want you to say Casey’d.
I don’t think Dwane Casey will last long beyond this current three year deal with Toronto. He’ll be 62 by the time it’s over. Kyle Lowry will be 33 at that time, and potentially playing elsewhere. DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas will still be in their prime years, so it’s possible this team will retool around them and continue to be competitive. I could be wrong. At some point, however, this group is going to hit their actual ceiling, and a new, younger voice is going to need take over.
That day isn’t today. And it goddamned shouldn’t be.
We should all be lucky enough to get ‘Casey’d’.