After a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors have fired head coach Dwayne Casey. In the matter of four playoff games, Casey went from a coach of the year frontrunner to out of a job. What went wrong and was this the right choice? Spoiler alert, the Raptors made an excellent decision.
Casey took over the bottom-feeding Raptors in 2012 and his team’s record improved every season. In 2013-14, Casey’s Raptors finally broke through into the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan was finally looking like a star in his fourth season and a young Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross were promising pieces. The team rose to the top of the East’s standings every year. Despite their regular season success, the Raptors garnered a reputation as a regular season team. The Wizards swept them in 2015 and the next three seasons, they lost three times in a row to the Cavaliers. They got two games in 2016 and zero the next two years.
This takes us to 2018. Toronto had a fantastic regular season, winning the East with a 59-23 record. The Raptors transformed their roster and their playstyle. Toronto boasted the best bench in the NBA, led by Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. Formerly an isolation team who played inefficient offense, Casey added in ball movement and an overall sense of flow to the offense. Stagnation at the end of playoff games killed Toronto in the past; this year they seemed destined to break the curse.
The first round of the playoffs had the Raptors take down the Wizards in six games. They definitely struggled on the road against this team but came out on top and seemed to have some momentum. The Cavaliers just finished a seven game battle with Indiana and boasted one of the weakest rosters they’ve had in a long time. Everything seemed right for Toronto to break through the Cavaliers.
We all know what happens next. An embarrassing 4-0 sweep that furthers the notion that LeBron James owns Toronto (LeBronto). What went wrong? When I looked back at the games, there were three consistent threads: LeBron James not being human, the Raptors breaking down late in games, and Dwayne Casey’s coaching incompetence.
Sure, LeBron hit shots that no other human would have hit but you have to prepare for that as a coach. Casey did a poor job with his matchups against James, consistently putting C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam on the King. He was also reluctant to use pick and rolls to switch better defenders onto LeBron. The shot LeBron James hit in game three to win the game was incredible but Casey was at fault. Why he did not double team LeBron immediately I do not know. Everyone in the building knew who was getting the last shot, except for Dwayne Casey I guess.
I also think that the Raptors’ missed shots at the end of game one is partly because of Casey. The Raptors have done so much work transforming their offense with motion and spacing. At the end of games, that beautiful offense devolves into bad isolations and high pick and rolls. Casey is failing to instill confidence in the work his players have done all season.
Some people have harped on the fact that Toronto should blow their roster up and this should not be the case. Toronto has one of the best rosters in the NBA top to bottom and has the talent, especially in the East, to be a consistent participant in the NBA finals. You have DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and the best role players in the NBA. Two of the four games went down to the wire and Toronto just looked demoralized in the other two. In game four, Casey seemed to nod his head and accept that LeBron was the true Raptors’ owner. You need a coach to change the mindset of your players, to inspire them. I don’t think Casey is that guy.
Luckily, the Raptors have quite a few options regarding their next head coach.
The best option available is Mike Budenholzer, who I regard as one of the best coaches in the NBA. Budenholzer led the less talented 2015 Hawks to a 60 win season. He is a motivator, a team builder, and has an excellent basketball mind. If you replace Casey with Budenholzer, I think the Raptors get the two games that they lost in this series.
Spurs’ assistant coach Becky Hammon is a name that people are throwing around. She has worked under Gregg Popovich for four years and led the 2014 Spurs summer league team to a championship. Another, Ettore Messina, could fill in as well. He is one of the most decorated European coached of all time and coached the Spurs as well as he could, even stealing a game from the Warriors in the wake of Erin Popovich’s passing.
The Raptors could promote Jerry Stackhouse, the coach of their G-League team, Raptors 905. He won the 2017 G-League championship and has had a major part in developing some of the Raptors’ current key role players such as Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet. They could also promote assistant coach Nick Nurse, who helped transform the Raptors’ offense this season.
We could see Toronto try to lure Dimitrios Itoudis away from CSKA Moscow, who are currently in first place in the Euroleague. Itoudis won the 2016 Euroleague championship for CSKA Moscow. Former Hornets’ coach Steve Clifford is a very solid coach who did quite a bit with a below average Charlotte roster. Maybe the Raptors take a shot at Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who transformed that program with a pro-style that is not regularly seen in college. However, he has no reason to leave the program but could be enticed with a potential NBA finals appearance in his first season.
Toronto is in a very good situation in my opinion. If they can get a coach with great in-game adaptability like Brad Stevens, the Raptors could come out of the East next season. Dwayne Casey is the greatest coach in Raptors history and deserves respect for all he has done. Yet, the Raptors need a new leader to take them over the hump and to the next level.