Unless Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey somehow sets fire to the tablecloth in Monday night's dinner with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment minority owner Larry Tanenbaum, the Toronto Star is reporting that Casey will soon be introduced as the next head coach of the Toronto Raptors. And I have to give it up for Raptors personnel boss Bryan Colangelo in this instance. Not only did he make the correct hire, but it's another in a long line of risk-taking chances that he's spearheaded in his time running the Raptors and Phoenix Suns.
In Phoenix, Colangelo made the smart hire on Scott Skiles. Skiles hadn't been an assistant nor head coach at the NBA level, but he did have experience coaching a team in Greece. Frank Johnson's hiring proved fruitful for one year, and then when Johnson's players tuned him out, the promotion of Mike D'Antoni proved to be perfect, and a tough one considering D'Antoni's former failures while coaching in Denver. With the Raptors, Colangelo surprisingly kept on Sam Mitchell, who had been hired by the previous administration and was struggling, and Mitchell ended up winning Coach of the Year in the season following. The Jay Triano hire wasn't as big a success, but it shows that Colangelo doesn't mind taking chances and passing on obvious retreads.
Technically, Casey is a retread. And to some in the basketball community, he's an obvious hire, one that has been in place since 2008 and one that no team, for strange reason, wants to take a chance on. His college career ended in scandal at Kentucky, but in the nearly 25 years since Casey has proven himself to be a dutiful student of the game. And no less an authority than champion Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle remained baffled as to why teams went the other way (two teams passed on Casey for the same guy in a two-year span) when it came time to staff their rosters.
Even if looking Casey's way meant losing him from the Dallas bench. Carlisle has routinely given credit to Casey for improving Dallas' defense, and he could often be seen up off the bench in this month's Finals, directing his players both within the confines of the zone defense they often ran and out of it. Its unpredictability and perfect timing (some adjustments weren't made until deep into games, so Miami couldn't counter) led to the stopping (in relative terms) of a Miami offense that the two best statistical defenses in the NBA (Chicago and Boston) could not match.
In Toronto, Casey won't have the horses. You can point to Dirk Nowitzki's uneasiness with defending or Jason Kidd's and Jason Terry's sometimes too-slow feet as a template to use with the Raptors and Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, but it doesn't work that way.
Dirk worked at his defense. Kidd used anticipation and great footwork (if not fast footwork) to confound his opponents, and Terry was quite adept in these playoffs at picking up his man full-court as the opposition attempted to bring up the ball. To say nothing of having a defense-only guy in DeShawn Stevenson and the spectacular Tyson Chandler to meet any penetration and erase mistakes.
No, in Toronto, Casey will have a struggle as he attempts to right what was by far the worst defensive team in the NBA last year, both in terms of metrics and the eye test. Toronto can care next year, Casey can make sure it happens, and they can sometimes be moved into the right place, but until Colangelo provides Toronto with a suitable roster, then Casey will struggle to match the famous 20-20 mark he put together with a terrible Timberwolves team in his last half-season as coach in 2007-08. Randy Wittman took over following that turn, and he went 12-30 following Casey's dismissal.
(By the way, Minnesota hasn't topped 20 wins in 82 attempts in the last two years, and only managed 22 and 24 wins in the two years -- again, in 82 tries, and not 40 -- following Casey's firing.)
Based on the upcoming CBA negotiations and the potential for Leandro Barbosa to opt out of his contract (he won't), the Raps could have a small chunk of free-agent space to work with during the offseason, but not enough to turn things around. No, things were sent on this direction when Colangelo guaranteed that Bargnani and Calderon will average about $20 million in combined salary over the next two years, with Bargs hanging on for two more years following that at around $11 million per. These are nearly untradeable contracts, and though we've seen stranger things, it will take a whole lot for Colangelo to move them and for the rebuilding to start in earnest. Remember, just because you won only 22 games in a year (as Toronto did last year), it doesn't mean you're rebuilding. It just means you lose a lot.
Casey will be brought in as an asset, I hope. Something to have in place once things turn around. And they will turn around — right, Toronto? As far as franchise cornerstones go -- and Casey is the franchise cornerstone -- you could do a lot worse.
Now it's up to Colangelo to find some cornerstones that can score and defend.